If Americans paid any attention to the foreign press, Mitt Romney might be in trouble. But as long as the Republican nominee for president keeps blurting needlessly provocative statements overseas in the dog days of summer, he will probably be fine. All that mud-slinging can wait until the weather cools off.
But how long can his luck last? He offended Britons by doubting whether London is ready for the Olympics. Britain is by far our friendliest ally, yet Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t resist saying that Romney, who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, never ran the games in a metropolis like London where challenges are stiffer than they are “in the middle of nowhere.”
Then in Israel on Monday, Romney delivered a speech at Jerusalem’s tony King David Hotel to a few dozen very wealthy donors, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, super-PAC funder and arch-Zionist. Romney told his audience that the reason Israelis are more prosperous than impoverished Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza boils down to one simple thing: culture.
“If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world, it’s this: Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognise the power of at least culture and a few other things.”
An official with the Palestinian Authority had harsh words for Romney, saying that the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories is the core reason for appalling levels of poverty. Culture isn’t the issue, he said It’s politics. “Oh my god, this man needs a lot of education,” Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator, told the Los Angeles Times. “What he said about the culture is racism.”
Neoconservatives were delighted by Romney’s sudden apparent toughness and argued that this was not a gaffe. It was truth, they said. The Palestinians cultivate a culture of violence and deceit that clearly explains their decrepitude. Never mind that Palestinian territories have been occupied by the Israeli military for years, inhibiting the flow of goods and services and otherwise making it impossible to do business. No, it can’t be military control by a foreign power; it must their inferior culture.
The New York Post‘s odious John Podhoretz agreed with Romney, adding that not only do the Palestinians “have an inferior political culture“, but they also can’t meaningfully use language. “The [Palestinian Authority] has dominion over almost all of the West Bank and Hamas has control over all of Gaza,” he wrote on Tuesday, “so the word ‘occupation’ is all but meaningless.”
But just when the neocons were getting excited, Romney spoiled the fun by denying that he said what he said. He told Fox News on Tuesday: “That is an interesting topic that perhaps can deserve scholarly analysis but I actually didn’t address that.”
Though he denied saying what he said, he has, in fact, said this very thing before – in print. In No Apologies: The Case for American Greatness (2010), he asked why neighbouring countries like the United States and Mexico, and Israel and Palestinian territories are so difference economically. How can one be so rich and the other be so poor? The reason, he at last found, boils down to one simple thing: “Culture makes all the difference.”
“What people believe, value, strive for, and sacrifice for profoundly shape the nature of their society and affect its prosperity and security. So while America’s abundant natural resources certainly facilitated its ascent, it is America’s culture that enabled the nation to become and remain the most powerful and beneficent country in the history of humankind.”
As Greg Sargent noted, the Palestinians aren’t peeved because Romney dissed them; they have likely been called worse. They are peeved because Romney, and by extension the entire school of neoconservative thought, finds it convenient to blame the Palestinians for their poverty (among other things) while ignoring Israel’s role in a military occupation.
This is where I take a deep breath and say I agree with John Podhoretz: This wasn’t a gaffe. But this wasn’t “the truth” about anything related to Israel. This is the truth about Mitt Romney.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Romney believes that a country as rich and powerful as the United States deserves to be rich and powerful, because of its “culture”. We are an exceptional power in the world, because we are an exceptional people touched by the “hand of providence”, to borrow Romney’s description of Israel.
This applies to him personally. Romney is a very wealthy man, and was born into a very wealthy family, because he and his family possess exceptional traits for which they have been rewarded exceptionally. But a problem arises when rich and powerful men like Romney, or a rich and powerful country like the United States, start to invent stories that rationalise their wealth and power so that wealth and power are no longer the result of decision made in the political arena but instead the spooky and invisible hand of God.
And once a man, or a country, has the right of divine fiat, then anyone who opposes him, or that country, would logically also oppose God, and naturally anyone who opposes God isn’t worth respecting. It isn’t far to go before it’s fine to dehumanise the other. The poor deserve their poverty, the sick their sickness, the weak their weakness. As one of Podhoretz’s commentators said of the Palestinians: “They are a filthy people and deserve what they get.”
A focus on culture is preferable to Romney for another reason: He is a member of the American elite, a group that benefits greatly from the upward distribution of wealth and power, a state of economic affairs that was not an accident or the result of exceptional culture. Instead, it was the result of concrete decisions made consciously and carefully by members of the American elite, people who – like Romney – would prefer that non-members did not focus on those decisions but instead on how the elite is deserving of its wealth and power.
John Stoehr’s writing has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent, the New York Daily News and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and a columnist for the Mint Press News.