Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Paul Ryan, Bill Bennett and the Exclusive Country Club Mentality

by Nomad

This quote by Herman Melville was the impetus for this post about two well-known conservatives, Paul Ryan and Bill Bennett.   Whenever you hear two elitist white guys pontificating about what's wrong with the "inner-city" culture, it's hard not catch the faint scent of racism. 

Paul Ryan and the Dog-Whistle
On March 12 of this year, Republican Paul Ryan was on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio show to share his brand of wisdom about poverty in the US. He was quoted as saying:
"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 to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."
The whole conversation was absurd on so many levels even Melville could not have held back a chuckle. Of course, the thought that unemployment is a just moral/culture failure no doubt provides a welcome sense of superiority to some of the more privileged among us.

But is this a cultural problem or is it a socio-economic? Is it more defeatist to call it one or the other?
Writer Adom Cooper points out that poorly-funded education is a much more logical place to being looking for the causes of inner city (minority) unemployment.
Areas in the U.S. that have large black populations are typically synonymous with poorly performing students, lack of resources, and scarce opportunities compared areas with large white populations. Ask any person who happens to teach in urban areas and you will likely hear that a multitude of better resources are needed to ensure their students' readiness for the next level. Too many students in these environments progress through grade levels without exposure to necessary material that will set them up for success in high school and acceptance into college. Or worse, they drop out. When it comes to getting a head start on working towards a job to support oneself and eventually a family, the students in these environments are already several steps behind.
And they remain several steps behind long enough to stop trying. This inability to thrive despite all attempts is surely culture shaping but culture alone isn't the problem. 
For a conservative, it is a dangerous argument. When we blame culture alone for the social problems, then we have to look at the other side too. What about the white culture's taste for exploitation, whether it is a plantation slave or factory worker? And that exploitation includes the environment and political institutions.  

Role Models
Instead of addressing the matter in a more direct way, Paul Ryan went on to talk about the "fatherless problem" and arch-conservative Bennett was quick to give his support. 
“A boy has to see a man working,” Bennett replied. Ryan agreed, “Absolutely.”
In the Ryan-Bennett universe, out of spite and laziness, inner-city fathers are purposefully not providing their children with suitable working-man role models.

Of course, Ryan himself was raised by his widowed mother after the age of sixteen. Prior to that, Ryan, as a member of one of the most prominent families in Janesville, had lived a pretty cozy existence. He had grown up, as one newspaper bio says, "in a big Colonial house on a wooded lot, and his extended clan includes investment managers, corporate executives and owners of major construction companies."
A nest of upper-crust entitlement, some could say.

As far as Bennett, his mother, Nancy Walsh went through two divorces during Bennett`s upbringing. Hardly a model for domestic tranquility. 
According to one bio, Bennett`s father, a banker named F. Robert Bennett, kept up a relationship with his sons, visiting on weekends. So it is quite unlikely that Bennett ever saw his father actually working

Certainly the fathers of Bennett and Ryan were not what anybody would call middle-class heroes, trudging home from the factory assembly line six days a week. Neither father had to worry about lay-offs, or his job being exported to the Third World. As far as one can tell, neither father had the disadvantage of a poor education as a result of the neighborhood they lived in or were in any way stigmatized by the color of their skin. 

Following the death of his father in Ryan's teenage years, his only role model was his mother who shaped his tough love philosophy with phrases like "suck it up, and deal with it, and tough.”
(Brother, Freud would have loved to have had a go at this case.)

Something about Murray
Some critics couldn't help but see the remarks during the radio show as racially insensitive. He may have said "inner-city" but to whom Ryan and Bennett were referring was plain enough.
Especially since Ryan has, in the past, used the research of Charles Murray as support of his ideas. (Some have called it  "pseudoscience")
Murray happens to be a social scientist who has been identified as a 'white nationalist' by the Southern Poverty Law Center for arguing in his research that "disadvantaged communities remain disadvantaged primarily because they cannot compete with white men because they are intellectually and morally inferior by comparison."
Dare you to call that a racist idea.

Shawn Fremstad writing for the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out that Ryan’s argument, is merely a "coded appeal to racial stereotypes (“inner cities in particular”)" and are an example of outright dishonesty." Besides, despite Ryan's too-transparent dog-whistling, the problem of the poor is much too widespread to make the claim that it belongs only to blacks or Hispanics. It is related as much to income and education as it is culture or race.

In his accidental fashion, Murray himself has admitted as much.
Murray’s most recent magnum opus, Coming Apart: The State of White America, applies the “tailspin of culture” argument specifically to white working-class people. This is not at all a new theme for Murray. In fact, over two decades ago, in a remarkably ugly op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Murray was predicting “the coming white underclass” and arguing that we need “to end all economic support for single mothers” so that “stigma will regenerate.”
God knows they haven't been stigmatized enough throughout history.

Additionally, if Ryan feels that unmarried mothers should be held responsible for their mistakes, then he perhaps needs to explain why he has voted at least four times to defund Planned Parenthood. We all know the answer to the question. It's because of abortion. However, Planned Parenthood also offers free information on a wide variety of birth control options for low-income single women.

Telling people what they should do but withholding the means of accomplishing that goal is a common link between Bennett and Ryan, as we shall see. 

Fremstad questions whether Ryan hasn't miss the boat on this black/white culture argument altogether. Fremstad also wonders whether Ryan has (forgive my use of technical terms, here) the balls to apply the same criticisms to the poor white underclass, "particularly in the suburbs and small towns where so many low- and moderate-income white people live."

Quite unlikely. That's Tea Party country and they don't take comparisons to "lazy" inner-city blacks very lightly.

The "Colossal Failures" of Bennett
Bennett, the host, has also been accused of being a bit of a peek-a-boo racist. For example, in one broadcast he made the suggestion on reducing crime.
I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.
He quickly added- in case there might be any misunderstanding- that that idea would be "an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down." 
Because as we all know, crime equals black people. Right?

In a better age, a remark like this would have shamed its speaker to the point of immediate and reclusive retirement. Instead, Bennett's history has been pretty thoroughly whitewashed via the ephemeral Internet (scrub a-dub dub). Throughout his career, Bennett has made himself an attractive target for the Left with some "preposterous assumptions."

Under Republican president Reagan, William Bennett was the education secretary. Outspoken was the polite word that was often used to describe Bennett. In his position, he delighted in attacking university presidents, congressional Democrats and the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.

While defending Reagan's cuts in federal tuition grants- which helped minorities and poor but bright students- Bennett caused uproar by suggesting that young people could fund their their college education if they were but a little less frivolous.
These students could afford an education, he said, by "divesting themselves of expensive stereos, automobiles and spring vacations." 
Oh, those spoilt scofflaws with their 8-tracks, beach blanket bingo parties, love beads, and souped-up jalopies!

(Later we would all learn just how adept Bennett himself could be at throwing away money.)

Then, without much in the way of qualifications, he became the so-called "drug czar" under George H.W. Bush in the long, ultimately fruitless war on drugs. And we all remember the outstanding victory that resulted.
Don't we?
In fact the only result of this incredibly-expensive crusade against illegal drugs has been an incarceration nation and a loss of civil liberties for the guilty and innocent alike.

As one reporter pointed out, the war on drugs is, to Bennett, a conflict between good and bad, not between people and poverty or, even, people and a health problem. Under his tenure as drug czar, law enforcement was the preferred recourse for illegal drug use, rather than treatment or education.
All that is wonderfully moralistic, but not necessarily moral. A moral man might question why government policy slights treatment. Such a man might wonder about a policy that demands that people get off drugs but provides them no way to do it.
In spite of the glorious praise by President George H.W. Bush about Bennett's success in the drug war, some were less than impressed. 
But Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of a House subcommittee on narcotics abuse, called the Bush Administration's anti-drug effort "a colossal failure." He denounced Bennett for using his office "as a bull (sic) pulpit" to preach against decline of families and inner cities.
And today, Paul Ryan can get a pat on the back from father-figure Bennett for reciting the same old sermons that Bennett preached back then.

In November 1990, Bennett stepped down, though it was unclear at the time exactly why. In any case, he immediately found employment at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), a think tank for conservatives, neoconservatives, and conservative libertarians. (Basically an elephant graveyard where people can promote all kinds of ideas without worrying about the political consequences.) 

Peeling back a layer and we find an interesting connection.
At exactly the same time, Ryan's ideological mentor Charles Murray became a fellow of the AEI. Murray had just been was as a fellow at the ultra-conservative Manhattan Institute. His "the genetic inferiority stuff" drew a little too much heat. Some might think it a tad racist, (for some reason) but at AEI, both Bennett and Murray found good homes for their moralizing and somewhat offensive thoughts. 

Suddenly this silly radio chat show dialogue between Ryan and Bennett feels more like eavesdropping at a country club for white supremacists.  

The Culture of Hard Work 
Despite being a family-values campaigner, Bennett slipped off his moral high horse when some personal details came out in 2003.  Bennett had, somewhere along the way, picked up some unsavory (and immoral) habits. Namely, a gambling addiction  or as they say, Bennett had a gambling monkey on his back.
(His wife denied it was actually an addiction but merely a habit. Habits, that's all. Like binge drinking, shooting up heroin and cocaine and all of the other habits that any Amy Winehouse would engage in.)  

His reputation preceded him when he blew into the gambling meccas of Las Vegas and Atlantic City. He was a preferred customer to many of the big-name casinos. That's nothing to brag about since to earn that title all you have to drop your millions to the fruit machines and crank the handle down. Zombies could manage it.
Some of his losses have been substantial. According to one casino source, on July 12, 2002, Bennett lost $340,000 at Caesars in Atlantic City and on April 5 and 6 he lost more than $500,000 at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Some casino estimates put his total losses over the past decade at more than $8 million.
But that was over ten years ago. In Republican circles, that's like another lifetime and with the passage of a decade, even the most colossal failure can shuffle back into the conservative spotlight and be all moralistic again.
Look at Gingrich, Cheney and Rumsfeld and Sununu and half a dozen others. (Idolizing colossal failures has practically become a Republican tradition since the once-disgraced Nixon was trotted out as a master statesman.)

As Bennett sits before his microphone at the lonely radio station or in the front of the dazzling lights of video poker and slot machines, he probably doesn't spend too much time pondering the contradictions of Paul Ryan's ideas.

Especially those ideas about the culture of "hard work."