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Charles Redfern

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Paul Ryan and the Breach Between Intelligence and Wisdom

Posted: 08/23/2012 12:15 pm

The photo of the All-American family struck our Facebook walls hours after the announcement: A trim dad, donned with a baseball cap and a sweatshirt, sits on the porch swing beside his beautiful wife. Three children smile on their laps. The headline pleads above: "Please say a prayer for the Ryan Family." The caption explains below: "They are about to face a terrible and merciless onslaught of lies, rumors, and smears from the progressive/Democrat propaganda machine known as the, 'Impartial and Objective Main Stream Media."

So the culture-war detonates with a prayer, sealing Mitt Romney's vice presidential designate from criticism because he's a pity-worthy victim. Political discourse is no longer about reasonable vs. unreasonable or practical vs. impractical. It's good against evil, the decent against the vile. Think of that harmless family. Think of the children.

I actually sympathize. I honestly wish Ryan no harm. Maybe he's one of those give-you-the-shirt-off-my-back libertarians, individually charitable but suspicious of candy-doling but power-hungry governments. I should listen -- especially if he's the admired GOP intellect and policy wonk. But I must also gauge a candidate's intellectual coherence -- what previous generations called wisdom -- and, since he's a self-advertised Christian, his representation of Christ. Romney opened that door when he played the religious card, apparently forgetting how the deck was once loaded against him. He hailed Ryan's Catholicism and, in a Virginia campaign ad, accused the president of waging a war on religion.

And the facts -- not rumors or smears or lies -- ring alarms. Maybe Ryan can debate. Maybe he deftly fields objections; but beneath the surface lie rocky, isolated intellectual islands. He fails to link the dots. For example, his stake in the late Ayn Rand's thought is not only innately jarring but logically ill-founded. Watch his 2009 Facebook video: "The issue that is under assault, the attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America, is an attack on the moral foundation of America -- and Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism."

So much for the pragmatic policy wonk. This is "us" vs. "them" language; morality collides with immorality; the righteous fight the wicked. Sometimes that's necessary: Nazi Germany was evil and the Allies, for all their flaws, were good. But the 2012 election does not pit dictators against freedom fighters. Ryan's statements expose misplaced zealotry. They mistake Obama's policies -- which are actually a little to the right of Richard Nixon's and which Andrew Sullivan described as "conservative" in the tradition of Edmund Burke -- for an "attack."

Then there's his appointed moral arbiter: Rand. The late Charles Colson, hardly a liberal, worried about her growing popularity among Republicans: "She once said she wanted to be known as the 'greatest enemy of religion.'" Colson wasn't exaggerating. She called self-sacrifice and altruism "evil" in her 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, bluntly claiming that no human being should "wish to sacrifice himself for the happiness of others." She was nothing if not forthright: "I am the creator of a new code of morality." Her "new code" dismissed the pre-natal child: "A piece of protoplasm has no rights."

Rand coupled with morality? Behold the intellect of rocky islands. The dots lie on the page, isolated. Rand was an anti-moralist (and, incidentally, an incredibly bad novelist). She was not even a wolf in sheep's clothing. She threw off the fleece and unabashedly snarled.

But that photograph: the handsome husband ... the lovely wife ... the innocent children. Do they not pull your heartstrings?

They do. I want to believe the best. Unfortunately, more analytical inconsistency rears. Ryan's mind is calmly made up despite the facts. ThinkProgress listed statements and votes showing his blind eye to human-induced climate change: He accused scientists of conspiring to "intentionally mislead the public;" he implied that snow invalidates climate change theory; he voted to abolish federal limits on greenhouse pollution; to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from implementing its Climate Protection Plan; to cut White House climate advisory positions; and to eliminate light bulb efficiency standards. He voted for the Keystone oil pipeline and big oil subsidies; he voted to slash clean energy investment -- all of which isolates him from his own church. Witness his bishops in 2001: "Human behavior and activity are, according to the most recent findings of the international scientific bodies charged with accessing climate change, contributing to a warming of the earth's climate." The gulf yawned this spring when he said Catholic social teaching supported his budget plan, which would gut social programs, slice taxes for the rich and, incidentally, deepen the deficit. Nearly 90 Georgetown University Faculty accused him of "continuing misuse of Catholic teaching." The U.S. bishops said the plan failed to meet their "moral test."

Ryan displays cleverness. His information-brimmed islands loom tall. But wisdom links the dots. It would remember the 19th century's 40 percent poverty levels, which stemmed from policies anchored in Rand-like Social Darwinism. It would weave in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which validated private property, union formation and preference for the poor. Ryan would know of Christianity's rich heritage in public theology. Personal prayer and spirituality is urgent, but thinkers have also wrestled with the communal implications of Christ's teachings.

Wise people see nuance and shades and the valid arguments of those with whom they disagree. They appreciate the interplay between individuals and their communities. Ryan views his own past and sees himself as a self-reliant 16-year-old after his father's early death. We sympathize, but wisdom would notice the government-funded schools and roads on which he depended -- and it wouldn't forget how Social Security survivors' benefits helped pay for college. The wise see beyond what they want to see; they distinguish between political adversaries and personal enemies. They bridged islands and link dots.

Paul Ryan's wisdom has yet to bloom.

I honestly wish Ryan and his family no harm, and so I will gladly pray for them. I will also pray for our country.

 

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