In Mitt Romney’s “Guide to Running for President,” the chapter on foreign travel is very short: “Open mouth. Insert foot.” That’s it.
Romney made his latest outrageous remark in Jerusalem, where he seriously asserted that Israelis (and clearly he meant Jews, since he was sucking up to a Jewish audience) are wealthier than Palestinians because “culture makes all the difference.” He learned this, he said, from reading “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” a book by Harvard professor David Landes.
I’ll confess that I haven’t read the book. All I had to do was read the blurbs on Amazon.com. That was enough. Nations get wealthy, Landes contends, because their culture emphasizes “work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity, open-mindedness and a commitment to democracy.” (Cultural explanations of poverty have been pretty well debunked .)
And hey, Landes should know. “this had been his study for his entire life -- and he’s in his early 70s at this point,” Romney told the audience in Jerusalem, who must have been delighted to hear that Jews have all these admirable qualities, but Palestinians don’t, and that’s why Palestinians are so poor.
In other words, Jews bear no responsibility for Palestinians’ poverty, even though the Jewish state’s army has been occupying and dominating Palestine for 45 years. It’s all the Palestinians’ own fault. They’re lazy, dishonest, impulsive, wasteful, close-minded, and don’t care about democracy. That was the clear implication of Romney’s words.
Romney didn’t explain how the occupiers get to be the beacon of democracy, while the occupied, who resist in the name of self-determination, become enemies of democracy. Nor did he explain why he’s unaware of the long-standing Israeli policy of crippling the Palestinian economy -- a policy that has made the economic inequity between the two lands much greater than the numbers Romney offered.
But there’s good news as well as bad news here. The good news is that Romney’s clear display of ignorance and bias is news. When I checked, Google News had logged 4,924 articles on Mitt’s latest symptom of foot-in-mouth disease, and a large portion of them were from U.S. media sources.
There was a time, not too long ago, when words like his, even from a presidental candidate, would have gone largely unnoticed. In the U.S., Racial and ethnic stereotyping of this kind as been so common among white Americans for so long that, until relatively recently, no mass media outlets would have even noticed it. The cultural inferiority of “undeveloped” peoples was simply taken for granted. The fact that such old-fashioned bias is now big news is certainly encouraging.
The bad news side is a longer list. Let’s start with the unbelievable way Romney’s campaign tried to justify his remarks. This really happened, according to the New York Times :
“After Mr. Romney’s remarks drew criticism, his campaign said that the Associated Press had ‘grossly mischaracterized’ the remarks by not providing the full context. For instance, the campaign said, after mentioning the per capita G.D.P. of Israel and Palestine, Mr. Romney also said: ‘And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.’”
Yes, folks, in the ethnic/racial gospel according to Romney, Mexicans are just as lazy, dishonest, impulsive, wasteful, and close-minded as Palestinians. Part of the bad news is that this egregious anti-Mexican slur got so little news coverage.
Are the mass media less concerned about biased stereotyping of Mexicans than Palestinians? Or was the anti-Mexican slur overlooked just because U.S. - Mexican relations don’t have the same emotional punch as the blood-soaked Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I don’t know.
But I do know that, despite the improved media sensitivity to the Palestinians’ plight, this kind of ethnic stereotyping is still far too alive and well in the United States. On the same day it reported Romney’s gaffe, the New York Times ran (just by coincidence?) an article on the Palestinians’ efforts to boost their high-tech industries and the obstacles they face: “About 2,000 Palestinians graduate from local universities each year in technical subjects, one-third to one-half of them women, but only about 30 percent of them find work in the local industry.”
Why so little work for these well-qualified graduates? foreigners are reluctant to invest in Palestine, writes the Times’ Isabel Kirshner, largely because “the image the world has of the territory as a volatile conflict zone where people ride to work on camels.” In Mexico, of course, it’s donkeys. But how much difference would that make to Mitt and his friends in the investment capital world?
Continuing with the bad news: Romney did not ascribe Israel’s relative wealth only to the Jews’ virtuous character. He added “the hand of providence” and the Jews’ religious faith -- implying that the Palestinians’ lack religion and that God doesn’t really care much about them.
Which brings us to the worst news of all: This guy might very well become president of the United States next January and represent the nation to the whole world for four long, agonizing years. Where else will he see “the hand of providence”?
And who will he diss next, keeping alive the old American tradition of ascribing simplistic, bigoted character traits to whole nations, races, and ethnic groups -- with white America always coming out Number One on the virtue scale? many of us thought that this shameful but prominent piece of the fabric of American life was fast disappearing. We may well be wrong. We’ll get a big clue on Election Day.