Last week, Paul Ryan remarked "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.."
Many liberals/progressives noted that Ryan had approvingly cited the work of two individuals, one of them the infamous Charles Murray, who argued in The Bell Curve that blacks are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence quotients. Ryan claims that he was misunderstood, a claim skeptically received by many on the left, including Salon's Brian Beutler, who maintains "You can take Murray completely out of the equation and the likelihood that Ryan wasn’t at least subconsciously playing to the prejudices of resentful or racist whites is pretty low."
Slate's Dave Weigel, however, argues it's
not at all clear that Ryan was thinking of that research when he spoke to Bennett. The stain of The Bell Curve has stuck to Murray for all of the 20 years since he published it. As he's said, like when he defended Barack Obama's post-Jeremiah Wright "race speech," this wrecked his reputation with some people, and it won't get un-wrecked. But the conservatives of 2014 don't cite Murray for his race work. They cite Losing Ground, which still guides how they think about welfare's effects on social norms, or they cite more recent work on inequality that stayed away from the race issue.
Not being able to read Ryan's mind, I assumed he was thinking of Murray for his Losing Ground/Coming Apart work, and not for Chapter 14 of his book about how some races just ain't got what it takes. I assumed that because Ryan wasn't saying anything about race—not explicitly, though I understand the people who argue he was dog-whistling. Could Ryan have been so clueless as to have not realized that citing Murray would make him sound racist? Honestly, probably—it's called epistemic closure, and there is no known cure.
I'm not trying to apologize for Ryan as much as I'm explaining why he might have said this. For the better part of a decade, I've covered the national conservative movement. Before that, in college, I shacked up with the college conservative movement. When explosive (even accidentally explosive) rhetoric comes over the transom, I'm more interested in where it came from than in how fast I can sharpen my pitchfork. Felt the same way during that brief moment in 2012 when Derrick Bell became an Emmanuel Goldstein figure who turned Barack Obama into a time-released socialist dictator. I'm not saying that you can't be racist without being obviously cartoonishly racist. Just explaining why Ryan might have said this, and what he might have meant, based on years of covering such things.
Taking a different angle, Beutler believes that even if Ryan (as he claims) was not referring specifically to blacks, he
has fully internalized a framing of social politics that was deliberately crafted to appeal to white racists without regressing to the uncouth language of explicit racism, and written its origins out of the history. If that’s the case it augurs poorly for those in the movement who are trying to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal, because it’s easier to convince people to abandon a poor tactic than to unlearn rotten ideology.
It's not clear- at least to me- that subtly crafting a message to appeal to white bigots, though making it more difficult for the Repub Party to broaden its appeal, is a losing strategy. It has, in subtle ways, worked to their advantage, especially in the now near-solid South.
Ryan has placed faith in someone, however, whose antipathy extends beyond blacks. Questioning the assumption that Ryan was engaging in dog whistling, Weigel discounts any other noxious aspect of the congressman's remarks. Additionally, in another piece from the same day, Weigel tries to draw an analogy between Ryan's comment and President Obama's statement "Too many communities where no matter how hard you work, your destiny feels like it’s already been determined for you before you took that first step. I’m not just talking about pockets of poverty in our inner cities. That's the stereotype."
But Obama's sentiment differed from Ryan's. The President placed the primary blame on the diminished life chances of many individuals in impoverished places, especially the difficulty in finding a job that allows them to escape their circumstances. Ryan, however, laid the onus on "inner city" culture, which he implies leads to joblessness. That notion is ungenerous and inaccurate.
Ryan's comfort with Murray's sociological perspective is further flawed. Last year, Michelle Goldberg of The Nation, recognizing that conservatives had begun to drop their faux populism, noted
Then there’s Charles Murray, who, taking a break from theorizing the innate inferiority of African-Americans, turned his attention to inequality among white people in last year’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. That book argued, among other things, that a “decay in industriousness” among working-class white men, not decay in the labor market, is a major factor in our country’s growing class divide.
Lest we forget what Weigel and even Beutler seem to have, Murray merely started as a racist, often an unfair characterization, but one for a man who believes in the inferiority of a race due in large measure to nature, not nurture. Having been scorched for demeaning blacks in The Bell Curve, Murray opted for a new strategy, realizing that if criticism for his earlier work would not be diminished, it at least would not increase if he went after working-class whites, also. Call it equal opportunity condescension, or simply punching down.
We know now of Paul Ryan that two of his heroes are Ayn Rand (video below from The Young Turks) and Charles Murray. And think: he was close to being a heartbeat from the presidency. Nice move, Mitt.