Last night's Daily Show had a nice discussion of the "you didn't build that line" that Obama didn't utter (i.e., in the way suggested). For those unfamiliar with this, the President gave a speech, talked about infrastructure (such as roads) necessary (but not sufficient) for success in business. I can't have much success with my highway adult video store unless there's a freeway next to which to place it. An obvious point, of course. Sadly, many conservative media types cut out key lines in the President's speech to make it look like he was saying that no one built her own business, thus, "you didn't build that". That would be a stupid thing to say, unless of course you inherited your business (which many people probably do–so in their case it's true!).
So here's what the President actually said:
OBAMA: [L]ook, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own. You didn't get there on your own. I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That's how we funded the GI Bill. That's how we created the middle class. That's how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That's how we invented the Internet. That's how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that's the reason I'm running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You're not on your own, we're in this together.
Here's how it was reported by Fox et alia (for a brief history of the distortion, see here and here)
OBAMA: If you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else made that happen.
The point is that, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
Jon Stewart pretty much said all there is to say about what's going on: it's a case of straw manning by depriving of context. The only thing that's true about what the President said is that those words came out of his mouth.
All that aside, there is a theoretical point here. In a recent article, Douglas Walton and Fabrizio Macagno ("Wrenching from Context: the Manipulation of Commitments") allege that straw manning of this variety (wrenching from context) are really "manipulations of commitments." There are limitations to this view, namely that it gives too much credit to the straw manner, as it allows them to claim their representing commitments a person may actually hold (but for which they don't have evidence). In addition, it doesn't capture the crucial aim of the context-wrencher: to close out an argument with someone by dishonest means. But their notion of commitment does capture the method of the wrencher: though the wrencher may know his quotation to be inaccurate, he knows it represents the person's real views. I think we saw something like this at work in Mitt Romney's "I like to fire people line" of a while back.
What this means is that the wrencher is playing a rather different game from the one his audience is playing. Even if his audience agrees with him, he's thinking that an argument (with evidence and all of that) is being offered by the wrencher. But it isn't. The wrencher is telling a story, a fiction, to a person who thinks he's listening to an argument. Cross purposes, I think.