Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mitt's Bad Trip

If a Democratic strategist adopted an alias and described his vision of Mitt Romney's trip overseas, it wouldn't have been better than what's actually happened. We can give Mitt credit for one bit of truth: He didn't want his trip to mirror Barack Obama's overseas adventure in the summer of 2008, which saw oversized crowds giving him thunderous ovations, and it certainly didn't. Remember that the McCain camp's only response was that the US didn't need a rock star president. To solidify that aspiration, McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate where she became, you know the answer, a rock star.

Romney's trip appetizer, as it turned out, was his disparaging remark about the London Olympics, which look terrific on television, and that's where 99% (oh, that 99%) of the world's viewer's will come in contact with it. Will the games lose money? Surely. Will there be empty seats, fraudulent tickets and missed buses? Yes. Will it matter to those watching on TV? Not at all. What will matter, and has rightfully gained all of the headlines, is that Romney missed a free opportunity to act statesmanlike, responsible, upbeat, friendly and most important, presidential. He snuffed it badly.

Then it was on to Israel for the main course, which was a full blown endorsement of the most contentious issues facing the Israeli's and Palestinians. Mitt called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, even though it's a divided city, and said that the real reason why Palestine is behind Israel is its culture. The Jerusalem line is one that many American politicians use to galvanize Jewish support for their candidacies, but the US is not going to be able to unilaterally, or bilaterally with Israel, determine that city's status. No Palestinian politician will agree to it and the larger Muslim Middle East will fight to the death to preserve and defend its holy sites against an Israeli assumption of Jerusalem.

It's the culture remark that tells us more about Romney than we probably want to know. How much does culture determine a people's success or failure? In the United States, culture has been used both historically and currently to explain why African-Americans live in poverty or have a stunningly high rate of single-parent families or a high obesity rate or why they want to live in segregated communities, not to mention that they made good slaves and like to eat certain foods. Likewise, the culture argument has been used to paint Jews, Irish, Italians, Poles, Latinos, Asians (with and without regional breakdowns) and the LGBT community as, well, you probably know the stereotypes. All of them are false. All of them are ugly. All of them have been used to discriminate against and paint groups as un-American and dangerous.

Onto that pile of malodorous claptrap comes the well-shod foot of the presumed Republican nominee.

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

Thus, if culture makes all the difference, then it must mean that Palestinians want to live in the dangerous, fetid, unsettled, poverty-stricken land that they do. If they had a different culture, then they wouldn't. Never mind the politics, the sanctions, the wall, trade embargoes and blowing up the houses of relatives who are suspected or convicted of being terrorists. It's culture.

Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm Jewish. I support Israel 100% and believe that its existence is vital to the region and the world. But I'm not going to chalk up Israel's economic vitality and thriving society to culture alone or as the most important factor in its success. Israel has a terrific friend in the United States, and we're in a position to funnel billions of dollars in aid to its government and provide a likewise amount in weapons and defense. Much of the Middle East was supported by the Soviets during the Cold War, and when the USSR collapsed, so did many of those country's economies. Add in the rise of Islamic terrorism and you have a situation where many people weren't even able to make a cultural choice for their country. It was made for them by a ruling elite (Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) or a religious movement that had more guns than anyone else (Afghanistan, Iran, the PLO).

And yet, to Romney, it's culture that is the main determinant of a country's success. That strikes me as condescending, discriminatory and wrong. It's convenient to blame culture because then you get to define the elements of that culture. So Palestinians are deficient and Israelis are superior. In Syria, Alawites must be superior because they have the government and the weapons, but if Assad losses, that must mean that the rebels, and their concomitant groups are superior. Countries that receive enough rainfall to water their crops must have superior cultures, while arid areas must be deficient. OK, you get the point (and you most likely did 3 paragraphs ago).

The desert was light and fluffy, courtesy of Romney's staff in Poland that was probably upset at all of those inconvenient questions about his trip, so they said some naughty things. But the damage has been done. Romney had hoped to make this trip about his commander-in-chief credentials and it became about everything but that. If these were isolated events, we could forgive Mitt, but with all of the other silly things Romney has said during the campaign, we need to begin worrying that he would damage more than his campaign. That's something we truly cannot afford.

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