You may remember Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).
He’s most famous as the running mate of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Remember Mitt? The guy who based his entire Republican National Convention and much of his campaign on misrepresenting something President Obama said? “You didn’t build that!” the president said, referencing the public infrastructure businesses rely on. And the Romney campaign spent months pretending Obama told business owners they didn’t build their businesses, as if angry business owners weren’t already planning on voting for Romney/Ryan.
This week, Congressman Ryan sparked a low-pressure outrage storm by exposing the polar vortex in his heart with some pointed comments on the work ethic of certain Americans:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
The congressman went on to cite the work of Charles Murray — author of the infamous book The Bell Curve, which argues in chapter 13 that some races — the fairer-skinned ones, of course — are genetically more intelligent. Though, in a reverse-hipster move, Ryan seems to have been citing Murray’s more recent work on welfare.
When Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) pointed out the obvious — “…when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black'” — Ryan decided that he had better clarify himself, as he was forced to do when he thought he’d run a marathon in under three hours.
Because the last thing Paul Ryan wants is to be misrepresented. On Thursday, he released this statement:
After reading the transcript of yesterday morning’s interview, it is clear that I was inarticulate about the point I was trying to make. I was not implicating the culture of one community – but of society as a whole. We have allowed our society to isolate or quarantine the poor rather than integrate people into our communities. The predictable result has been multi-generational poverty and little opportunity. I also believe the government’s response has inadvertently created a poverty trap that builds barriers to work.
You see what he’s saying here? He was being “inarticulate,” because it’s not the fault of men “in our inner cities, in particular” that they are unwilling to work. It’s the government’s fault that they are now lazy.
Does Ryan deserve the benefit of the doubt? Was he accidentally using one of the tropes the right has being relying on for decades to cloak race baiting?
Buried in his euphemistic appeal to the center is an argument only conservative politicians — like Ryan’s former running mate — still dare to make: People don’t want to work. And even if they do, they’d prefer not to earn so much that they’d have to break out of the 47 percent and pay income tax.
This presumption that some people — “in inner cities, in particular” — are lazy isn’t just insulting, it’s a premise used by Paul Ryan and others to justify great cruelty while ignoring the actual sources and causes of poverty.
Shockingly, Ryan, is right about one thing: Government has enabled systemic poverty.
However, of course, his solution — gutting just about every program designed to help the poor — would only make the problems worse.
“Black pathology was what this country wanted and black pathology is what it tried to engineer,” The Daily Beast‘s Jamelle Bouie wrote. It’s the result of three centuries of “historic injustices,” racist housing policies and the continuing effort to criminalize both mental illness and drug addiction.
Conservative politicians in both parties have backed the focus on “law and order” and mass incarceration that has led to an explosion in our prison population since the mid 1960s.
“More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, often points out to illuminate the depth of a crisis that disproportionally convicts men of color for drug crimes, though white people abuse illegal narcotics at nearly the same rates.
The failed War on Drugs doesn’t just deny black people access to public services, jobs and education as segregation did. It dooms millions of men to actual imprisonment followed by a third-class life where any hope of self-improvement is met with a legal and employment system bent on denying them opportunity and basic sustenance. That’s a government policy that could in fact discourage some “in the inner cities, in particular.”
Paul Ryan’s attempt to change the way government fights poverty doesn’t just purposely misinterpret data to hide the public policy successes in the War on Poverty. It works on the assumption that helping hungry kids eat leads to “empty souls.”
That was his honest-to-goodness argument as he used a misrepresented story to argue against the virtue of school lunch programs.
Some conservatives are working with Attorney General Eric Holder to begin the process of reforming our draconian drug laws. Paul Ryan isn’t one of them.
Instead, he proposes “morally bankrupt” budgets that would shrink the good the government does for the poor while actually cutting the taxes the richest pay at a time when they have never been richer.
Paul Ryan continually makes false arguments as he pursues an agenda that punishes America’s most vulnerable on behalf of an agenda that helps those who need it least. He assumes the worst about others, and it would make sense to do the same about him.
But there’s still hope for him, if he gets off the government dime and starts earning an honest living.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr