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Mad Stories in Paul Ryan’s World

Posted on Mar 16, 2013
Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

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The stories we tell about ourselves no longer speak to the ideals of justice, equality, liberty and democracy. Stories that once inspired our imagination now degrade it, treating it largely as a blank screen upon which to write advertisements that reduce our sense of agency to the imperatives of shopping. But these are not the only narratives that diminish the stories that allow us to imagine a better world. We are also inundated with stories that inhabit discourses of cruelty and fear that undermine communal bonds and tarnish any viable visions of the future. Stories that provided a sense of history, social responsibility, and respect for the public good were once told by our parents, churches, synagogues, schools and community leaders. Today, the stories that define who we are as individuals and as a nation are told by a right-wing and liberal media who largely channel the narratives of celebrities, billionaires and ethically frozen politicians who preach the mutually related virtues of the free market and a permanent war economy.

And these stories are all the more powerful because they seem to defy the force of rigorous translation, critical interrogation, and openness as they move almost effortlessly from think tanks and policymakers to the media and educational institutions. Burying alive the conditions of their own making, these stories enshrine both greed and massive disparities in wealth and income and also reproduce the workings of the market as a type of political theology that inscribes a sense of destiny - a tribute to Ayn Rand savagery and Margaret Thatcher’s notion that there is nothing beyond individual gain and the values of the corporate order.

Some of these stories are quite familiar and now seem like common fare for market and religious fundamentalists in both mainstream parties: policies that embrace shock-and-awe austerity measures; tax cuts that serve the rich and powerful and destroy government programs that help the poor, elderly and sick; attacks on women’s reproductive rights; attempts to suppress voter ID laws and rig electoral college votes; a full-fledged assault on the environment; the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself; an ongoing attack on unions, on social provisions, and on the expansion of Medicaid and meaningful healthcare reform. These stories are the narratives of the neoliberal and neoconservative walking dead who roam the planet sucking the blood and life out of everything they touch - from the millions killed in foreign wars to the millions incarcerated in our nation’s prisons.

All of these stories embody what might be called the swindle of fulfillment. That is, instead of fostering a democracy, they encourage a political and economic system controlled by the rich. Instead of a society that embraces a capacious social contract, they give us a social order that shreds social protections while privileging the wealthy and powerful and inflicting a maddening and devastating set of injuries upon workers, women, poor minorities, immigrants, and low- and middle-class young people. Instead of economic and political stability, they give us uncertainty and precarity, a world turned upside-down in which ignorance becomes a virtue and power a tool for ruthlessness and privilege rather than a resource for the public good. Every once in a while we catch a rather unadorned glimpse of what America has become in the narratives produced by politicians whose arrogance and quests for authority and privilege exceed their willingness to hide the narrow-mindedness, power-hungry interests, cruelty and hardship made clear in the policies they advocate.


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Paul Ryan’s budget plan offers precisely such a narrative for the American public. It is a story that embodies a kind of savage violence that makes clear that those who occupy the bottom rungs of American society - whether they be low-income families, poor minorities of color and class or young failed consumers - are to be considered disposable, removed from ethical considerations and the grammar of human suffering. The outlines of Ryan’s budget are quite clear: He and his antediluvian Republican colleagues want to cut spending by $4.6 trillion by 2023. The cuts will fall largely on those individuals and groups who are already suffering, and will thus seriously worsen the lives of those people now hurting the most. The right-wing appeal to job-killing and provision-slashing austerity now functions as a kind of modern-day form of Chinese torture, inflicting a variety of cuts on a myriad of programs that add up to massive human suffering for the many and benefits only for a predatory class of zombie bankers, hedge fund managers, and financial elite that feed off the lives of the disadvantaged. As reported in The New York Times, Ryan’s budget eliminates
Medicare’s guarantee to retirees by turning it into a voucher plan; dispens[es] with Medicaid and food stamps by turning them into block grants for states to cut freely; repeal[s] most of the reforms to health care and Wall Street; shrink[s] beyond recognition the federal role in education, job training, transportation and scientific and medical research.[1]

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