Beyond “You Can’t Eat Dignity”


How Paul Ryan’s tale of a little boy and a brown-bag lunch fell apart (Los Angeles Times)

One of the things that really struck me, when reading Al Franken’s landmark Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations for the first time, was Franken documenting the extent to which the stories Ronald Reagan and other conservatives used to sell the public on their ideas were either twisted beyond recognition or just plain untrue. Franken even has a whole chapter on Reagan’s apocryphal anecdotes, chronicling not just their influence and their disconnection to objective fact, but also the shamelessness with which conservatives continued to use the stories even in the face of firsthand evidence contradicting them. I thought that I’d been taught in my earlier years that only thing worse than lying was continuing to perpetuate a lie even after it’s been found out, but it appeared that the conservative movement of my lifetime clearly had no such scruples.

You would think that in an age of Internet fact-checking, where major political speeches are often instantaneously checked for veracity by professionals and amateurs alike, more care would be taken to not deliberately stray from facts that can be broadcast on Twitter and Facebook as soon as you say something that flies in the face of them. If anything, though, it seems like we’re getting worse in this regard, as everything from the expansion of the right-wing media bubble to the increasing corporatization of news has counteracted and overwhelmed the flow of fact-checking by making it so much easier for an increasingly impatient populace to lose themselves in the farce that so often passes for “news” in America these days. (It doesn’t help that fact-checking itself is a problematic activity, as witnessed by all the trouble PolitiFact keeps finding itself in.)

The fact that someone like Paul Ryan would repeat an anecdote from someone who incorrectly inferred a political “lesson” about a young kid’s struggles to eat isn’t that shocking. It’s practically de rigueur for Republican politicians these days to repeat some bogus “fact” from a right-wing blog as justification for the policies they’re pushing, since it lets them say something outrageous that rallies the Tea Partiers (who have made an art form out of dismissing reality), then be able to say “I just said that’s what the ‘news story’ said, I didn’t say it was true” when confronted with the facts by reporters. Right-wing media never airs the half-hearted takebacks, so their base will still believe the false claims even after they’ve been thoroughly debunked. (How many conservatives still think we found stockpiles of active WMDs in Iraq?) Ryan has been justly denounced for peddling such a sham of a story, and it’s led to a neat “You can’t eat dignity” meme, but I think focusing on that story, and the soundbites that can be drawn from it, does a disservice to the people who stand to suffer the most if Ryan and his ilk manage to seize more power in America.

The first huge problem with Ryan’s story is that it perpetuates another big weapon Republicans like to use in their arguments: Taking a complex issue and falsely reducing the possible positions on the issue to two. (This is called a false dilemma in rhetorical terms, and Republicans love this kind of oversimplification. Remember “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” anyone?) In this case, the false dilemma Ryan is perpetuating is the notion that America must somehow choose between providing a basic safety net for its citizens on the one hand, and giving hard-working Americans the incentive to work by letting them enjoy the fruits of their labour on the other. These are two things that are not mutually exclusive to one another. It is entirely possible to create a strong social safety net for Americans without creating real disincentives for Americans to work hard. Important social safety programmes like SNAP and WIC and unemployment benefits are already horribly underfunded, and the money these programmes need to function properly, even if you were to directly tax the richest Americans for them, would not be cumbersome at all. This doesn’t even get into issues like ending the ludicrous tax breaks for oil companies that are already wildly profitable without them.

Ryan latched onto the image of the brown-bag lunch the young boy wanted to be able to bring to school, as he should have, because it’s a wise rhetorical move. It’s always a good idea to create some kind of image in your listeners’ heads, preferably of something tangible and well-known to them, because those tend to have more impact, and last longer in listeners’ heads, than words or phrases that deal with abstractions. Ryan wanted the brown-bag lunch to signify something simple and basic that we could understand any young kid wanting, but I think the image also works against him in a key regard: Too many young Americans these days don’t have a parent who has the time to even make a brown-bag lunch for their children. Modern parenting issues aside — and there are certainly a lot to discuss — too many households have parents who are being forced to work ludicrous hours because of the demands placed on them by work, where conservative economic and fiscal policies of the past three decades (even during Democratic presidents) have meant that wages for all but the richest Americans have either stagnated or dropped in terms of what they can buy. For too many of these kids, a brown-bag lunch is an impossibility simply because of the havoc that conservatives have wrought on working-class and middle-class Americans since the Reagan Revolution.

Another big rhetorical tactic Republicans like to play is to try to turn the availability of something in a social welfare programme into a requirement being forced on everyone regardless of whether they want it or not. In the case of school lunches, just because a school offers free lunch to students does not mean that any student is forced to eat it. I can respect someone refusing assistance on something, public or private, because they want to achieve their goals on their own, but just because one person doesn’t want that assistance doesn’t mean that it should automatically be denied to everyone, particularly when there is a need for it. The youth poverty rate in this country is over 20%, and that is a fact that should shame every American when they go to bed at night. There are far too many children who need SNAP and WIC and school-provided meals simply to avoid crippling hunger and be able to function, and we can debate what their parents may or may not be doing wrong at another time, but to infer that these children should go hungry because it’s better for them to learn “dignity” is borderline inhumane.

India is often discussed when the issue of poverty comes up; despite its rising middle class, the number of people in abject poverty there dwarfs the American population as a whole. Still, even in India they are now working to assert a basic “right to food” for all its 800 million people. If a nation of that size, with all its problems, can guarantee that none of its citizens will go hungry, then it is more clear than ever that the fact that so many Americans of all ages do not get sufficient food is not a sad-but-inevitable facet of modern life; those people go hungry because people in power, particularly Republicans, choose for them to go hungry in order to give more tax breaks to the corporations and the ultra-rich, who are not letting their wealth “trickle down” to help the least fortunate of us.

When Paul Ryan and his ilk talk of “dignity” and “the value of hard work,” it’s a smokescreen to cover their demonstrated agenda of keeping a large part of the American population in perpetual penury in order to feed their own anecdotes about “welfare queens” and “the knockout game” and all that nonsense, and to keep a steady supply of expendable human beings they can bounce around from McJobs to prison depending on which of their corporate donors needs the bigger back-scratching. It’s well past time for the rest of us to call them out on this, and to keep calling them out until their precious right-wing media bubble explodes.

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