John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Paul Ryan and Culture Contretemps

Posted on March 20, 2014
Paul Ryan--113th Congress--

According to the dictionary definition, culture is “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc. or: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).

The word culture has been in the news lately, put there by House Budget Committee Chairman (and former Vice Presidential candidate) Paul Ryan, who said on Bill Bennett’s radio program,  “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.”

Ryan is a close friend of the former Education Secretary who has spent his life trying to reinvigorate American culture, which he believes has been going downhill for decades.   Bennett has written several books on the subject and has long argued for a return to a more virtuous society.

The Budget Chairman’s comments set off a firestorm among the professional left.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called it “thinly-veiled racist bunk.”   New York Times columnist Tim Eagan accused Ryan of betraying the memory of his ancestors, comparing him to Trevelyan, the Brit who caused the Potato Famine.  “But you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”

ThinkProgress, the left-wing rag, interviewed several of Ryan’s African-American constitutents, who said that the Republican Congressman’s comment were “very inappropriate” and “racially motivated”, and “stereotypical and judgmental.”

The African-American political theorist Ta-Nehisi Coates had a slightly different take:

“A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I'm not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city, and particularly black men, are "not holding up their end of the deal" as Cosby put it, is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship.”

He continued:  “From what I can tell, the major substantive difference between Ryan and Obama is that Obama's actual policy agenda regarding black America is serious, and Ryan's isn't. But Ryan's point—that the a pathological culture has taken root among an alarming portion of black people—is basically accepted by many progressives today. And it's been accepted for a long time.”

Coates concludes that both conservatives and progressives are basically racist:  “That is because it is a message that makes all our uncomfortable truths tolerable. Only if black people are somehow undeserving can a just society tolerate a yawning wealth gap, a two-tiered job market, and persistent housing discrimination.”

Is it the culture that has caused the pathologies that have bedeviled black communities in the inner cities or is it wide-spread and systematic racism?  Are white people to blame for the fate of the ghettoes or it is time to for African-Americans to take responsibility for the decline of the family and the breakdown of community values?

Robert Reich is an economic determinist and he sees everything through the eyes of income inequality, so his comments are really no surprise.

Eagan, the Irishman, makes a spurious comparison between Trevelyan and Paul Ryan.  Trevelyan was more than happy to allow the free market to basically starve the Irish people.  Ryan is taking an active interest in making government services work better and more effectively to better lift the poor out of poverty.

That Ryan would cite “a tailspin of culture” is hardly breaking news.  As Coates pointed out, commentators on both the left and right have made similar comments.  And Ryan is right.  Culture plays a huge role in how a society evolves.

If a community has a history of distrusting law enforcement, that distrust makes it more difficult for the police to police the streets.  And this is not a black and white issue.  In Northern Ireland, the Catholic community has long deeply distrusted the mostly Protestant police force, and that has given the IRA more power to control those communities.

If a community has a history of trying to avoid work to go on welfare, that too has an impact.  Once again, the Irish provide a telling example.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Irish social welfare system made it quite easy for the Irish to go on the dole, and the result was a stagnant economy and a redolent society.   The Irish reformed their welfare laws, cut their corporate tax rate, improved this education system, and out jumped the Celtic Tiger.

That certain pockets of the inner city are in big trouble is not exactly a news flash either.  The murder rate among black teens is still unacceptably high, the school drop out rate of black teens is still disastrous, and the fact that so many African Americans are born out of wedlock is a ticking time bomb.

But once again, these pathologies are not limited to African Americans.   We have too many failing schools, too many gang-bangers and too many broken families in all kinds of communities, not just black communities.

We also have a nasty history of racism in this country, and we as try to solve the problems of the inner city, we should never just blithely push that issue to the side.

Racism needs to be confronted and dealt with.   But all too often, race-baiting in pursuit of political advantage replaces rational dialogue and problem solving.

Paul Ryan is no racist.  He is trying to fix problems, and one of the biggest problems facing this country is persistent poverty.

Ryan doesn’t believe the solution to that problem comes with blindly throwing more money at government programs that have not made the poverty rate noticeably better, and in some instances, made things worse.

Ryan is trying to solve the problem.  Calling him William Trevelyan or Nathan Bedford Forrest is hardly a rational response to his efforts.