Thursday, August 2, 2012

Romney abroad: on culture, busts, and the categorical imperative of democracy

NOTE: I feel the need to introduce this post with a reiteration of the usual disclaimer. I'm not representing anyone else's views or analysis here but my own. I can't imagine why you would have assumed that I might be, but we don't normally veer into domestic politics and this post does so unabashedly. That said, I don't believe it's partisan, and I hope you'll evaluate the analysis as being up to the standards we typically uphold around here.

Mitt Romney’s recent travels abroad have caused a brief surge in commentary on the foreign policy and national security aspects of the presidential campaign. In this general category I include the re-animated flap over the Obama administration’s return to Britain of a Churchill bust that once graced the Oval Office; the sundry criticisms of the president for being “anti-Poland” in his Reset policy toward Russia; the hilarious and incredible suggestion that there are such things as pro- and anti-Israel camps among national politicians in America; and Governor Romney’s controversial and unsubtle suggestion that Israelis are rich and Palestinians poor because of something he failed to adequately explain but subsumed under the heading of “culture.”

It’s this last bit that has perhaps spurred the most discussion, if only because the rest is such well-trod ground. Social scientists and economic historians have criticized Romney’s claims in the press, both for oversimplification and for genuine factual errors. None of this will matter to potential voters, of course, who can’t be fussed to read the books that political candidates variously satirize, lionize, or otherwise caricature. By now we’re all very well acquainted with the fundamental reality of politics, which is that people don’t care so much about the truth as what their particular orthodoxy tells them is the truth.

But the “culture” comments – which are viewed as a gaffe by the left, but will likely serve as the sort of happily impolitic, plain-truth rallying cry so beloved by ignorant culture warriors of every stripe – are interesting for the way they distill right-wing ideology about ideas, circumstances, cause and effect in politics and history, and the triumph of one people over another. Put another way, what Romney said is the collectivized and nationalized version of basic conservative dogma: some people have good ideas, good values, good habits, and good personal qualities, and those people succeed in the world – including by getting rich – as a result. Be better, work harder, think the right way, and you’ll have a better life—it’s the foundation of the American Dream… isn’t it?

An admittedly amusing critical blog post on the Economist ignores the appeal of this thinking to a large segment of Romney’s base (and arguably to an even broader segment of the American electorate, including some voters who are currently undecided):
Comparing the income of the average Israeli to that of the average Palestinian, as though their prospects at birth had been equivalent and their fortunes today are largely the result of their own efforts and their "culture", is gratuitously insulting and wreaks damage to American diplomacy. Besides that, it's just wrong.
Wrong or right, this should sound familiar to those who have paid attention to other recent campaign imbroglios—most notably the “you didn’t build that” spat. With its efforts to paint the president as a socialist, a collectivist, an enemy of business, an impediment to Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit, the Romney campaign is catering to the sort of people who believe (against any and all evidence to the contrary) that personal success is far more attributable to hard work and right-thinking than to background, context, and circumstantial factors—including sheer good luck.

The entire American political and economic project is built around a shared commitment to this fantastical aspiration: that we can create a society that is so free, so fair, so basically egalitarian that the sole determinant of success and failure will be the quality of one’s ideas and one’s willingness to work. Left and right disagree, of course, about the various and competing merits of liberty and equality, and about whether the modern United States offers a sufficiently level playing field to permit pure freedom to fairly and effectively separate losers from winners. The important role played by American political and economic institutions and by the public goods that government has enabled are at the core of the Obama speech from which “you didn’t build that” has been so unceremoniously wrenched.

Romney understands this, of course, and his paean to the Israelis’ superior “culture” surely was founded on respect not simply for shared religious identity and classically liberal political ideals, but for the policies through which culture (and political culture) is mediated into economically productive activity. But he has a base to pander to, and that base includes a fair number of people who really do believe what Romney’s semantic imprecision made it look as though he actually meant: that Israelis are rich because they’re mostly Jews, while Palestinians are poor because they’re mostly Muslims.

But I digress a bit here. What we’re really dealing with is nothing more complicated than the most conservative (both in the literal and politically-partisan senses of that word) of all possible arguments: that the circumstances in which people and nations find themselves are fair and just, that they are a product of history’s implicit judgment (or fate’s, or God’s; Romney gave this one away in Israel when he referred to the “hand of providence”), and that as a result they ought generally to be left alone. What is is what ought to be. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds! Israel’s triumph and prosperity is a validation of its goodness, to this strain of thought.

We needn’t look too far back in history for similarly conservative justifications of the status quo, and at least one bears in part an almost literally unbelievable similarity to Romney’s remarks in Israel. In his critical re-telling of Britain’s history abroad, Mark Curtis recounts a 1946 speech by a colonial administrator in Kenya who noted that
“the greater part of the wealth of the country is at present in [British] hands… This land we have made is our land by right – by right of achievement.” He explained to the Africans that “their Africa has gone forever,” since they were now living in “a world which we have made, under the humanitarian impulses of the late nineteenth and the twentieth century.” The Governor added: “We appear to Africans as being immensely wealthy and nearly all of them are in fact very poor… But these are social and economic differences and the problems of this country in that respect are social and economic and not political; nor are they to be solved by political devices.” Britain was in Kenya “as of right, the product of historical events which reflect the greatest glory of our fathers and grandfathers.” [Emphasis mine.]
One presumes that by characterizing inequality as “social and economic and not political” in origin, the governor meant to imply that social and economic change were a necessary precursor to the political resolution of the imbalance, or even that political arrangements were altogether irrelevant to it. (It takes no great imagination to see that this was wildly disingenuous. Britons justified their Empire with the perverse and thankfully obsolete rhetoric of the White Man’s Burden, but the practical administration of the empire was intended to head off the sort of independent political development that might threaten London’s essentially extractive relationship with the colonies, which were progressively liquidated as their economic value came to be outweighed by the complications and costs of their maintenance.)

Israeli conservatives and their American supporters view the matter of the Palestinian territories in a similar way: stop complaining about “occupation” and fix yourselves, as you’re the real cause of what’s wrong. Don’t tell us we’re responsible for your backwardness—look at how we’ve succeeded! We can talk about rights once you’ve built a properly liberal political culture and eliminated the extremist populism our own policies and attitudes help to perpetuate. And so it goes.

There’s intended irony in the parallel I draw between Romney’s attitude toward Palestinians and the British imperial view of Kenyans, considering the unhinged ramblings of Dinesh D’Souza and Mike Huckabee on the subject of President Obama’s alleged “anti-colonial ideology.” The author of a crypto-racist, pseudo-Freudian volume in whose telling the president’s position on everything from interior decoration to tax policy is foreordained by his father’s incontrovertible foreignness may assert that “my argument has nothing to do with the ‘birther’ claim,” but this is plainly untrue. As Amy Davidson notes in an excellent New Yorker piece on the aforementioned statuary controversy,  
[T]he shadow behind Churchill’s bust is birtherism, or its less conspiracy-minded companion, the conviction that Obama is, by virtue of his heritage, alien and un-American. This notion was most blatantly expressed by Dinesh D’Souza. […] This is part of a larger story about how Obama is really an anti-colonialist socialist who doesn’t like countries like Britain or America. In this telling, all that Obama keeps hidden about himself is exposed because he just can’t stand to look Churchill in the eye.
“Less conspiracy-minded” than a tale of document forgery is the belief that the President of the United States, driven by an un- and anti-American worldview, has repeatedly sought elective office in order to purposefully enact policies that would hamstring and damage a country that he secretly loathes? That even a writer unsympathetic to either narrative should describe them in this way reveals an unhealthy focus on the forms of criticism rather than their substance. To aver that the President is not legally an American is considered out-of-bounds to all but the most ridiculous figures in our political scene, yet it’s deemed acceptable and plausible for others to suggest not simply that Obama’s policies are bad for America, but that they are intentionally so!

A candidate for the presidency can’t say this, of course, lest he be made to look like a raving lunatic. Or worse, he may be accused of casting doubt on his opponent’s patriotism—and patriotism is a subject with which the American electorate simply will not tolerate you messing around. But he and his proxies and surrogates can insinuate as much, and this is exactly what both Bust-Gate and Culture-Gate are all about: boiling down complicated, ambiguous reality to proclaim an objective truth (Churchill was an unvarnished American hero! Israelis are comparatively successful because they think and act like Westerners!), framing that “truth” as an essentially American consensus, and then insinuating that the president simply stands outside this consensus. The message is this: Barack Obama does not share our American values.

You’ll note that I began this essay by referencing “the foreign policy and national security aspects of the campaign,” rather than simply “foreign policy and national security.” That’s because all of this has very little to do with other countries, or with advancing American interests, or with ensuring the safety of our people, a truth that’s made obvious by Romney’s adulation of foreign political figures (Churchill, Wałęsa, Netanyahu) whose own countrymen tend to view them with considerably more ambivalence. (The Republican often pays homage to Margaret Thatcher, which is risible when juxtaposed with his wife’s newfound enthusiasm about her Welsh heritage. The Iron Lady isn’t likely to have many fans in Nantyffyllon.)

Instead this talk of the special relationship is about – like everything else in the campaign – manipulating the feelings of U.S. voters by invoking code-words associated with the issues and seeding doubts about your opponent, signaling that I’m One of You and the Other Guy Isn’t. (This isn’t unique to Romney or to conservatives, as should be plain to see: the president’s campaign is largely based on the thinly-veiled assertion that his opponent is taking advantage of Regular People to further enrich the small minority of People Like Him.)

The code-words in foreign policy are simple to discern: victory, patriotism, American exceptionalism, American strength. Standing with the forces of freedom and democracy. Standing with those who Share Our Values. Standing with Churchill and Israel. Accept each of these elements wholeheartedly, without reservation or nuance, or be accused of enthusiasm for their Manichean alternatives: Defeat. Betrayal. Self-hatred. American weakness. Tyranny and terrorism. Appeasement.

Must it be this way? Surely the questions are not so simple, nor the answers so clear. Maybe D’Souza has done us all a favor by invoking the president’s alleged “anti-colonial ideology” instead of treating him as a “conventional liberal”; maybe we can pause and ask what exactly is so wrong with anti-colonial ideology? Are we only permitted to be anti-colonialists as private citizens, or as white people? Was not Dwight Eisenhower an anti-colonialist? Should we doubt the patriotism and integrity of that most eloquent critic of empire – a Serious Anti-Communist who wouldn’t be out of place on the list of Romney heroes – George Orwell?

And what of Churchill? His committed colonialism would surely find favor with D’Souza – in 1954 the prime minister wrote to Eisenhower that he was “a bit skeptical about universal suffrage for the Hottentots” – but he was far from uncomplicated. Does Romney name as “one of [his] heroes” not just the man who warned of “an Iron Curtain [that] has descended across Europe,” but the one who sat with Stalin and chopped up a continent on a slip of paper? What of the parliamentarian who introduced legislation creating a minimum wage and offering unemployment insurance? What about the man who supported eugenics, who wrote the prime minister in 1910 to warn that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race”? Or the budgeteer who prioritized solvency over military strength, championing adoption of the Ten-Year Rule, whereby the armed services took as an indefinite and continuous planning assumption that no major war would occur in the upcoming decade? Are those Churchills among Romney’s heroes?

Such two-dimensional comic-book likenesses as we find in Romney’s description of foreign countries and leaders are not only inaccurate, they’re insulting. They lay bare a truth most thinking people will already know, and one that is far more damaging to American diplomacy than returned artwork: unless you can raise money, give money, or vote, you are meaningless to a U.S. political candidate, and so your proud history will be rendered in finger-paint to influence those who can.

Why do we allow these caricatures to dominate our politics? Why do even our very best indulge them, much as they do the flag lapel pin and the simple-minded platitudes about Supporting the Troops? Because they fear the consequences of trying and failing to broaden the discourse, of trying to lead and being seen to lecture or pontificate or condescend, of alienating voters by unreservedly embracing knowledge and nuance. Because the greatest sin in our democracy is not to lie, but to lose.

The sad reality is that it doesn’t matter a damn whether Mitt Romney is right or wrong about culture, or Solidarity, or Churchill, or whether he tells Americans the truth about them or just a pretty story. And the reason is doesn’t matter is even sadder: because we’re stupid, and we’re easily manipulated, and because we don’t care.


  1. Well written you really could have summarized it in one sentence.

    "All our politicians on both sides of the aisle are pandering populist self-interested assholes who place politics above country and are driving this country to ruin"

  2. Should also be noted the similarity between Romney's comments and something I hear on a fairly regular basis from one-state Zionists:

    "The Palestinians never developed their land until we arrived...they're not capable of development...and now they want the land that WE developed because we're better than them."

    1. The colonists in French-occupied Algeria said the same. of course, what they developed was the previously irrigated lands devastated only by the French invasion...

  3. "...was founded on respect not simply for shared religious identity..."

    Jews: Believe in God and Old Testament prophets
    Mormons: Jewish faith + Jesus as God's son, +Joseph Smith as prophet
    Muslims: Jewish faith + Jesus and Mohammed as prophets

    I think Mormonims is more close to Muslim faith than to Jewish faith. Jesus was a fake to Jewish people.

    Whatever superior proximity exists between Mormons and Jewish people, it's rather about secular culture than about faith.

  4. Surprising that you didn't mention that the Churchill bust is still on display in the White House:

  5. My understanding is that there were actually two Churchill busts in the White House.

    One, which was in the Oval Office, was returned to England, as it was on loan. Romney insinuates that Obama was somehow disrespectful to England (and therefore white culture) by returning it. Please keep in mind that each President decides what they want in the Oval Office, such as which desk they choose, and so on.

    The other one, outside the Treaty Room, is still there. Apparently it's been there for decades. So anyone who says there is no Churchill bust in the White House is wrong.

  6. Big government, socialist, anti business Hamas policies are a major driver of poverty in Gaza. As are Israeli big government, socialist anti business policies that impede the Gazan private sector. Both are simultaneously true.

  7. I can understand your feeling and i m agree with that........!!

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