Paul Ryan's poverty tourism

A soup kitchen is just a photo op for the V.P. candidate -- and the 47 percent mere props for a campaign

Published October 16, 2012 6:44PM (EDT)

    (Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Paul Ryan, in a recent photo, appeared to be vigorously scrubbing dishes at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio. As the Washington Post noted: “Ryan, his wife and their young children headed to the kitchen, donned white aprons and offered to clean up some dishes.”

However, they were in an empty facility, at a time when breakfast service was over, the homeless clients vamoosed, the place already scrubbed by volunteers. So what did Paul Ryan do, since he was there to express his concern for the poor and downtrodden? Make a donation? Actually, according to the Post, he “took some large metal pans that did not appear to be dirty, soaped them up and rinsed them … as the cameras clicked and the TV cameras rolled.”

I know soup kitchens. I’ve worked in one. Paul Ryan did not work.

This staged emptiness is such a glaring metaphor for the oxymoronic “compassionate conservatism” that a novelist would reject it as too obvious. Granted, photo ops are the bread and butter of both presidential campaigns. The Obamas, staged or not, have actually worked en famille at soup kitchens, especially at Thanksgiving; the Republicans, meanwhile, give us the Ionesco-worthy absurdity of Paul Ryan scrubbing a pot that had already been cleaned by someone else, in a soup kitchen sanitized of actual homeless. This is exactly what the GOP is all about. They need to pretend to care about the poor and disenfranchised so they don’t come off as total monsters, but in practice, they’d be horrified to confront a food scrap that may have been touched by a 47 percenter.

Seeing the photos of the shiny Ryan family cavorting in the guts of a soup kitchen brings back memories of when my husband and I used to volunteer at the Sunday soup kitchen at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. I’m not sure how we started doing this; I have a penchant for volunteer work, and I probably also irrationally hoped to catch a glance of Madeleine L’Engle, the cathedral’s librarian. It was hard work, preparing and serving food to hundreds of people, cleaning it all up, and starting anew for the second seating.

Crowd control was also part of the duty. You did not have to show ID or document need; any and all were welcome. The line always went out the door, the people were hungry and impatient, and we volunteers could never do anything fast enough. Clients could be rowdy, they fought over ownership of the table’s plastic cup of sugar, which was meant to be spooned into one’s coffee, not mainlined as a foodstuff by one person. I once had a man threaten me with a bat when I told him that we didn’t have plastic wrap so he could pack his food (it turned out to be a wiffle ball bat — but still). Generally, at the end of the shift, instead of being uplifted by my volunteerism, I’d be hot, crabby and covered with the sticky residue of cling peaches, too tired to pat my own back. It took me a while to not take the abuse and occasional disrespect personally; some co-workers who’d been homeless themselves explained that our clients had so little control over their everyday lives, that in the small, safe spaces where they could express themselves, well, they tended to — and some expressed much grace, courage and gratitude.

As mentioned, some of my co-workers had joined the ranks of volunteers and workers after first being the recipients of St. John the Divine’s charity. They lived their convictions, showing up every week to work through its challenges and mess. The volunteers as a group, including the English teacher with the nimbus of granny-white hair, could be hard-bitten and grim as the clients. But they were there. They worked. Paul Ryan did not work.

From time to time, the soup kitchen had church youth groups come to volunteer as a one-time thing. The well-groomed white kids, plastic aprons protecting their suits and dresses (who wears a suit or dresses to a homeless kitchen besides Paul Ryan and his family?). They looked warily about, fiddling with their aprons, making sure to stay a good ways away from both homeless clients and scrungy volunteers. They made it abundantly clear how repulsive post-meal detritus is (it’s not pretty, face it) and, by extension, us, because we were dumb enough to handle it.

The first time a youth group came in to “help,” I just grumbled to my husband about how they had just sat there, stared in horror, gotten in the way. When these churchy groups were reprised — seemingly the same blond girls, slicked-hair boys — I started to resent them (yes, even Buddhists can be resentful). I resented them not just because they made our work harder, but also because they didn’t conceal their distaste at what they saw: the long lines of the downtrodden, the industrial food we were serving them, the children — some their age — dutifully eating. I wanted to bonk heads together, crack open their minds like melons, but within the hour, they’d be gone, back to the safety of their expensively appointed church.

What was the point of this exercise, to take the kids slumming for an hour or two, to watch the freak show? Merit badges? Something to put on their college applications? Actually, I think none of the above. I think the valid point for the organizers was for the kids to experience, just a little bit, how to be like Jesus, who welcomed the poor, fed the hungry. Who told his followers never to turn away a beggar at your door because — you never know. However, given the brevity and the fact they seemed to be coming directly from church in their churchy clothes, it amounted to a theme park ride — Jesus in an hour! Perhaps next, they could go to “Navy Seal Adventure” in Minnesota, where they can experience shooting bin Laden.

I can’t rule out the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, some of the children/teens might have been inspired by the experience to later volunteer on their own. But from the repugnance and fear on their faces, I can’t help thinking their visit was nothing more than poverty tourism, i.e., today we learn a little bit what it was like to be Jesus when he ministered to the poor and fed the hungry; OK, OK, let’s put those poor and hungry back in the abstract.

The problem with that is, you put entire classes of people in the abstract, add a little fear, and, well, you stop seeing them as people -- and want to keep it that way for your mental comfort. It’s not unlike the mind-set you need in order to kill another human being during war — but is this how we want our privileged children to learn to regard their fellow humans?

Paul Ryan and his family, supported by million-dollar trust funds, have never struggled for their daily bread, they have government-sponsored health insurance, Ryan’s college was paid for by Social Security — and yet he vigorously works toward taking away government supports for the poor, to gut Medicare, and cut taxes for the hyper-rich. This cognitive dissonance/hypocrisy can only be achieved when you are insulated by endless layers of money, race and social class, enough to be untroubled by and incurious about those who struggle for their next meal. How soulless has the Romney/Ryan avowedly Christian campaign become that they are able to regard poor, homeless people as well as the compassionate institutions that serve them as props and scenery that they can use and manipulate at will, time only to make sure the photogs get a few good shots of the wholesome family acting all Jesus-y, then leave?

Brian J. Antag, president of the charity that runs the soup kitchen, is not fooled. He told the press how the Romney campaign did not ask their permission (which would have been denied, he said) and instead “ramrodded their way in” (the facility was closed at the time, the campaign operatives cajoled a volunteer to open it) and basically colonized the kitchen’s pots and pans. Antag stood up for the hard work of soup kitchen volunteers everywhere when he blasted Ryan with three choice words: “He did nothing.”

This is more than a fleeting moment to be laughed at on the "Colbert Report," although the hilarity is there: buff gym rat Paul Ryan rolls up his sleeves washes a pan à la Marie Antoinette doing the grunt work of herding sheep. What’s serious is the egregious deceit, the insult to American voters. Romney, Ryan’s boss, believes profit-making corporations deserve the rights of people, yet disdains 47 percent of actual American people, declaring behind closed doors that he is happy to not think about them. But with the comments now leaked out in the public, Romney/Ryan are now backpedaling furiously, trying to distract us, change the narrative by force.

Jesus washed people’s feet to show his humility and service. Ryan washes a pan that’s already clean and calls it work.

Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney care. They really, really care. Trust us, they say.

They have the pictures to prove it.

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Her next novel, "The Evening Hero," is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Find her on Twitter  @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.

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2012 Elections 47 Percent Paul Ryan Paul Ryan Soup Kitchen