Shining City on a Hill

Why is Paul Ryan, who is on the short list for Romney's VP candidate, so eager to erase his (very recent) past obsession with Ayn Rand, whom so many other right wingers adore as well?
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My absolute favorite story of the week is Paul Ryan saying that his fondness for the philosophy of Ayn Rand is an "urban legend." You have to give these wild and crazy Republicans credit for at least one thing: they have cojones the size of the elephants which are the mascots for the party. The urban myth quote came after a career of Ayn Rand idolatry special even for right-wing Republicans: giving the book to his interns, speaking at Ayn Rand tributes, doing videos about her, saying her philosophy inspired him to get involved in politics. This was no youthful fling, but a lifelong love affair -- until a couple of days ago, apparently. I've always wondered what politicians are thinking when they say something like this that is so obviously easy to check and refute. Do they really think people are that stupid? Maybe they just think that with the kind of money they can raise, and the Fox News-style, right-wing media to help support them, they can just obliterate the truth with bluster and deafening bombast.

So why is Ryan, who is on the short list for Romney's VP candidate, so eager to erase his (very recent) past obsession with Ayn Rand, whom so many other right wingers adore as well? Because her writing really is so blatantly offensive to anyone not besotted with her. She preached not only the virtue of selfishness, but that any compassion and generosity was a moral wrong because it helped those who were weakening society. She despised not only the poor but even people with disabilities as leeches draining strength from society. She actually hated the Christianity Ryan and every other Republican is obligated by their base to claim they believe in because Jesus taught that the poor were to be cared for, making her views dangerous for Republican politicians to adhere to as much as they love all that pro-selfishness talk.

This is the ultimate irony in American political life right now, the conservatives who swear on a stack of Bibles that they worship Jesus Christ when they really bow down to the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the golden idol of the free market to be placed at the center of all other things. They preach of an American exceptionalism blessed by a Christian God, and call for America to be a shining city on a hill which can be an example to the entire world. Yet their exceptionalism isn't based on our country being moral the way Jesus would have understood it, but moral the way Rand and the Social Darwinists of the 1880s and '90s would have understood it: whoever gets rich deserves to be, and whoever is poor is a leech on society. Their vision of America is shining because of the gold the wealthy among us possess, not because our society as a whole is built on morality.

John Winthrop, the Puritan leader whose "city on a hill" quote inspired generations of Americans ever since to see our country as a model for other nations, did not understand America as a place built on greed and individualism, but a place built on community and looking out for each other. His other most famous quote went like this:

For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities for the supply of others' necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as His own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with.

If that doesn't sound much like Rand's philosophy, it is because it is pretty much the exact opposite of it.

I do share one thing with conservatives: I too believe in an American exceptionalism, that we should be a shining city on a hill. I don't think we are specially blessed or looked after by God -- if there is a God, we would have lost any special blessing privileges because of the genocide of Native Americans and allowing slavery and Jim Crow to last almost 350 years. But I do believe our history as a diverse nation of immigrants from every part of the world, and our legitimate claim to rebirthing the idea of democracy after its spark went out in ancient Greece and Rome, gives us a special place on the world stage. But to be a shining city on the hill, to be a country that the people of the world admire and want to emulate, we need to set a good example for what a country should be, not a bad one. We cannot be that city on a hill if we torture people, or ignore our own sacred Bill of Rights to spy on or arrest our own citizens without due process. We cannot be that city if all we care about is the wealthiest among us, and if our own economy begins to look like the economies of the third world in terms of inequality of wealth. We cannot be that city if the way we compete with other countries in a desperate race to the bottom, with wages and benefits in a never ending spiral downward. We cannot be that city if a few major corporations so dominate our political system and economy that they are too big to fail and too big to prosecute when they commit crimes. We can't be that city when we allow our overgrown banks to crash the entire world's economy with their wanton recklessness.

To be an example for the world, we have to be a nation of morality, a nation where all our citizens are valued and given an equal opportunity to have a good life -- a nation where we, in Winthrop's words, "delight in each other, make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together". If we are so afraid we torture the people we fear, and so greedy we drop all value of community so that we can live in wealth while our fellow citizens are in desperate need, then we are nothing special. There are many countries, now and throughout history, who have acted like that. But if we create a country that treats everyone with fairness, that invests in all of our citizens, and that is governed "of the people, by the people, and for the people," we really will be a city on a hill that the people of the world look up to, respect, and want to be like.

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