WHAT if Mitt Romney — hold on to your hats — were to be elected president later this year? Setting aside that this man is a gaffe addict with a pedestrian mind, a shallow intellect, a superficial worldview and a rudimentary grasp of international affairs, that would be wonderful news for, well, American culture.
I hazard to guess, satire aside, that were he to occupy the White House, Romney, out of concern for the sad state of the American economy, would begin by ensuring that American culture is back on track. For come now, how would the US aspire to have a better economy than that, say, of China and Japan unless it had a superior culture to the one in these two lowly Oriental nations?
To be sure, Mitt the Twit — a moniker assigned him by his fellow Anglo-Saxons in Britain — is a likable sort of fellow. Well, kinda. I mean, professor Henry Gates Jr. or Police Sgt. James Crowley, I would much rather have a cup of tea with him in the White House Rose Garden, to ratchet down our dispute over the wrongful arrest in Cambridge Mass., in 2009, than with Barack Obama. Romney, after all, exudes that gee-whiz charm of middlebrow, middle-class, middle-aged, middle-American culture that outsiders find irresistible, much in the manner they find the innocence of children engaging.
It’s the nastiness of the remarks he made in Jerusalem last week that rankle. Israeli culture, he declaimed with a straight face, is superior to that of Arabs, which accounts for the fact that the latter’s economy is stagnant and their society backward. The remarks may not be, in the strictest sense, racist, as some Palestinians and other Arabs were quick to aver, but they were cruel and profoundly vulgar, not to mention of dubious scientific value.
To blame the Palestinians — whose means of production and distribution system are under severe control by a mean-spirited occupation — for being economically destitute is like blaming the victim for his victimized condition. Or like kicking a cripple for not walking fast enough. In this case, think Rush Limbaugh in the late 1990s and the John Birch Society in the early 1960s, whose targets were often helpless people — blacks, the homeless, those on welfare — who were not in a particularly good position to answer, or fight, back.
I call that the lowest ebb that a presidential candidate could reach in reasoning skills. After all, Social Darwinism, that heap of intellectual manure from which his remarks were dug up, is a paradigm that has long been discredited. No human community has a culture superior to another, just a different one.
The study of culture is an exceedingly intricate discipline that does not allow for the kind of brusque, irresponsible and bigoted asides, not to mention mechanistic and linear interpretations, that this undereducated presidential hopeful advanced to explain Palestinian economic destitution. It reduces culture to a fragment of what it is — an academic pursuit that stands at the intersection of linguistics, psychology, faith, collective memory, transmitted heritage, historical experience, kinship, manners of ceremonial exchange and the way a people apprehend nature and the natural world.
In short, it is a community’s grammar of being.
It is a study, in other words, so exacting for its erudition, that someone with the questionable intellect of Mitt Romney would do well to abstain from turning into a layman’s controversy. Cultural anthropologists and inter-disciplinary cultural critics, from Claude Levi-Strauss to George Steiner, from Max Weber to Margaret Meade, have all atbodyted over the years to educate their countrymen out of their Eurocentric excesses. In other words, they have all argued against facile observations such as the ones Romney made in Jerusalem last week, that “culture makes all the difference.” Come to think of it, what does the observation actually mean? Look at it, once, twice, thrice if need be, as you scratch your head agonizing over some potential profundity hidden there, and you will find that it is, very simply, meaningless. What it intends to say, however, is clear: Israeli culture is more advanced, and thus superior to Arab culture, which has led to the plus-minus dichotomy between their economic systems. Humbug! The achievements of even the most “primitive” cultures, say those of Neolithic man, embodied in the invention pottery, the weaving of cloth, agriculture, the domestication of animals, cannot have been primitive after all. They remain to this day at the substratum of modern civilization, the product of a science, of a sensibility, different from ours, the outward projection of a society that had lived a parallel life of its own.
Who is to say, for example, that the teleological spirit that imbues Arab culture, indeed to a large extent eastern culture in general, is inferior to the empirical model in Western culture that accepts the verity of objective reality only after it has been defined, measured and “proven”? Just as we say no two human beings share an identical associative context, we say no two cultures are the same. They are, I repeat, just different, neither superior nor inferior to the other.
Look, if Mitt the Twit wants to go to Israel to troll for Jewish votes and campaign funds by denigrating Arabs, and by promising to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as he brazenly did on his visit, there’s nothing to be horrified at here. Over the years, all the way from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama, we’ve supped our fill of the trivia about the Middle East that accompanied these campaigns. But for a presidential hopeful to descend to the level of subverting civilized parlance by defining Arab culture as inferior, well, that’s a new one.
n This article is exclusive to Arab News
- Mitt Romney
- White House
- Barack Obama