Politifact Wisconsin retains hands-off approach to Paul Ryan's racially charged remarks | WisCommunity

Politifact Wisconsin retains hands-off approach to Paul Ryan's racially charged remarks

On a conservative, nationally syndicated radio talk show hosted by William Bennett, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) triggered outrage from many quarters last week when he said that America has "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." Ryan's remarks seemed a throwback to similar analysis that was quite open and quite common up through the 1980s, with racially coded rhetoric about supposedly lazy welfare recipients.

The good news is that Ryan's screed didn't do unnoticed. A firestorm of criticism erupted, even extending to some newspaper editorials. The very next news cycle, Ryan issued a statement, with that mea culpa that he'd been "inarticulate." But that just doesn't make sense, especially because Ryan has said similar things before, just not in quite so pointed a manner.

While mainstream media was pleated with Ryan critiques, a few conservative outlets, notably the National Review, came to Ryan's defense. Meanwhile, fence-sitting this controversy was the usually decisive Politfact Wisconsin, a service of the increasingly conservative Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Politifact asked readers: "In Context: Were Paul Ryan's poverty comments a 'thinly veiled racial attack'?" But Politifact never answered its own question, instead saying, in so many words: we're not ruling on this alleged transgression by a Wisconsin favorite-son politician, so you read what he said and you decide.

Politifact claimed to offer "context" for Ryan's remarks, but the "context" was limited to other remarks he and Bennett exchanged on the radio show, not the context in which Ryan made those comments and the basis for his claim; much less why Ryan's comments are utterly dishonorable and just plain wrong-headed. And contemptible in that they extend a cynical Republican policy to drum up votes by bashing some of the most impoverished and isolated citizens of this country.

Remember Ronald Reagan's made-up (as we later learned) story about a particular "welfare queen" who ripped off the government and bombed around in her "welfare Cadillac"? It was enough to start a massive campaign that ultimately ended "welfare as we know it," in Bill Clinton's words. But the Reagan mantra was a big lie.

In 1992, the average yearly welfare payment -- mostly going to poor white Americans, remember -- was $4,572, and food stamps for a family of three averaged $2,469, for a total of $7,041. The official poverty level that year for a mother with two children was $11,186. Moreover, after "welfare reform," the assistance declined markedly into a temporary assistance program with onerous requirements, all of which Ryan calls a "bridge" program. But without meaningful training, social services like day care and mass transit, and actual job openings, that "bridge" led most poor families nowhere -- a condition conservatives promptly blamed not on laissez faire politics, a badly underfunded social safety net, red tape, or our rapacious Wall Street economy, but instead on the continuing victims of those conditions.

And, as Ryan's own "inarticulate," yet quite pointed and analytical commentary demonstrates yet again, welfare bashing in post-welfare America continues, because it's politically useful class warfare and makes ratings-worthy news copy, too. Just tune into Fox News Channel and hear the hired staff bellowing about poor people on food stamps supposedly eating not only gourmet foods but also junk foods and organic foods (some GOP lawmakers even called for laws specifying the apparently narrow band of foodstuffs that poor people actually should be permitted to eat; as Reagan said, ketchup is a vegetable!).

These conservative apologists also claimed poor people would rather starve so that they somehow could redeploy their food-only voucher cards to buy luxury toys instead. It's a continuing, them-versus-us narrative that's demeaning, illogical, mostly anecdotal, and statistically unsupportable. Apparently, however, it resonates with the Republican Party's far-right base of mostly angry white guys, more and more of whom themselves support their families on food stamps, as do many "middle class" workers. And some of those workers are government employees including school teachers who are crazily subject to GOP attack because they are supposedly overpaid.

Overpaid and on food stamps, huh? Quite the trick! But that's the character of Ryan-style GOP rhetoric: A total trick bag.

Never mind that traditional "welfare" is now gone from this country or that the unemployment rate in America's inner cities is well into the double figures. Might not being able to find a job no matter how hard you look and how long have something to do with despair, anger and apathy, or even a turn to violence or crime, and not just in the "inner city"?  To accept Ryan's remarks, you'd have to assume that the reason there are no jobs or other significant opportunity in urban minority communities is because -- contrary to all causality -- a "culture" of laziness kills job creation. But since there are many more job applicants than jobs in this country, and since unemployment rates are climbing in the poorest neighborhoods and not declining very fast even in many middle-class neighborhoods, it must be the fault of the way people live and conduct themselves. Especially in the "inner cities," as Ryan made clear, and in a very articulate, although disturbing manner.

Of Means and Ends, a blogger at DailyKos.com, put Ryan's commentary into hard perspective:

In the uproar following Paul Ryan's comments about a "culture in our inner cities in particular of men not working," several (white) people have stepped forward to defend him against the "smear" that his statements were racist. Anyone who can listen to thiskind of rhetoric from a politician, Democratic or Republican, and not notice racial cues is (often willfully) ignorant about this country's history of racism and dog whistle politics. It's hard to imagine that Ryan and Bennett moved onto this topic because they thought their conservative audience was particularly concerned with urban poverty. The most obvious sign that there is a racist connection to Ryan's arguments comes from the author he cites. Charles Murray has been roundly condemned for his racist theories about poverty in black communities.

Beyond that is the rather astounding backdrop of continuing, racially coded (and sometimes just openly bigoted) hate speech from right-wing sources aimed at our nation's first African American president. The attacks fit right in with what Richard Nixon called the Republican Party's "southern strategy" to attract white Democratic voters who still harbored resentment over the Civil War and the end of slavery.

The late Lee Atwater, a GOP campaign operative infamous for his dirty-tricks operations, once said that conservatives could no longer get away with using the "n" word, and so had to evolve their speech into something more subtle. Hence attacks on the War on Poverty's effectiveness, or Obama's birth certificate, or anything else that could be read as racist while not overtly deploying the very worst epithets.

To its credit, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did run New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's critique of Ryan, but unlike the Times and other mainstream media outlets, it chose not to share its own opinion on Ryan's words via an official editorial. Maybe it yet will. Meanwhile, here's what Politifact editors and their newsroom superiors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel need to consider: Soft-pedaling Ryan's egregious statements, and taking an arm's length view is how racism got a foothold in our country in the first place.

The old Milwaukee Sentinel's editorial motto was a quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Well, you did something, guys, but it's hardly enough.


March 18, 2014 - 11:03am