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Byron Williams Headshot

We Are a Nation of Stuff

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Fox News' Bill O'Reilly famously opined during his post election analysis: "It's not a traditional America anymore. People want stuff."

Though a sophomoric conclusion, O'Reilly is simultaneously right and wrong. He's right in that Americans do want stuff. In fact, it is a bedrock desire that goes back to the formulation of the republic.

The Founders fought for independence based on stuff called life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And then proceeded to write a constitution anchored on stuff under the rubric of a more perfect union.

The country was nearly torn asunder because of the stuff called freedom that was systematically denied to those of African descent.

In the late 20th century, people took to the streets in nonviolent civil disobedience because the stuff they had been guaranteed by the 14th Amendment had yet to come to fruition.

This led to Martin Luther King to opine on the steps of Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:

"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir ... Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds."

Women's suffrage, which led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, was fueled by stuff called the right to vote.

The long history of Americans wanting stuff is not buried in the memory of the country's antiquity.

In spite of the misdirection to make it a church issue, marriage equality is based on 14th Amendment stuff that if one is born in this country or a naturalized citizen they are guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law.

The DREAM Act, which would provide conditional permanent residency to certain undocumented residents of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years is based on a deeply held American belief -- stuff otherwise known as an opportunity.

The aforementioned are examples of stuff based on what should already be. But in our contemporary haste to dismiss those who want stuff as being the infamous 47 percent, who dwell on society's margin, let us not forget government is the place of stuff.

Since President Ulysses S. Grant was credited with referring to the petitioners in Willard Hotel as "damned lobbyist," myriad businesses interested in stuff such as defense contracts, farm subsides, tax loopholes, health issues, transportation, telecommunication, banking, the environment, and other interests have spent untold resources for the privilege to feed at the public trough on Capitol Hill.

The narrative that there is legions of undeserving loafers who are getting stuff while hard working Americans lay in waste is nonsensical.

In 2010, the top 10 defense contractors received more than $61 billion of stuff from the federal government. Multi-national corporations received roughly $90 billion of stuff in the way of subsidies -- nearly twice what is spent on social welfare like food stamps and housing assistance.

Social Security, Medicare, Pell grants, student loans, mortgage deductions, unemployment insurance, reduction of the capital gains tax rate, and the Affordable Care Act are a partial list of stuff we receive from government.

Stuff is unspecified, without further clarification its definition is known primarily to the user of the term.

I suspect stuff is a code word for "other people's stuff," which allows us to believe that our stuff, however defined, is a vital, useful, fundamental, necessary vehicle that moves the country forward.

Where is O'Reilly wrong? We are a nation of stuff. That is also been part of America's tradition.