Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Giving Romney Too Much Credit

Two views on Mitt Romney's cultural superiority speech. Peter S. Goldman at the Huffington Post says Romney was playing to a home town audience, and not just U.S. Jews:

He is asking for votes by telling the story of a mystical America in which life is equally fair for everyone, one in which winners and losers reflect their innate virtues. So help yourself to a giant tax cut, wealthy Americans, because you've earned it! And look in the mirror, struggling people who may need help, because you are the loser spawn of damaged culture.

This is something Romney could never say quite so explicitly at home -- at least, not without running the risk of being branded insensitive and maybe a racist. But the upside of owning this message seems clear: He cultivates support among those distrustful of government, the usual means of rectifying systemic injustice such as that which separates white America from black America, and Palestine from Israel.

Jacob Heilbrunn at the National Interest, published by the former Nixon Center, argues that Romney might be right:

Are the Israelis solely to blame for the plight of the Palestinians? Or is Romney pointing to a larger problem, one that has afflicted the Arab world? It's surely not racist to point out, as Thomas Friedman repeatedly does, that there is something rotten in the Middle East, that kleptocratic tyrannies have held back their populations over the past century, that the Arab world remains far behind the West economically, despite its incredible oil wealth, and that Israel's existence has permitted Arab leaders to use it to deflect attention from their own grievous shortcomings, particularly when it comes to education and social programs. For his part, [David] Landes, who taught economic history at Harvard, was trying to explain why the West had come out so far ahead of the rest--part of his effort was to refocus attention on Max Weber's theory of the [P]rotestant work ethic. Does that ethic also prevail in, of all places, Israel?

I'd say both writers give Romney too much credit. He was being neither as diabolical as Goodman proposes (his aides seemed pretty upset about the story) nor as insightful as Heilbrunn. It's fine to talk about Arab leaders holding their people back. It's a terrible idea to talk about superior and inferior cultures, which sounds too much like a euphemism for race and religion.

Visiting Israel, Romney could have accomplished his mission of winning the votes of U.S. Jews while also demonstrating the capacity for nuance required of commanders-in-chief. Maybe he and his aides think we're tired of nuance. But in foreign policy and especially in the Middle East, you can never have too much. And yet in what was billed as a major policy address, he snubbed the peace process. Instead, he said something about Palestinians that sounded intellectual to try to make his neglectfulness look respectable.

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