Context matters

CONTEXT MATTERS…. The House Republican budget, unveiled yesterday — new motto: Now, with numbers and stuff! — quoted Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat:

If this moment has any parallel in American history, it is the height of the Cold War, around 1957, when the Soviet Union leaped ahead of America in the space race by putting up the Sputnik satellite. Yes, there are many differences between that age and our own. The main challenge then came from those who wanted to put up walls; the main challenge to America today comes from the fact that all the walls are being taken down, and other countries can now compete with us much more directly. The main challenge in that world was from those practicing extreme communism — namely, Russia, China, and North Korea. The main challenge to America today is from those practicing extreme capitalism — namely, China, India, and South Korea. The main objective in that era was building a strong state; the main objective in this era is building strong individuals.

Apparently, for Boehner, Cantor, Ryan, and other GOP leaders, Friedman’s quote is a summary of Republican principles. Democrats, the argument goes, hope to build a strong government, while Republicans are looking out for individuals. Friedman, Republicans argue, gets it.

The problem, though, is that the Republican staffers who put together the party’s alternative budget neglected to keep reading Friedman’s book.

What this era has in common with the Cold War era, though, is that meeting the challenges of flatism requires as comprehensive, energetic, and focused a response as did meeting the challenge of communism. It requires our own version of the New Frontier and Great Society adapted to the age of flatness. It requires a president who can summon the nation to get smarter and study harder in science, math, and engineering in order to reach the new frontiers of knowledge that the flat world is rapidly opening up and pushing out. And it requires a Great Society that commits our government to building the infrastructure, safety nets, and institutions that will help every American become more employable in an age when no one can be guaranteed lifetime employment.

Now, these aren’t just two random excerpts from a book; the paragraph in which Friedman talks about the need for ambitious government action, infrastructure investment, and a hearty safety net is the next paragraph, right after the one House Republicans included in their budget plan.

As Steve M. put it, “In other words, [Rep. Paul Ryan] quotes Friedman even though Friedman is advocating precisely the sort of government intervention Ryan thinks is destructive to individual initiative — and, therefore, to America (and civilization) as we know it.”

How embarrassing.

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