Paul Ryan’s Life Misled
The staged photo of Paul Ryan contemplating the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation’s radical, revolutionary hero who spent his entire life exposing and fighting injustice, got dragged pretty hard on Twitter yesterday.
Many of us noted the irony or responded with revulsion to the awkward pandering.
The contrast in that tweet reminded me of how Ryan behaved as he got closer and closer to accomplishing his own life’s mission.
He famously shouted with glee when he announced that the House had passed massive tax cuts for the richest Americans and the wealthiest corporations, the hallmark of a new tax code he called “generation-defining.”
“I was very excited,” Ryan told Fox & Friends, referring to his giddy pronouncement. “I have been working on this issue pretty much my adult life.”
It was, as Politico wrote, his “dream come true.”
What does it say about a man if he dedicates his entire life to taking a massive amount of money and resources away from the poor and middle class and handing it to the world’s wealthiest people — especially when the nation’s richest 1% own 38.6% of the country’s wealth and the top 0.1% have about the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90%?
It says that the man misused his skill, misdirected his fanaticism and simply missed the gaping inequality in his country.
Imagine if instead of devoting his determination and political skill to dissolving Exxon Mobile’s tax burden and erasing the private jet duty, Ryan had channeled his efforts toward overcoming inequities like de facto segregation or student loan debt.
This Speaker will get civic centers and post offices in Wisconsin named for him in recognition of — what, exactly? Sitting in the chair behind Obama and Trump during State of the Union addresses while championing a tax cut that enables Jerry Jones to pick up an NHL franchise on the side?
But Paul Ryan probably doesn’t realize he could have dedicated his life to correcting injustices because he doesn’t think those injustices exist. Rather, he recognizes only natural disparities within a strictly economic vacuum where the unsuccessful—regardless of circumstance, ability, race, background or gender—must simply motivate themselves to grab one of the bountiful living-wage jobs trickling down from the benevolent conglomerates liberated by his corporate stimulus package.
Ryan’s “dream come true” will certainly hurt the working poor and middle class by stripping retirement benefits, facilitating the erosion of vital safety net programs and raising taxes over time. But instead of owning that reality, he framed the tax cut as an act of generosity, a dream.
Now contrast Ryan’s “dream come true” with the dreams that others, like King, have fought and died for. The dreams that the most marginalized, vulnerable and oppressed people never relinquish and never stop working for, even though they may not live to see them achieved.
Also contrast Ryan’s “dream come true’ with other dreams that came true inside D.C.’s legislative and judicial chambers, like integration, Voting Rights and gay marriage. Contrast his jubilation to that expressed by people who have witnessed their efforts uplift the oppressed and correct injustices.
That’s why Ryan’s celebration after the House vote on the tax bill got to me. His hyperventilating yelp matched the joy expressed by leaders, activists and advocates for equal rights who saw the culmination of their determination actually enrich people’s lives and level our society.
Such an achievement occurred June 26, 2015 when the Supreme Court issued its decision to legalize gay marriage. I was listening to the Brian Lehrer Show that morning and I’ll always remember it, not because Lehrer was a particularly devoted advocate for same-sex marriage — though he certainly champions equity — but because of the joy and relief so many felt that day.
Right after guest E.J. Dionne finished a point about how Obamacare had permeated everyday life in the US, Lehrer broke the news:
“And speaking of social change that then becomes embedded, fasten your seat belts,” he said. “The Supreme Court has just ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. The Supreme Court has just ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states . . . Wow.”
“I’m honored to be having a show at a moment like this,” he continued. “I’m almost shaking. It’s so earth-shattering for so many people.
Lehrer’s off-the-cuff response reflected the magnitude of the moment— the US had finally recognized the rights that LGBTQ individuals had spent their entire lives fighting for. And not far from the studio, people flooded the streets in impromptu celebration.
During the show, WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein spoke with Lehrer and said she and her partner had scheduled their wedding after learning that every state would honor their marriage.
That was an achievement worth celebrating.
Too bad Ryan never learned to recognize and topple injustice, to celebrate a truly transformative achievement. Never had to.
Thus, he contemplates the bust of King the way one might feign introspection while standing before a bust of St. Patrick. The details are hazy now, but we can all agree King solved racism back in the ancient 1960s much like St. Patrick solved Ireland’s snake problem in the 5th Century.
Props to them both because today, we no longer deal with racism and the Irish no longer fear pythons. Plus, we get two fun holidays to thank them for their service.
That’s the sanitized story of King that most white Americans believe and it’s an important component of a greedy zealot’s origin story.
“Maybe injustice existed in the distant past, but it doesn’t anymore,” the man thinks. “So the government doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
Ryan believes the myth of King — who was, we all know, universally beloved for the peaceful way he held a mirror up to an unjust society—because he learned it in school and because he has never been challenged in his entire life.
To that last point, Ryan likes to pretend he grew up working class — he often spins a yarn about working at McDonald’s to burnish his aw-shucks cred — but he comes from a wealthy family and has lived a charmed life as the GOP’s boyish wonder.
He knows no hardship, witnesses no injustice, sees no nuisance and so does not understand that the circumstances for marginalized people can improve while still remaining bad.
To Ryan, we’re Post-Injustice now. Here’s proof:
One hundred years ago, such an exchange would have torpedoed a white lawmaker’s career. Sixty-two years ago(five years before Martin Luther King, Jr. had a Dream), 101 members of Congress signed the Southern Manifesto, a document pledging to uphold segregation. Today, however, House Speakers clutch the tricep of Civil Rights leaders while plotting to strip services for the poorest Americans and redirect the funds to our super PAC oligarchs. See? Let’s move on. Things are better. Injustice over.