Mitt Romney's Culture Problem


At last Mitt Romney and Palestinians have found something they can agree on. And when you reflect on that something, I think you'll see more clearly why Romney keeps failing to get traction with American voters.

After going to Israel and offending Palestinians in the occupied territory by seeming to attribute their economic plight to "cultural" deficiencies, Romney decided to write a piece for National Review Online clarifying his point. And it turns out that when he talks about a culture conducive to prosperity he's largely talking about a culture featuring freedom. "The linkage between freedom and prosperity has a universal applicability," he writes.

I'm sure many Palestinians agree they could use more freedom, and that this would have economic benefits. West Bank Palestinians would like the freedom to transport goods directly from one town to another without taking bizarrely circuitous routes dictated by the existence of webs of illegal Israeli settlements -- and they'd like to be confident that, while they're en route, these roads won't suddenly be shut down by Israeli troops. Palestinian businesses (and residences) would like the freedom to control natural resources, so they could have running water seven days a week, rather than see the water siphoned off to fill swimming pools in those Israeli settlements.

And many West Bank Palestinians would like the freedom to vote for or against the Israeli governments that have imposed these and other conditions on them. That would be a manifestation of freedom known as "democracy."

I realize Mitt Romney doesn't care what Palestinians think of him, since they have no real constituency in America. But what is alarming--and I mean alarming from the point of view of Americans who might wind up being governed by this guy--is that he probably has no awareness of the stunning irony of going to Jerusalem, having a lovefest with Bibi Netanyahu, defender-in-chief of the Israeli occupation, and then preaching to Palestinians that they'd be better off if only they'd get themselves some freedom!

I mean, leave aside the left-right argument about whether Israeli or Palestinian leaders are more responsible for the failure to reach a two-state solution back when that was still possible. Do you have any idea how offensive Romney sounds to the vast majority of Palestinians who definitely can't be blamed for this failure to seize past moments?

I used to think the Democratic rap on Romney--that he's one of these rich people who just can't see the way life looks to less rich people--was just a clever and not wholly implausible talking point. But I'm starting to take it much more seriously. I think his gaffes abroad do bespeak an inability to put himself in the shoes of other people, whether Brits who are proud of their Olympic preparations or Palestinians who live under occupation.

I mean, gosh, why didn't those Palestinians have the wisdom to be born into a nice Mormon family--with nice Mormon culture--whose patriarch was head of American Motors? And, come to think of it, why didn't all those unemployed Americans exhibit similar foresight?

Mitt's a pretty smart guy, but there's one thing he just can't seem to wrap his mind around: not being Mitt. For the millions of American voters who aren't Mitt, that's something to think about.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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