Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Celebrated vs. The Obscure

Tibor R. Machan

It bothered me a bit when President Obama said, in his inaugural address, that “it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom” because, well, I am not sure how broad his categories are. After all, I am a doer of sorts, as I produce books, teach my students, write my columns, organize my conferences and so forth. But perhaps these don’t qualify as “doing” something. Do they involve taking risks? Sure—in the career of most writers, both fiction and non-fiction, much time is spent on crafting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters with no assurance that anyone will read these, that they will see the light of day in a publication, that reviewers—assuming there will be any—will have the slightest appreciation for what one has labored to produce. The teaching people like me do is also rather risky since all that work, albeit usually paid for, may simply be ignored by one’s students, the subjects covered merely skimmed if even that. Once again, one risks wasting one’s energy, intelligence, learning on doing what will not be appreciated very much at all.

And what about those conferences we produce? Sure, they will be attended by some people but then what? Who knows if the talent we bring together reaches anyone in the meager audiences that attend.

But this is not all. What about all those managers who deal with task in organizations, people whose work consists of making arrangements, who think mostly rather than “do”? Are these folks included by Mr. Obama? Are they worthy?

My impression is that the passage I have quoted above from our new president continues the misimpression that the worthy kind of work must be physical labor. No doubt, such work is worthwhile. Nonetheless the work done by entrepreneurs and inventors and architects, work that’s largely intellectual and not so physical must not be overlooked.

Of course, very few of us have their work celebrated other than by a few family members, friends and perhaps some colleagues. Which is one reason that most parents wish for their children to find work that is satisfying quite apart from being celebrated, even well paid. When they day is done, such work will probably escape the attention of most people, certainly those in the media who might make it prominent, who could promote it to a celebratory status, as that happens with movie actors, famous painters, musicians, and others who manage to catch the public’s attention.

Most of us are indeed hardly celebrated but surely that’s not very significant because if we do work that is compensated, worthwhile, productive, creative, inventive and shows a bit of flare, that’s reward enough unless we suffer from an obsessive need to be appreciated by other people. No doubt there are such people and sometimes their need can lead them to be crowd pleasers, which can involve doing some valuable things. But there isn’t all that much room “at the top.” If we all had to get to such a position before we could gain self-respect, most societies would suffer from much malaise. Instead we are best off having the conviction that what we do is a good thing whether it is widely hailed, whether it is announced to the world. And fortunately many of us are able to gain such self-esteem independently of pleasing too many others apart from some intimates.

President Obama’s efforts to curry favor with the unappreciated, uncelebrated masses does not, for me, ring true. In any case, I would hope that it is not much needed by Americans who work at significant jobs, be these mostly physical or, instead, intellectual. One can only hope that quite without what the likes of President Obama wish to do for them they are happy with their lot. Indeed, for the President of the United States of America it is really somewhat out of line to make it appear that what most of us need is for him to show us his care. It is far more important, I would suggest, to gain the care and love and appreciation of those who know us well, not only as anonymous members of the working masses.

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in business ethics and free enterprise at Chapman University, Orange, CA. His collection of columns (unproofed) may be found at

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