Paul Ryan’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Speech: Anatomy of Political Bad Faith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a significant subset of the demographic consisting of American liberals and progressives and centrists are among the most gullible political subjects of all: throw them a bone or two–i.e., a substantive or purely rhetorical political concession–and they’ll immediately drop previously held convictions. The visible reaction to Paul Ryan‘s recent supposedly bold and courageous speech, where he offered a critique of the degraded level of current political discourse and apologized for using the term ‘takers’ to describe anyone that wasn’t a ‘maker’–the former are welfare mooches, the poor, benefits recipients, the latter are presumably CEOs and business executives–demonstrates the truth of this claim quite impressively. For no sooner were the words out of Ryan’s mouth that he was immediately anointed as the leader the Republican Party has been waiting for–many lonely eyes were turned his way apparently–, his political courage and principles were praised, and he immediately began to look presidential.

Excuse me while I don’t kiss this guy.

Ryan did not name names. He blamed all and sundry for the degraded level of political discourse–a kind of ‘everyone seems to have lost their mind’ line that is vacuous and dishonest. For the ones engaging in the kind of speech that Ryan seems to be referring to are members of his own party, and moreover, the level of discourse on display in Republican debates is not significantly lower than the kind of language his party has been using for a very long time. (The loudness and shrillness has been amped up just a bit but the sentiments on display have been public ones for a very long time) The guilty–the ones lowering the quality so beloved of Ryan–have just not been using it against other Republicans. Their targets have been the same demographics that Ryan targeted in his ‘takers’ comment: the politically and economically disenfranchised.

As for Ryan’s apology for using the ‘takers’ line: the most expedient political strategy for Republicans, following their noticing that many of those who have begun to carry the Trump banner would have been considered ‘takers’ in Ryan’s old formulation (even as they continue to reassure themselves that their whiteness ensures they will never be considered ‘takers’) would be to stop describing them as such and to enroll their support for a ‘mainstream’ candidate. This apology is Ryan’s triangulation, it is his lame attempt to sound a more populist note in a symphony consisting of endless variations on the economic self-sufficiency theme.

I had noted a little while ago that the Republican Party would absorb this year’s political turbulence and move on. Ryan’s speech is part of that attempt; it aims to acknowledge the crassness on display, thus reassuring the Republican faithful that their own more carefully phrased ugliness remains kosher; it tries to lamely assert ownership of a populist platform. So desperate is Republican Party’s political opposition for signs of political reasonableness that it will accept this transparent dishonesty.

Fool me once etc.

The Republican Party Will Be Just Fine, Thanks Very Much

The supposed collapse of the Republican Party–in the face of an insurgent onslaught led by a motley crew of Tea Partiers, Donald Trump devotees, and Rush Limbaugh fans (which may indeed, be the same demographic)–during this election season is extremely wishful thinking on the part of election pundits and journalistic commentators. What animates these fantasies of an implosion in the Republican Party is, of course, yet another American political fantasy: that one day, there will be more choices on the political landscape besides the ones our current political parties offer. It also makes for entertaining speculation during a never-ending election season and offers more fuel for ‘discussion’ and ‘analysis’ on our twenty-four news channels.

The Republican Party will be just fine. When the smoke clears, after or before its convention, it will have found a way to package this election season’s supposedly ‘new lunacy’ into its platforms and manifestos, which are not too different in content from most of the central positions Donald Trump has adopted in his stump speeches. The Republican Party likes its fascism in the crypto, not the overt, varietal. Very soon–once he has locked up the nomination, if not sooner–Trump will begin to sound like that mythical creature, a ‘moderate Republican,’ and the party will close ranks around him. Just as it did last night, when his opponents at the Republican debate, after spending two hours abusing him as a con man and a fake, said they would still support him in the general elections. Trump’s racism and outright flirtations with white supremacism have not exactly caused a dramatic distancing from him on the part of party operatives and leaders either. Indeed, as many political observers have pointed out, among the Terrible Trio of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, Trump is the least dangerous, precisely because he is the least ideologically committed, which is why he is anathema to Republican leadership, who would prefer someone crazier in the dimensions of their choice. They’d rather eviscerate this nation’s Constitution and polity in their own distinctive style.

Most importantly, as Corey Robin has deftly pointed out, nothing Trump has said–or promised to do–marks him out as a singularity in the pantheon of Republican leadership and political thought over the past half-century.  Lest we forget, the Republican Party has provided us a stolen election in 2000, a president that declared an illegal war and sanctioned torture, and let Sarah Palin run as their vice-presidential candidate in 2008. Let that sink in for a second. This is a political party that was willing to take the chance of letting a person with the intellectual nous of a daffodil take command of a nuclear arsenal had John McCain shuffled off this mortal coil during his presidential term.

A few more floating turds will not radically change the character of this cesspool. A foul bubble or two,  a few roiling waves, and then the sludge will roll back over to conceal the depths below.

Marco Rubio And The Philosophy Of Welding

Many years ago, I taught the inaugural edition of my Philosophy of Welding seminar. I began the semester by introducing some of the problems that would hold our attention during the semester: What is welding? How is it distinguished from other activities that claim to be welding? Is there a distinctive being-in-the-world characteristic of the welder and his tools? What makes a welded work beautiful? How should such works be shared? In the political economy of welding how is value created and sustained? Do we have a moral obligation to weld? And so on.

My reading list for the class was not excessively ambitious: I stuck to some of the usual suspects–Heidegger and some of the works of the Shipyard Collective, for instance–and concentrated on a few key passages in each, hoping close attention to them would repay dividends in the form of rich class discussion. Early in the semester, I began to notice that one young student did the readings diligently, came to class prepared, and engaged vigorously in all ensuing discussions.

This was no idle interest; no lofty, disengaged, from-on-high tackling of philosophical problems. This young man was in the trenches, on a mission. And it was quite clear what it was: defending–nay, aggressively speaking up for–welding and welders. He had air-tight definitions for welding: necessary and sufficient conditions for it neatly marked its domain off from the impostors clamoring to be let in; he offered an at-times-almost-mystical description of the relationship of the welder to the welded (and the tools that mediated that relationship); he spoke movingly of the affective responses that welded works provoked in him, deftly bringing in Kantian notions of the sublime; he offered a creative theory for how welded works could be copyrighted and welders granted patents for their work; he described the outlines of a political economy for welding that would allow welding to continue to generate surplus value in a world increasingly dominated by the intangible and the immaterial; and most movingly of all, he offered a passionate, stirring, argument whose fascinating conclusion was that we have a duty to weld, a moral inclination that must be obeyed.

It was on this last point that we passionately disagreed. Even though I recognized the importance of welding, I could not bring myself to accept this argument. Surely, one could assign welding a respectable position in our hierarchy of valued activities without taking the final move to make our engagement something that acquired normative weight. But this young man would not budge. Welding, as an activity, had normative implications; it gave our lives meaning and value; it was the tide that would raise all boats. It was not the cement of the universe, but it was the tool that brought the fabric of space-time together.

By semester’s close, our disagreements had grown sharper. When it ended, it was clear I had lost my student. My failure–and the rest of the class’–to accept and internalize his arguments seemed to have turned him off philosophy altogether. I do not know what had so animated his passion for welding, but it was clear and distinct, an important motivational force in his psychological dispositions.

Last night, I saw that young man again. Marco Rubio is now a presidential candidate for the US, and his passion for welding has not diminished one bit. And neither has his disdain for philosophers.