Monday, July 30, 2012

The Not-So-Subtle Racism of Mitt Romney

This blog was envisioned as a way for me to comment on political and social affairs, defined broadly. It's also a place for me to vent about particular events or columns I've read that just leave me completely flabbergasted. And since my current audience is relatively tired of my rants, this blog is a good venue for them. And today I have one.

It's well acknowledged that Mitt's foreign trip has been pretty much a flop from the get-go. He's insulted just about one of our closest, and friendliest, European allies by criticizing their preparations for the Olympics. One fundamental rule is that the British are allowed to complain endlessly about their own politics and society, but no one else is allowed to complain about things British to them. That's not only rude, it pricks the thin skin of every Brit who still longs for that period of Victorian greatness, but just can't admit that they're a third-rate Europe power now. Or, better yet, the Brits don't tolerate outside criticism, because a) they do it so much better than anyone else and b) insulting Britishness is one of the only things the Brits are still good at!

I guess this is in contrast to Germany, where Germans love to complain and welcome foreign assistance in that effort--so as to remind themselves and everyone else that they know they are horrible people and need to continue to hear it from others as well so that they never get high and mighty again, in other words, nationalist masochism. Or is it masochistic nationalism?

I was amazed(!) at how "flat-footed" Romney's been during interviews while in Britain. I mean, really, how are hard is it to state some basic pleasantries about the importance of the "special relationship"--something that's only existed since 1945, and been through it's many turbulent times [Suez crisis anyone???]--and complement the British government on the Olympics? No, he has to make repeated slip-ups of smugness, thinking that HIS olympics were better (but we'll never know for sure). And, to further the case that he's just an a-hole [currently in a debate with a friend as to whether he's more of a-hol or more a douche], he won't even cheer for his WIFE'S HORSE! Who knows how the horse got there, but, really, how insensitive can you be? Can't you display or articulate one genuine form of empathy for a moment, Guv'nor?! I'm now starting to think Romney has political Aspergers Syndrome.

It was Romney's foray onto my territory--political economy--that got my gruff! Here's what he said today in Jerusalem:

 “Culture makes all the difference,” Mr. Romney said. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation [Israel], I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” “As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he said.

Let's forget the fact that he's totally underestimated the differences in GDP between Israel and the Occupied Territories. It's his claims that culture [amongst other things?] that matters. So, Romney is just resurrecting our good friend Max Weber via David Landes. What makes some countries wealthier than others? That question has been around AT LEAST since Adam Smith, but probably longer. And has motivated political scientists and economists ever since. Exhuming Weber from the dead, via Landes, culture explains it! When Weber was trying to tackle this question, he found the Protestant ethic was necessary for capitalism. That's why there's no capitalism in the backward Russia or "Oriental" China. They just don't have the right values, whatever those may be. And Landes updates this by focusing on some key "mores and morals" that a society needs to grow economically.

I've been cautioned to keep these posts short, so that people will actually read them. So I won't go into a long critique of Landes's crappy piece of scholarship. I'm just saddened to hear a major presidential candidate subscribes to this thesis. Well, should I be saddened if I have such unrealistically high expectations? 

But here's a short list of flaws:

1. Romney completely ignores all of the OTHER possible reasons--quite rational--why the Palestinian territories haven't grown. A great list of them is here. Needless to say, but let's write about it anyway, there are plenty of reasons to think that IF the Palestinian territories had at least all of the characteristics of a typical market economy, it would be much richer than it is now.

2. Culture? Really? Does Romney dare go further? Just what is it about Jews that make them so much better than our Palestinian friends in running an economy? We're getting into dangerous anti-/philo-Semitism territory here.

3. If a student of mine cited culture as flippantly as Romney did, and they did, then I would give them a D. [Not like Romney couldn't buy a better grade from me.] I've been teaching versions of the "Wealth of Nations" debate for years. And I always got students who said, "Oh, Prof. Siegel, it's just culture." It's the way they are! So, the implications are: nothing can be done; they don't need our help; our help won't work if it is given; they need to change their culture (somehow) to grow; they're different from us, you see; it's nothing we did; can I go on? Certainly fits with their pre-existing views and inclinations not to support these people and their cause. It's not just that there's no room for nuance. It's that no one can really tie together in a meaningful way how some cultures values become shared, are tied to the outcome [industrialization], why some have them and not others, why some cultures don't get them, why some still grow, but don't have them, why some have them, and don't grow, and on and on.

4. Romney's aides said that his comments were taken out of context. He spoke of the differences "between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.” Really? Go further, then, please, Governor Romney, just how are Mexicans and Americans different from each other due to cultural factors? Let's how much of the Latino vote you get then? And just think of how this would translate to Detroit! Why not compare it to Windsor and see what "cultural factors" explain those differences? Why is "nearness" your criterion for case selection?

5. There's no doubt that Romney's comments were directed to his audience--right-wing American Jews. What could be a better combo? Israel and capitalism! Jews and free markets. In contrast to socialism and those Arabs. This all fits well with their worldview that is certainly pro-Republican, conservative and Zionist. Let's put off the question of whether Zionism is racism or just another form of nationalism for another day. What we can say is that people like Sheldon Adelson and his supporters do have this attitude of superiority of the Jewish people to others, especially to Muslims. That they deserve special protection. And it's their own belief in the "success" of the Jewish people that makes them better than others--those other minorities!

There, this rant is over. For now. It'll probably continue in future posts, which I hope will happen more often.

Plus, there's no better way to get your blog read than weighing into the Arab-Israeli conflict. My brother and father can attest to that when participated in forums on the conflict in the early days of Prodigy!!

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