Reader advisory: This is a Paul Ryan take-down. It is not a hit piece. I have seen and enjoyed hit pieces before and I'm not reluctant to pass them on for the fun of it. In the atmosphere of a political contest, hit pieces are like snowball fights in the winter. It's part of the spirit of the moment. But this article is serious business. Don't go there carelessly.
In His Grief and Ours Leon Wieseltier examines and explains the origins of Paul Ryan's political and economic beliefs in a way that will challenge any thoughtful supporter of the rising star and favorite son of this year's Republican Party. Mitt Romney did us all a favor picking him as his vice-presidential running mate. Had he left him in the ranks in the role of a political nuclear deterrent he might have remained under the radar until after the election. But apparently against the advice of many of his best consultants Mr. Romney exercised a political nuclear option by snatching him up to share with him the spotlights of the campaign.
I have my doubts that most committed Republican voters will either read or be influenced by this three thousand word article, but despite the length it makes basically one key point -- that Paul Ryan's economic vision and analysis derive from his response to the death of his father by embracing the views of Ayn Rand. It is not my aim here to argue for or against the Libertarian philosophy. Many keenly intelligent, well-placed people in academia, business and politics regard the writings and insights of Ayn Rand as central to their respective world views. Some may even be called purists and with them I have serious disagreement. But they are not running to become the next vice-president, the person next in line for the office in the tragic event that something unforeseen should happen to the next president. That puts Paul Ryan under a different light than the rest of the Randian crowd.
Already we have seen how smoothly Ryan can excuse any past positions by saying "...Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket, and Mitt Romney will be president, and he will set the policy of the Romney administration.” Which is okay. That is part of the skill set of any political animal and no one is shocked by that kind of rhetoric. In fact we have come to expect that to be part of the game.
It is clear, for example, that after three and a half years of observing the president cave in to the most partisan opponents in recent memory there are still plenty of critics who still conclude that he is still faking it and lying, pretending to be something that he is not. He claims to be Christian but many believe him to be Muslim. He was born in America but the birther crowd continues to be convinced otherwise. The list is endless but there is no changing minds that are already made up. He could throw every Liberal in the country under the bus but it would still make no difference. But I digress... This is not about the president. This is about Paul Ryan, the man who wants to be next in line for that job behind Mitt Romney if he is elected president in November.
According to the canonical version of his life, the death of his father when Paul Ryan was 16 taught him to despise “dependency” and to extol “self-reliance.” “It was just a big punch in the gut,” he told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “I concluded I’ve got to either sink or swim in life.” He added that “I was, like, ‘What is the meaning?’ I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection. I read everything I could get my hands on.” One of the writers he got his hands on was Ayn Rand, and he fell under her foul spell. Her novels are certainly fit for adolescents; and ideology may be regarded as the intellectual equivalent of arrested adolescence. Atlas Shrugged might have been a sin of youth, like Siddharthaand Thus Spake Zarathustra, except that Ryan never repented the sin. He learned from Rand that the road to morality led through economics. (Earlier Marx had performed the same erroneous service for other young Americans, but for an antithetical end.) “The meaning” was to be found in capitalism. The market was an allegory for life. “The moral symbol of respect for human beings is the trader,” as John Galt instructs. Self-reliance, which Ryan falsely construed as the trader’s most essential characteristic, became Ryan’s supreme ideal. In one of the strident moralistic passages, called “Erosion of American Character,” in A Roadmap for America’s Future: Version 2.0, the budget plan that Ryan issued in 2010, and that established his prominence, he assails the “safety net” (the sardonic quotation marks are his) this way: “Dependency drains individual character, which in turn weakens American society. The process suffocates individual initiative and transforms self-reliance into a vice and government dependency into a virtue.”This sets the stage for the rest of Wieseltier's article. Remember as you read that line -- that the road to morality leads through economics. It's true, you know. Even Jesus taught the same lesson, that one can know a lot about someone by where they keep their treasure, and by implication, I suppose, how much of that treasure they possess. Our own Calvinist roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were nourished by the sure belief that the reason anyone is rich is that they are being blessed by God. And correspondingly, those who are poor must be out of God's favor and are being punished. Or at the very least, they are simply lazy and irresponsible, have made poor choices in life and don't deserve anything better than what little they have.
Here is a sample of what's in the article. Readers can scan this list and decide if they want to read further. My guess is that most will decide to skip it and go on with their day.
A close look at Ryan’s writings, however, shows an intellectual style that is amateurish and parochial. His thought is just a package. The distinction between an analysis and a manifesto is lost on him.
Ryan’s mind is inadequately aerated. His intellectual universe is a conformist, like-minded universe; he gives no indication of any familiarity with, or curiosity about, thoughts and traditions that differ from his own. I am not competent to evaluate his numbers, but no budgetary expertise is required to see that his moral and political concepts are crude and sometimes weird.
Ryan throws around “individualism” and “collectivism” as if they are utterly transparent and self-evident terms, and as if it is 1950. The poor guy was born too late for the intellectual excitements of the cold war, so he insists upon finding them in his own lifetime by apocalyptically transposing the old antinomies onto the contemporary debate about government and entitlement. Yet the analogy between the totalitarian collectivism of the Soviet Union and the role of government in Obamacare is talk-radio stupid.
...Ryan’s concept of self-reliance, the gospel of John Galt (“you are your own highest value ... as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul ...”), is devoid of all humility—it is the very vainglory against which the Bible, Ryan’s ultimate book, warned.And if that is not enough of a reading filter, here is one final sentence that can be used as a touchstone. For readers who understand the following sentence without resorting to Google, the article is a must read. Others are advised to skip the link and find something lower on the Flesch-Kincaid reading scale.
Confronted with the ineluctable role of contingency in human affairs, he prefers to respond with a hallucination of human control: with an AEI Prometheanism.
We all make vows. Our lives are governed by vows. We vow to speak truth in court and other solemn occasions. The tradition has begun to fall apart in our lifetime but the institution of marriage was based on taking vows considered sacred. People taking public office or the military, or becoming citizens or even joining private clubs take vows to remain faithful to whatever the connection, promising to internalize that vow as part of all they do in the future.
But there are also times in our lives when we make a vow to ourselves. In many ways those vows are even more durable than any we take in public. After all , public vows are influenced by others. Peer pressure and the desire to be regarded as credible and respectable heavily influence the taking of vows. But when we make secret vows there is no compelling need to keep them other than to ourselves. it is these private, personal vows that are the measure of who we are.
As children we make sense of the world around us by reconciling conflicts. Sometimes we witness or experience events that are so deeply hurtful that we take a vow: That hurts. When I have a child I'm never gonna do that to my child. Or in cases of neglect: I'll never let one of my children go hungry (or have to move away from friends, or wear ugly clothes or whatever...) And as the years go by the vow is often forgotten but it's effect on the person's behavior endures. So we carry these childhood vows into adulthood and they become guidelines to all we do. Sometimes, unfortunately, vows become toxic. And toxic vows are not always the convictions of children. Adults are also capable of making toxic vows. Humans are perfectly capable of taking and acting on poisonous vows in the case of cults and extremists of various types.
The good news is that we can change our minds. The adult who realizes that he has been living in accordance with some adolescent decision or vow has come upon a liberating concept. We are provided role models who shape our behavior, but at some developmental point we become free to abandon those role models, add to them or replace them altogether. The behavior of an abusive parent is often blended with a measure of love and affection that is poisoned by substance abuse. The challenge of the child is to internalize the love without following the rest of the example. The parent who dies is frozen in time in the mind of the child they leave behind. And in the aftermath of that terrible loss that abandoned child will instinctively look for ways to cope with that loss.
But sometime between childhood and adulthood we all are faced with the reality that the generations only move in one direction. Barring unforeseen circumstances children can expect to outlive their parents and parents can expect to die while their children are still alive. As adults we learn to face the horrible reality that there are many tragic exceptions to that fact, but until we arrive at that place we will always be in pain. That pain will not vanish when we finally come to terms with the exceptions, but it will no longer have the power to distort and sometimes destroy the rest of our life.
That eternal reality is part of what St. Paul meant when he said "When I became a man I put away childish things." And one need not be a Christian to grasp the meaning of that simple statement.