It’s the meme of the moment, this did-we-or-didn’t-we-build-that debate. Spun from the context-free excision of four words (taken from an otherwise powerful and emotionally charged speech), the idea nano-sped across the breadth of our media-driven universe, its various variations showing up as images and songs and sketches, as tweets and postings and pins.
The Democrats emphasize that American success is predicated on an American foundation—one that we’ve created over the generations and which supports an unrivaled entrepreneurial spirit. The Republicans choose, instead, to focus purely on that spirit, denying en masse the notion that a supportive government provides the infrastructure, money, and technology any entrepreneur needs to get going.
Who, we argue, has built? It’s frustrating, this tug of war, this complex question answered so simply.
But maybe it’s the wrong question.
Just now, caught between the Pinocchio moments (and one off-the-cuff conversation with an empty chair) of the recently concluded Republican National Convention, and the upcoming Democratic counterpunch launching this week in Charlotte, we find ourselves graced with a few moments of peace stretched across this holiday weekend. It’s a time to grill up some burgers, butter the corn, knock back a few beers, and commune with family and friends. And, for some of us (I hope), it’s also a time to reflect, a time to consider. Labor Day seems the perfect time to ask ourselves this question: What exactly is it that we’ve built…?
We’ve built the greatest economic engine in history, one so powerful that the world shimmers and shakes whenever we breathe. And we’ve built a consumer-based society that drives us to devour beyond our means and supports levels of greed that have created one of the worst fiscal disasters in history.
We’ve built the greatest health care in the world, with medicines and machines that save lives, prolong our years, and fight once debilitating diseases. And we’ve built one of the worst health care systems in the world, one that calculates lives as profits, ignores the needy and forces people to decide on buying their medications or paying their rent.
We’ve built an architecture for learning that provides schooling for everyone, that supports both tradition and the search for knowledge. And we’ve built an educational system that thrives on mediocrity, that fails to challenge, that stresses learning by rote and remains locked into archaic models of what it means to think.
We’ve built a true land of opportunity, where anyone with an idea and a willingness to work hard can succeed. And we’ve built one of the most stratified societies in the modern world, in which upward mobility is fast becoming a fantasy.
We’ve built a model for democracy that many in the world envy. And we’ve built a jingoistic concept of exceptionalism that arrogantly poisons our international relationships.
We’ve built a government of the people, by the people and for the people, where freedom of speech is a sacred right. And we’ve build a marketplace of ideas ruled by money, money that now counts as speech and is used by some to shout above others.
We’ve built Barack Obama and we’ve built Mitt Romney. We’ve built Glenn Beck and we’ve built Al Sharpton. We’ve built Roe v Wade and Citizens United v FEC. We’ve built the Senate and we’ve built the House. We’ve built them with every decision we’ve made, every station we’ve tuned in, every website we’ve visited, every lever we've pulled. We’ve built them with our voices and our votes.
And now comes again a time of choice: What do we want to build?
Many have already decided: on both sides there are multitudes locked into their chosen mythos. But for the many that are still unsure, we have this occasion for reflection, this occasion to determine what kind of country we want to build next.
It’s our future, our responsibility, one only we can change.
Each of us.
Look around. See what you like and what you don’t. Decide what you want and what you don’t. Then choose.
Because what we see around us… well, we built that.
And whatever we will see… well, we’ll build that, too.