I recently read Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein. It’s all about the GM plant closing down, and an old union town being torn apart by the way life was suddenly rent wide open, by the cruelty of decisions made far away, and the impact that sudden poverty had on a stable middle-class town. There are wealthy people who are fine, and there are people who retired with pensions who are doing ok. There are people who lost jobs because they started a month too late. Really, the book is about, if not fate, then luck, and the breaks that can befall even the best-planned life.
Told through the stories of people in the town, it isn’t directly political, though politics plays a role. And it is extremely political in the broad, general sense of our politics being an outcome of the decisions we make and the leaders we elect. And throughout the book, there is Paul Ryan, the local kid who made the big ticket, and is now the Speaker of the House. He’s all downhome modesty, talking about his Janesville values, and how everything he learned he learned in town. He talks in length about his concern for the town, trying to save jobs, pleading with GM not to close down the plant. A regular Jimmy Stewart.
The act would almost be convincing if one didn’t know Paul Ryan. If one did, though, headlines like this Politico one from over the weekend are not surprising.
Republicans plan massive cuts to programs for the poor.
That’s sort of…well, that could be a permanent headline, really. In order to pay for Trump’s tax cuts, but also honor his promise not to touch Medicare or Social Security (the promise not to touch Medicaid, of course, was altered by $800 billion or so), the Republicans under the leadership of Paul Ryan is looking to slash “food stamps, welfare, income assistance for the disabled and perhaps even veterans benefits.
If enacted, such a plan to curb safety-net programs — all while juicing the Pentagon’s budget and slicing corporate tax rates — would amount to the biggest shift in federal spending priorities in decades.”
This might be a shift for the government, but it isn’t a priority shift for the Republicans. Because this has been a Republican priority for decades; indeed, it has been the essence of their platform. Because even when Paul Ryan was rubbermasking his mopey concern face about the plant closing, he was fighting to cut unemployment benefits. He was fighting to cut food stamps. He was fighting to privatize Social Security and destroy Medicaid. He was fighting to cut the legs out from under the people who were the direction to which he focused his smuggest sanctimony.
These are their priorities. Most human life, as Ryan’s good buddy Scott Walker so often reminds us, is about becoming sources of capital for the wealthy. It isn’t about getting anything back except whatever salary they want to give you; these are two of the biggest opponents of collective bargaining in America (which a wildly anti-Janesville stance). If you aren’t working, or are poor, or just so happened to hit a spell of bad luck, you’re screwed. You don’t deserve anything. Hurt on the job? Someone else will take your place, desperate and starved, for whatever peanuts they want to throw them. And then you’re on the street, with no safety net.
It is really galling how much they preen and purr about small town values, but do whatever they can to indenture and immiserate any humans, to break the ties of solidarity that come with mutual dignity, and to pit people against each other. There is no comity. There’s no decency.
Every small town has some kind of legend, a weird swamp monster or a strange dog or that one night everyone heard a strange, almost melodic hum coming from some undefined place, maybe the woods at the edge, or maybe just the air itself. But if small towns really had the values the GOP promotes, if union-proud Janesville was actually a reflection of Paul Ryan, there wouldn’t be any need for these legends. They’d be full of snarling many-mouthed beasts attacking the vulnerable, green drool mixing with blood on the streets, while the very few lived in gated compounds, armed guards keeping at bay both the fiends and their victims.
That’s Paul Ryan’s America. The only value is the dollar, and if you don’t have any, don’t ask. Come talk to us when you’re rich, chump.
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