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An American Family

A sea of self-motivated individuals or a web of interdependent talents? Both, of course.
A sea of self-motivated individuals or a web of interdependent talents? Both, of course.

... we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.

... our destiny is shared ...

... this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among these are love and charity and duty and patriotism.

The President delivered these words last week after securing re-election. They offer, I think, a clear and an honest statement of the central value at stake in this past election, and beyond.

One of the abiding myths that shapes our understanding of ourselves is the idea that each of us is a kind of island and that we are only truly responsible for that which flows from our inner selves without any external influence.

We need to be done with this myth.

I think Star Trek: "to boldly go where no one has gone before." Yes, but not alone. We go forth as members of a ship's crew, representing a vast civilization, and dependent on a web of technology that requires the existence of uncountably many people, ideas, inventions and institutions.

In this election President Obama took clear aim at the myth:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

Truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, it was a telling failure of Romney's campaign, back in July, to have chosen just these words of the president to distort and criticize. The Romney campaign said:

Mitt Romney understands that we have to celebrate people who start enterprises and employ other people rather than devalue them. Success is not the result of government, it is the result of hard-working people who take risks, create dreams, and build lives for themselves and for their families.

The point, of course, is that Obama was not devaluing success, or denying that successful business people build their own businesses. He was calling attention to the conditions that make it possible for them to do this. That's not to attack successful people, it is to acknowledge, and then to celebrate, the fact that each of us is situated in a community and that our situation enables us to act and to achieve success, in very much the way that a race track allows a driver to test his limits.

Obama took clear aim at the myth. The point is not just that we are all in this together. The point is that the fact that we are all in this together makes us what we are.

The hand-wringing among Republicans has given rise to lots of talk about changing demographics, sensitivity to women and the like. But Romney's failure ran deeper, I think. He played on the myth, but without defending it, and certainly without offering an alternative. He failed to engage what may be the defining issue for our time.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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