Thackeray Explains GOP Ingratitude

William Makepeace Thackeray

Like many observers of this presidential election, I have been appalled by the cynicism of Mitt Romney’s campaign. Two of his major points of attack at the moment are a quotation pulled out of context (“You didn’t build that”) and an entirely fabricated charge that even Romney’s allies are acknowledging to be bogus but which is gaining traction with some audiences (that Obama is gutting “work for welfare” rules). The first charge is all the more remarkable because Romney is basing the entire GOP convention on the misquotation.

The “We did build that” campaign brings to mind a passage about ingratitude from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair. I’ll explain how in a moment.

As I’ve mentioned before, the charge that Barack Obama showed his contempt for business people by telling them that they they didn’t build their businesses comes from deliberately misreading a faulty pronoun antecedent (or vague pronoun reference). Obama was actually telling business people that they didn’t build the surrounding infrastructure (roads and bridges) that was necessary for them to “build that.” It was an unexceptional observation that Romney himself has made upon occasion. Obama’s larger point is that we don’t live in an Ayn Randian universe where we do everything on our own but are always dependent on other people.

But the charge has stirred up those Americans who don’t like to acknowledge that they get help from other people. I think the sentiment stems from our culture of individualism. To give a somewhat strange example that I’ve witnessed, American students would often rather plagiarize than, say, visit the writing center. At least when they are plagiarizing, they tell themselves, they are doing it on their own (although, of course, they’re getting inadvertent help from the original authors).

George McGovern used to tell a story about listening to a man in a grocery line complaining about the government and then paying for his purchase with food stamps. In 2010 there were beneficiaries of Medicare shouting for the government to keep its hands off their Medicare.  (They have a self-comforting myth that the taxes they paid over the years fully cover what they are getting back.) In a fine bit of irony, the Tampa Convention Center where the GOP is holding its “We did build that”-themed convention was built largely with taxpayer funds. Many of the businessmen inside who are decrying government intervention from the podium got their start with government money.   The wealth that Paul Ryan inherited was from a grandfather who (you guessed it) built government roads.

Historically, the government has started many fortunes rolling. It is entirely appropriate for the government to help create wealth. What is most noteworthy is not that the beneficiaries often pretend that they succeeded entirely on their own when they didn’t. After all, they still deserve credit for taking advantage of the help they were offered. What is most noteworthy is how vehement they are in their anti-government fervor.

Thackeray helps us understand why.

In Vanity Fair, there is an honest old stockbroker named John Sedley who suddenly goes bankrupt when Napoleon returns from his Elba exile and the market crashes. Sedley has an old friend, John Osbourne, who Thackeray tells us “was under a hundred obligations to him—and whose son was to marry Sedley’s daughter.”

Guess who turns out to be Sedley’s most vicious creditor. Although Osbourne has lost money in Sedley’s collapse, he has otherwise benefited handsomely from Sedley’s help in the past and is doing well. Nevertheless, he proceeds to prosecute Sedley for his lost money and breaks up the impending marriage of the young couple, who love each other dearly. Thackeray explains this strange logic as follows:

When one man has been under very remarkable obligations to another, with whom he subsequently quarrels, a common sense of decency, as it were, makes of the former a much severer enemy than a mere stranger would be. To account for your own hard-heartedness and ingratitude in such a case, you are bound to prove the other party’s crime. It is not that you are selfish, brutal, and angry at the failure of a speculation—no, no—it is that your partner has led you into it by the basest treachery and with the most sinister motives. From a mere sense of consistency, a persecutor is bound to show that the fallen man is a villain—otherwise he, the persecutor, is a wretch himself.

Thackeray repeats this insight in a way that sums up our government-aided anti-government citizens:

Osborne had the intolerable sense of former benefits to goad and irritate him: these are always a cause of hostility aggravated. Finally, he had to break off the match between Sedley’s daughter and his son; and as it had gone very far indeed, and as the poor girl’s happiness and perhaps character were compromised, it was necessary to show the strongest reasons for the rupture, and for John Osborne to prove John Sedley to be a very bad character indeed.

At the meetings of creditors, then, he comported himself with a savageness and scorn towards Sedley, which almost succeeded in breaking the heart of that ruined bankrupt man. On George’s intercourse with Amelia he put an instant veto—menacing the youth with maledictions if he broke his commands, and vilipending the poor innocent girl as the basest and most artful of vixens. One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent. (my bold)

There are a lot of lies being told and believed about Barack Obama and the federal government. Whether they will lead to greater social wealth is dubious.

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