One of the interesting though not highly emphasized political stories this weekend was the revelation in the LA Times that Young Paul Ryan’s rise to Great Intellectual Titan wasn’t so bootstrapy as he likes to let on. I didn’t realize this was even in question, because one of the first things I heard about the guy after he got the nod from Romney was that his family had made a fortune off of road construction contracts from the communist government looters. But apparently Ryan likes to regale audiences with tales of his days flipping burgers at McDonald’s, washing dishes, waiting tables, and so forth, and how he was always grateful for the opportunity and never felt trapped in the lower class among the poors and moochers and whatnot. Of course, flipping burgers at McDonald’s at 16 with a wealthy family waiting at home probably carries with it a slightly different outlook on life than does the same job at 40 with nothing waiting at home but children who depend on your burger flipping paycheck for food and shelter. But Young Master Ryan thinks telling these stories humanizes him. He’s a “self-made man.”
Atrios astutely points out that the press knew Ryan didn’t work his way out of poverty on the drive through line at McDonald’s, but that most of the modern media has no goddamn idea what an actual working class person looks like anymore, so they hear “McDonald’s” and instantly their knees weaken in anticipation of writing Ryan’s rags-to-riches life story. Over at Political Animal, Kathleen Geier offers up the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch as a hilarious example of the amount of bullshit rich people tell themselves and others to convince…well, I don’t know, you, me, themselves, voters, anybody really, that they’re self-made men who made themselves in a self-sufficient way, wrenching themselves up from nothing to stand before you today a true modern success story. It’s almost always some part bullshit, some part self-delusion; Ryan may be selling a line to an audience, or he may really believe that he had it rough growing up and that he made something of himself despite his hard-scrabble upbringing, but if he does, that’s a delusion brought on by a total lack of perspective, life experience, or empathy.
What gets me about these kinds of stories is that rich and powerful people have been telling them about and to themselves for much of human history and across otherwise widely divergent cultures.
When Genghis Khan was born Temujin in the middle part of the 12th century, he was as much a member of the aristocracy as one could be in the Mongolian steppes; his father Yesugei was one of the leaders of the Borjigin Tribe, which was one of the few Mongolian tribes of the time that could really boast of some kind of long-lasting and aristocratic heritage.
There are two known historical sources for the early life of Genghis Khan: the Secret History of the Mongols, a poetic and in parts mythological account (though as far as anyone can tell, reasonably factual at least in a broad sense) written sometime after Genghis Khan’s death, probably toward the middle of the 13th century, is the only one that survives in Mongolian, though the only surviving copies are later (14th century) transliterations of the text into the Chinese script (only the characters are Chinese, the language is still Mongolian), and the Altan Debter, the supposed official court history of the Mongols, the original of which is lost but which survives in so far as it was a major source for later Persian and Chinese histories of the Mongols and their conquests. The upshot is that there’s scant information on Temujin’s early life, and what does exist is either second-hand or was written late and only survives as an even later version of the original. But the story goes that Temujin’s father died when he was a boy of probably 8 or 12, and since the tribe would not consent to being ruled by a boy, they cast Yesugei’s widow and orphans out of the tribe and moved on without them.
What follows is a tale of desperate suffering, deprivation, captivity, a daring nighttime escape from captivity, and a rise to the status of one of the greatest conquerors the world had seen to that point that becomes the archetype of the “self-made man” story for Central Asian and Middle Eastern conquerors and would-be conquerors for centuries to come. It’s worth contrasting this origin story with that of Alexander, which I am less familiar with but which seems not to make any pretense of the nobility of Alexander’s upbringing and never tries to paint him as a wayward soul who survived great personal hardships in his youth. Still, there is a similar Mediterranean trope of the noble child who is abandoned and adopted by commoners, but who then goes on to achieve greatness despite a humble upbringing. We see it in the case of mythological figures like Oedipus and Perseus, legendary stories of historical figures like Herodotus’ account of Cyrus the Great’s childhood, and legendary stories of figures who may be historical or may be mythological, like Moses and Romulus.
The story of Genghis Khan’s early years spent in poverty and suffering became so powerful, in fact, that it complicated the traditional need for new conquerors to try to establish some evidence of their noble ancestry in order to justify their rule (ironically, this is probably the case that the Secret History is trying to make, that while Temujin was a freebooter in his youth, he actually had noble origins). Rulers still had to demonstrate their legitimacy by blood and/or marriage ties as much as possible, but it became almost de rigueur that anybody attempting a career as a warlord tell a tale of his misspent, poverty-stricken youth and humble upbringings. When Timur rose to the level of world conqueror at the end of the 14th century and people began to chronicle his life story, no effort was made to hide his hard living as a young boy, including tales of banditry and brigandage.
Parallel to this, several of his biographies also stressed his marital ties to the descendants of Genghis Khan, and a couple also talk about a mythical connection between his ancestral tribe and Genghis Khan’s tribe such that Timur, though evidently self-made (just look at how tough his youth was!), had a very legitimate claim to authority as the representative of the descendant of Genghis Khan whom he enthroned for purely symbolic purposes. There’s no special reason to believe that Timur’s historians made up these tales of misspent youth, and they appear even in histories written by authors who were very much opposed to Timur’s conquests, though there are bits of information contained in one or two of Timur’s biographies that suggest that his father was, in fact, a fairly well-connected mid-level tribal functionary. But whether true, exaggerated, or outright made up, Timur clearly saw no reason to downplay these tales of banditry because his own historians were writing about them.
Nader Shah offers another example of an Iranian/Central Asian conqueror whose upbringing was likely quite humble, and who saw no reason to pretend otherwise in his official biography.
His father, Imam Quli, was a herdsman and/or camel driver of the Turkic Afshar tribe from Khurasan, an ancient province now split among northeastern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. What is interesting about Nader Shah is that he actually seems to have no interest in trying to play up the “noble origins” part of the “noble origins but humble upbringing” story; his family may have been of some importance at a village level, but not beyond that, and there’s no attempt to insinuate any dubious connection to past dynasties or to the current ruling Safavid Dynasty. The fact of Nader Shah’s power seems to have been all the legitimacy he needed, but the story of his rise out of low origins still had real value.
So Paul Ryan’s “I came from nothing” autobiography, while maybe more demonstrably bullshit than the three tales I’ve mentioned here, does have a long and proud tradition in the history of Men who were or thought they were Great. Interestingly, in Ryan’s case as well as all three of the cases above, there is a common thread of the death of the father at a young age forcing the son into a life of struggle. Ryan was unique in being able to claim Social Security Survivor benefits, though. Of course America has made this kind of thing into something of an art form; in a country that’s had now 44 presidents, no more than a handful truly came out of destitute childhood situations but almost all of them (at least since people started to openly campaign for the office) have tried to pretend like they had it real, real rough growing up.
Something else worth noting about the three fellows mentioned above is that they were all fairly brutal guys. Genghis Khan gets something of a bad rap for brutality, because he really did do a number of things to build a Mongolian nation out of nothing: among other things, he introduced writing, a legal code, and new social constructs to the disorganized Mongol tribes. But he certainly did not shy away from visiting savage violence on his enemies, and Timur and Nader Shah have similar reputations for savagery. Maybe Ryan’s budget is the 21st century American equivalent of Timur’s fabled pyramids of skulls.