Saturday, February 05, 2011

Paul Ryan's Highway to Heck

Hi everyone,

Listening to Paul Ryan give the "Republican" response to the State of the Union (or was it Michelle Bachman? and are they really different from each other in any meaningful way?) provided a kind of sublime thrill.

Here's why.

Saturday's column

Paul Ryan’s highway to heck
Congressman and idol Rand didn’t practice what they preached

We’ve finally topped the Roman Empire for public blood sport. In Ancient Rome gladiators amused spectators by cutting each other up in the Colosseum. Today, political spectators can watch politicians cut themselves to pieces without the assistance of an opponent.

Surely, progress is wonderful. Consider Republican Party Golden Boy Paul Ryan, whose official response to the president’s State of the Union Address warmed the hearts of liberals across America as the contradictions of his own life story cut through him like shrapnel. His Roadmap for America, and his plans for your retirement, include denying future generations the kind of government benefits he received himself.

But it’s tastier than simple hypocrisy. Ryan isn’t simply posturing for votes; he’s an ideological purist, a fan of Ayn Rand, the radical libertarian novelist whose works, like “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” remain a favorite of self-obsessed adolescents everywhere. Her books are the equivalent of “Catcher in the Rye,” but scaled down for once-young Alex P. Keaton wannabes who found a welcoming ideological greenhouse inside the Republican Party. Talking Points Memo reports that Ryan requires people on his staff to read “Atlas Shrugged” and gives out copies as gifts.

Rand’s basic premise is simple, and simplistic: Everything good is the result of individual actions and everything bad is the result of sacrificing one’s own selfish interests, regardless of what they are, for the benefit of others. Rand’s ideological purity, like all Big Political Theories, works great on paper, especially if you’re the one who benefits from it – but for everyone else, not so much. More ironically, her ideological purity is appealing in exactly the same way Soviet-era Communism was. I mean, Stalin did some good things, right?

Uh, yeah. If you were in the Party.

Ideological purity is one of the places where I find myself in complete agreement with my non-loony friends on the political right. We all believe it’s a bad thing. (You wouldn’t know it from recent media coverage but there are still quite a few, true fiscal conservatives left out there. They’re simply being drowned out by the howling Right Wing Dementors vacuuming up souls in the jet stream of Murdoch media outlets and by the Koch Brothers’ Mad Hatter Tea Parties.)

Ideological purity is dangerous regardless of whether we’re talking about Stalinists or Free-Market Capitalists. The problem is that reality is not ideological pure – it’s messy. Big Political Theories provide some good guesses about general principles but, as one of my favorite professors used to say: “Whenever you slap an -ism on the end of anything, you turn it into a religion.” This is true whether you’re talking about communism or socialism – or capitalism. Adding that -ism turns what might be a good idea into a religious conviction and, at that point, conversation ends and sermonizing begins.

Sermonizing is what we got from Rep. Ryan and it betrayed him. Liberals everywhere were overcome by great joy when, during the last few weeks, the press discovered that Ayn Rand, guru of Ryan’s political testament, received Social Security benefits – something like $11,000 a month for the last eight years of her life. So much for radical individualism.

It was as good as photographs of Donald Rumsfeld kissing Sadam Hussein on the mouth. Happier still was the discovery, reported in Wisconsin Interest, that Ryan himself received “Social Security benefits until age 18, which he put away for college.”

So it warms the heart of the Left to know that the man who’s entire life is owed in no small measure to the benefits of publicly managed Social Security, wants to deny those benefits to everyone else. “Privatization,” after all, is just an ideologically pure concept which, in the real world, means “entrusting our financial future to the same blackhearted Wall Street Casino bosses who crashed the economy in 2008, made off with stratospheric bonus payouts, and then got tax payers to cover their losses.”

What we’re left with in Rep. Ryan’s Roadmap is a retread of the same voodoo economics President George H.W. Bush correctly diagnosed in Ronald Reagan’s slick campaign advertising. Voodoo Economics depended on ideological commitment rather than mathematics, and to see it here once more provides a momentary delight, and much pathos, as we glimpse the glaring contradictions in Ryan’s intentions: the promise of an opulent socialism for Rep. Ryan’s owners, and Dickensian capitalism for the rest of us.


1 comment:

Art Hackett said...

I enjoyed your column. I'm recently retired from Wisconsin Public TV. The one question I never got to ask Paul Ryan (because only Bill Moyers gets to ask deep theological, philosophical questions like this is Bill Moyers), "You're a Roman Catholic. How do you reconcile Christ's teachings and the Church's theology with the writings of an atheist whose philosophy directly contradicts what you profess to believe?