Friday, May 4, 2012

A truly remarkable piece of misreading

To some degree we've all been guilty of hearing what we expected to hear rather than what was said. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, this has always been a part of human nature and it's probably grown more common with the advent of the internet. Even with that in mind, though, this is a truly remarkable example.
Here's the context. A few days ago, Jonathan Chait wrote a long and unflinching take-down of Paul Ryan. He razed the man, left no stone on stone, salted the ground so... well, you get the point. What's more, Chait was just as direct and damning in his handling of the journalists who had given Ryan so many free passes, even going so far as to confront James Stewart on his Ryan pieces.

Here's a representative passage:
Ryan’s mastery of these details does not signify openness to evidence or a willingness to shape his views to real-world evidence. It actually signifies the opposite. And yet Ryan has grasped that the aura of specificity he has cultivated paradoxically renders the specifics themselves irrelevant.
For a virtuoso display of this principle in action, return to another vintage Ryan moment: his Dave profile from last year, where he awed a swooning reporter by opening up the budget to a random page and fingered a boondoggle. The item Ryan pointed to was the Obama administration’s reform of the student-loan industry. “Direct loans—this is perfect,” Ryan said. “So direct loans, that’s new spending on autopilot, that had no congressional oversight, and it gave the illusion that they were cutting spending.”
The exchange is so perversely revealing that it rewards explanation. For decades, the government helped make college more affordable through “guaranteed loans”—it encouraged banks to lend money to students by promising to repay the banks if the students defaulted. Banks were making billions of dollars in profits at virtually no risk. The General Accounting Office, a kind of in-house fiscal watchdog for the federal government, issued sixteen reports over the years noting how the government could save money simply by issuing the loans itself and cutting out the middleman.
It was the simplest, no-brainer pot of savings you could find—ending pure corporate welfare, just like in the movie Dave. The cause attracted support from think tanks, as well as the moderate Wisconsin Republican Tom Petri, an eclectic reformer who is sort of the real-life version of the Paul Ryan character who appears on television. Two National Revieweditors endorsed eliminating guaranteed loans in an article advocating a new reform conservatism.
The banks lobbied fiercely to protect their gravy train. Among the staunchest advocates of those government-subsidized banks was … Paul Ryan, who fought to protect bank subsidies that many of his fellow Republicans deemed too outrageous to defend. In 2009, Obama finally eliminated the guaranteed-lending racket. It could save the government an estimated $62 billion, according to the CBO.
Not everything in Ryan’s career, and possibly nothing at all, is quite so undeniably venal. You could pluck any other single example out of Ryan’s long history of strident conservatism and he would be able to defend it, at the very least, on ideological grounds. A tax cut for the rich, a hike in military spending—all those could be explained as a blow for the cause of Reaganism. This was an almost astonishingly unlucky break, an instance where he lacked even ideological cover—standing up for higher spending at the behest of a powerful lobby lacking any plausible rationale for its subsidy.
At the moment the page opened to that unfortunate item, Ryan’s heart must have stopped. Here was a reporter trying to cast him as a movie-hero outsider, and he was performing on cue. Yet the book opened to a page that, cruelly, just happened to expose the gap between Ryan’s image and the reality more clearly than anything else possibly could have.
Ryan probably knew, even in that split second, that he stood little chance of exposure. (The overlap between television news reporters and people with a detailed understanding of the federal budget is quite small.) Yet a lesser politician might have panicked, or hesitated, or possibly tried to flip to a different page. In that moment, Ryan revealed the qualities that have propelled him to his current position. As cool as can be, and as winsome as ever, he said, “This is perfect.”
Chait later said he was prepared for a wide range of responses but he had to admit that this post from the left wing site Crooks and Liars caught him off guard:
Praise Jesus and pass the awesome sauce. Paul Ryan's going to be the next Republican Saint, wrapped in a flag and waving down at all of us who are too stupid to understand the complex thinking and amazing nuance of St Paul's brain.Thank you, Jonathan Chait, for this awesome NYMag article telling us how to count the ways Paul Ryan is the Great American Hero. What would I have ever done without being enlightened in such an obsequious way, beginning with the title: The Legendary Paul Ryan?

It is, as Chait says, a fascinating read despite going on for over eighteen hundred words counting two updates (neither of which improves on the original). Part of the fascination comes seeing a writer with such exceptionally poor reading comprehension. She follows every quote from Chait with a reply that seems oddly inappropriate, as if she were listening to him in a noisy room and didn't really hear what he said.

And then there's the self-effacing "I'm not ambitious at all, no sir!" claim that Chait reinforces:
One trope that has marked Ryan’s media coverage from the outset is that he is consistently described as lacking ambition. It’s a sharp contrast with fellow Republican Eric Cantor, to whom the adjective “ambitious” is affixed like a tattoo. Ryan says, and many political reporters believe, that he is immune to the political concerns that distract his colleagues. He “has a level of disdain for the sort of rank political calculations required of people who want to climb the electoral ladder,” explains the Washington Post. Here is a telling description from Politico: “Of the partisan political game, Ryan confessed, ‘It’s not my natural tendency. I’m a policy guy.’ ” The operative word here is “confessed.”
Because wonks lack ambition? This would be why Ryan has abandoned St. Ayn Rand in recent days, eschewing her "I've got mine, screw the rest of you" philosophy for a kinder, gentler piety that "disagrees" with Catholic bishops and pretends to be a bipartisan kind of guy who gets along with everyone! Of course he's not ambitious. Jon Chait has told you so.

Of course, the operative word here is "operative." Chait specifically emphasizes that Ryan is telling us that Ryan's not ambitious. (The word "trope" is also telling.) It's a difficult point to miss, particularly given that a few lines later Chait points out that Ryan "had to elbow more experienced Republicans out of the way to grab his nomination, and then leapfrog other more experienced Republicans to claim the party’s leadership of the House Budget Committee in 2007."

Still, if this were just a badly reasoned post, I wouldn't be recommending you all read it. Seeking out something just because it's bad is mean-spirited and I try to avoid the habit (though the internet does encourage backsliding in that area). What makes the Crooks and Liars piece so fascinating is the way it shows how an interpretation can get embedded so deeply that everything we see confirms that view. As mentioned before, we've all had these moments but most of the time either we catch ourselves or someone shakes us out of it.

It's instructive to see what happens when you just keep going.

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