Don't Mind the Gaffe

Amusing as it was to see David Cameron give Mitt Romney (and poor Salt Lake City) the back of his hand, Romney's offending remark about the British government's preparations for the Olympic Games was fairly inoffensive—a problem not so much of what he said as of where he said it and when. (OK, perhaps it was also a problem of who was saying it, since, coming from Romney, mild worries about London's readiness for the Olympics were bound to be taken as yet another reminder of his heroic rescue of the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a feat he often talks about as if it were his strongest qualification for the presidency.) Anyway, the remark was at most a gaffe; it deserves to be forgotten soon, and almost certainly will be.

Romney's comment, in a prepared speech, about the cultural superiority of Israelis to Palestinians was not a gaffe. It was the honest expression of the candidate's worldview, according to which one may measure the health of a whole people's culture by their GDP: healthy cultures produce lots of wealth, while poverty is evidence of cultural inanition. Or as Romney put it: "Culture makes all the difference." This rule about the wealth of nations is an extension of Romney's more familiar ideas about the wealth of individuals, according to which a person of good character will produce lots of wealth, as long as the government doesn't get in the way.

Many people have already pointed out that the Palestinian economy is hobbled by severe trade restriction imposed by Israel. Of course the Palestinians themselves have been quick to point this out, but if you are disinclined to take their word for it, you can ask the Central Intelligence Agency. As the New York Times reported last week, the CIA's World Factbook states that Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity of the Palestinian economy.The Romney camp has complained that the Associated Press "grossly mischaracterized" the candidate's remarks. This suggests -- but stops short of actually asserting -- that Romney never spoke the words that got him into so much trouble. The speech, say Romney's handlers, was not as bad as the media are making it sound. You see, their candidate was not singling out the Palestinians; he applied the same perverse metric to other poor countries. Here's what he said:

As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.

Surely it's a bad sign that the Romney team thinks the last sentence in this passage makes it less offensive, or more credible. The thought here seems to be that you can control for the importance of geographical difference by comparing only countries that are "near or next to each other": since Mexico borders on the United States, for example, it can have no excuse for being so much poorer. History has passed its unanswerable judgment on Mexican culture: Not good enough, or at least not as good (despite leftover pockets of Mormon virtue?).

Romney might say his pet theory is simply a prescription for success. To me, it sounds like another blasé rationalization of inequality and -- especially in the case of the Palestinians -- injustice. And obviously that's how Romney's advisors were afraid it would sound to many Americans. Hence their pathetic attempt to cast doubt on the the accuracy of the AP story.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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