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Jared Diamond v. Mitt Romney: Academic Shames Presidential Hopeful for Misunderstanding His Work

Posted on the 02 August 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Mitt Romney's foreign tour has angered Londoners, Palestinians, and now academics? Mitt Romney’s foreign tour has angered Londoners, Palestinians, and now academics?

The background

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s foreign tour is starting to live up to its Twitter hashtag, #RomneyShambles: First, he insulted Britain by suggesting that London wasn’t ready to host the Olympic Games, then, he was accused of racism for seeming to imply that the reason Israel is wealthier than Palestine, the territory it controls, is down to culture (and not down to Israel’s own military occupation).

And now, the academic whose work he cited to make that claim has taken to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to tell Romney that he just didn’t understand his work.

Romney, while in Israel on 30 July, said that differences in “economic vitality” between Israel and Palestine put him in mind of the work of Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California Los Angeles. Romney claimed that in Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book on why Euroasian cultures have dominated the last thousands of years, Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond says that “Culture makes all the difference.”

“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,” Romney continued.

Wrong, Diamond wrote in his op-ed for The Times, published Thursday.

Romney didn’t do his homework

“That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it,” Diamond slammed, going on to say that Romney’s “culture makes all the difference” assertion is “dangerously out of date.” Culture is only one part of what can make a country wealthy or poor, said Diamond, and if Romney doesn’t understand that, America is in trouble: “Will he continue to espouse one-factor explanations for multicausal problems, and fail to understand history and the modern world? If so, he will preside over a declining nation squandering its advantages of location and history.”

Professor Jared Diamond questioned whether Romney had even read his book. Professor Jared Diamond questioned whether Romney had even read his book.

Romney’s problematic worldview

Jonathan Cait, writing at New York Magazine’s Daily Intel blog, hit on the some of the same issues that Diamond did – specifically, that Romney oversimplifies the reasons why some nations are poor and some are wealthy and therefore misses the point. Cait summarises Romney’s shorthand version of Diamond’s book, among others, thusly: “Those of us who are rich owe our success to hard work and strong values, and those who are poor have only themselves to blame.” That’s a problem: “It’s possible Romney actually subscribes to a more nuanced version of this worldview, but in the hothouse atmosphere of a presidential campaign, we’ll never know.”

“I was totally freaked out by Romney’s behavior abroad. As you may have noticed, I’m not a big fan. But throughout the primaries I always thought of him as the potential non-crazy nominee. This trip made me rethink that,” said New York Times columnist Gail Collins, during a chat with colleague David Brook.

Is Romney right about the Middle East?

Romney is typically portrayed as a wimpy, emotionless android, but whenever he does express his opinions, Jacob Heilbrunn wrote at National Interest blog, he’s vilified. And what if he’s right about the Palestine? “It’s surely not racist to point out, as Thomas Friedman repeatedly does, that there is something rotten in the Middle East, that kleptocratic tyrannies have held back their populations over the past century, that the Arab world remains far behind the West economically, despite its incredible oil wealth, and that Israel’s existence has permitted Arab leaders to use it to deflect attention from their own grievous shortcomings, particularly when it comes to education and social programs,” he wrote. Heilbrunn continued, “His attempts to look statesmanlike failed. But then again, he’s clearly a more interesting person than his detractors are willing to credit. His mistake, again and again, is to stray from the path of neatly packaged statements to ponder intriguing questions.”

More on Romney’s political ambitions

  • Mitt Romney’s foreign tour: Success or disaster?
  • Obama and Romney in the money wars
  • ‘Mitt the twit’ questions London 2012
  • Romney clinches GOP nomination

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