As I've been reading about Paul Ryan, I was struck by several aspects of his life story which resonated with my own. We were both just sophomores in high school when our fathers died. We both saved our Social Security survivor benefits to help fund our college educations. We were both beneficiaries of federal and state government support for higher education. We made hamburgers at McDonald's. We were both altar boys and we remain practicing Catholics. And Paul Ryan and I both read Ayn Rand as teenagers and were captivated by her radical individualism.
That, however, is where the similarities end.
Rand's philosophy holds a particular appeal and is especially attractive to the developing adolescent mind. It is self-centered and certain -- traits appreciated by adolescents. And Rand's heroic individualists could be angry and dismissive of others, seeing them as burdensome and obstacles to be overcome on the way to self-fulfillment -- again attitudes quite compatible with adolescent behavior.
While it appears that Ryan never got over his fascination with Ayn Rand, referring to her work in recent years as defining "what my value systems are and what my beliefs are"; I did get over her -- or better put, my mother knocked some sense into me.
At one point in my late teens, after listening to me spouting off about government controlling this or that and infringing on the rights of individuals, my mother sat me down, wagged a finger in my face and reminded me that if it were not for Social Security benefits and the New York State Regent's Scholarships, I wouldn't be able to afford to go to college. "Don't deny to others, what you have benefited from," she said.
My mother, who passed away in 1998, was a devout Catholic and the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who came to the U.S. at the turn of the last century. Her family came to America, like most immigrants, seeking freedom and opportunity. And they found it -- but not without difficulty. They worked tirelessly, overcame hardships, started businesses, and educated their children.
They survived two World Wars and a Great Depression and, as my mother would note, "when the country was suffering and people were in need, Roosevelt knew that it was the role of the government to lend a hand to lift people up and give them a boost."
My mother taught me the immigrant Catholic values of family, community, and service to those less fortunate. She had no patience for "self-indulgence." It is no wonder then, that she reacted so negatively to my short-term embrace of Ayn Rand's "individualism"and Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative. And she would not tolerate narcissism. Life, she taught, was not about me, it is about us. In the end, she would say, "your life's value would be measured not by what you earned, but by what you did for others." When a person understood that, she believed, they moved from adolescence to adulthood.
So when I hear conservatives talk about "my money" and speaking about government as some evil, alien force, I think about my mother and her generation rescued from the Depression by federal programs that put people back to work and provided a safety net for those most affected by economic dislocation. I think of the millions of families who were able to survive and progress because of Social Security, the GI Bill, Medicare, and more. I also think how much safer and more secure we are because of federal legislation that has cleaned up our air and water, inspects our food and medicine, and regulates our banking system. And I think more recently of the hundreds of thousands of teachers, police and firefighters, and auto and construction workers whose jobs were saved by the action taken by the federal government. And I think of the millions of Americans with "pre-existing conditions" who because of the Affordable Care Act need no longer fear being denied health coverage.
All of this may not be appreciated by conservatives eager to protect "my money." But despite their vain attempts to elevate selfishness and narcissism to a lofty-sounding political philosophy, it remains what it is -- infantile selfishness. My mother would have wagged her finger in their faces and told them "get over yourself. This is not about you, it is about us." And she would be right.