Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Real Problem With Mitt Romney's "Bad Culture" Thesis: Books That People Lie About Reading So That They Can Sound All Smart and Stuff

Mitt Romney's whirlwind tour of Europe and Israel did not go well. He repeatedly suggested that "bad culture" and a "love of freedom" are variables which determine why some societies succeed and others fail. As many observers have smartly pointed out, this is a common problem for conservatives. They are apparently incapable of understanding (or acknowledging) the relationship between culture, institutions, individual agency, and life outcomes.

Thus, Mitt Romney's blind spot on this issue is quite typical. For example, Rick Santorum's observation(s) about how black Americans are parasites who live off of white people was interlaced with the suggestion that if "inner city" people just got married they would get jobs and the economy would improve. Of course, Santorum is confusing outcomes and causal variables.

Ironically, Romney's flattening of history and simple-minded view of societal development is actually pretty funny. He ignores how Israel has kept Palestine in near-Apartheid conditions. The Germans, Poles, and Brits who love "freedom" also live in countries where there is much more government intervention in the economy, and which feature a more robust social safety net than the United States.

In developing his claims about why societies succeed or fail, Romney quoted two books that he considers among his favorites. These are Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, as well as The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes.

Both texts are favorites among talking point conservatives and others who want to count themselves among the "literate" classes. Based on his piss poor understanding of the arguments presented by Landes and Diamond I would suggest that 1) Romney quickly--and dishonestly--read these books to prove his own priors; 2) Romney read an executive summary of these books and gleamed something he could use; or 3) Romney never read either of these books and repeated what his aides or a colleague told him to say about them.

[Updated: in today's NY Times, Diamond himself suggests that Romney likely did not read Guns, Germs, and Steel.]

Mitt Romney may not have the common touch. However, he is just like many regular people in how he wants to sound like a stupid person's idea of what it means to be smart. This posturing works well for his conservative base given that they also hold hackery such as Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism in such high regard, and consider intellectual snake oil flimflam salesmen like pseudo-historian David Barton to be serious thinkers.

Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as The Wealth and Poverty of Nations are part of a pantheon of books that are discussed by many, but in fact are never really engaged or read in much depth. For a certain crowd, texts such as those look good on the bookshelf, mentioned online in a comment or blog post, or thrown about to score points in a partisan debate. However, if you ask for specifics, said folks often have little to offer except what the dust jacket and reviewers say.

As a public service (or even a confessional of sorts), let's make a list of books that many people want to claim as having read, but we damn well know they did not finish...or in many cases even really begin.

In no particular order here are a few of my immediate suggestions:

1. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
2. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
3. Any book written by Ayn Rand
4. The End of History by Francis Fukuyama
5. On Tyranny by Leo Strauss
6. What's the Matter With Kansas by Thomas Frank
7. The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman
8. The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek
9. The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois
10. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
11. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes
12. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
13. Rules of Radicals by Saul Alinsky
14. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John Mearsheimer
15. The Israel Lobby by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt


Helen Bushnell said...

I realized this after I got into an argument with a conservative in which he cited The Road to Serfdom. The copy that I checked out of the library had not been read in over five years, and Mr. Hayek specifically disagreed with the conservative who cited him.

This book states that there is not such thing as laissez-faire capitalism and says that the government should provide free basic housing. You are not free if you must work.

Abstentus said...

Have I yet posted over here, my Racisn 2.0 theory? Mitt is a poster boy for that. He definitely does not consider himself a bigot or a racist. Yet he feels perfectly comfortable spewing forth about superior and inferior cultures; basically racist crap. Under the UN definition of racial discrimination.

Old school Archie Bunker racists embraced their bigotry. They owned it. But Racism 2.0 says,"Racists are bad people. And I am not a bad person. No matter what racist nonsense I believe. Therefore I am not a racist."

Comrade Physioprof said...

It is downright bizarre that any right-winger would find anything to like in Guns, Germs, and Steel. As I recall from reading it several years ago, the entire thesis of the book is that societies succeed or fail relative to one another almost wholly on bases that have nothing to do with their personal or cultural characteristics, but rather on completely external happenstance characteristics of where the societies happen to be located on the surface of the Earth, such as climate, weather, geography, and geology. This is the complete opposite of the right-wing lie that personal and societal success and failure is all about "values" and "drive" and "hard work", and not that you happen to be the descendant of rich parents or an already rich society.

Am I remembering the book correctly?

Anonymous said...

Glad one book written by a woman made the list. It's the male political machine and the road to serfdom is one women have been on for thousands of years.

chaunceydevega said...

@Helen. They didn't read the book; it was absorbed via osmosis through Glenn Beck.

@Abstentus. Intellectualized bigotry--high grade, no less dangerous.

@Comrade. That is what I remember. By admission parts of it really dragged for me. By the end I skimmed and watched the documentary. I gave the book to a neighbor who needed it for class and was strapped for cash.

@Anon. Could that be a good thing? Maybe people buy and read books written by women ;) Add to the list if you would.

Comrade Physioprof said...

By admission parts of it really dragged for me.

His books are all this way, because he marshals example after example after example to prove his thesis. "Collapse" was the same way. I stopped reading about two-thirds of the way through; I was all like, "OK, dude. I get it. You burn through all your resources, you collapse. Point taken."

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

You could add The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom to the list, as well as Foucault's Discipline and Punish.

Anonymous said...

Let's be honest-- has anyone EVER finished reading volume one of Capital? I've known many an intelligent, well-read Marxist in my day, but I'm skeptical I've met any that have read it cover to cover.

Shady_Grady said...

Any book by Stanley Crouch. I think even the reviewers don't read them. They only pretend to have done so in order that Crouch won't beat them up.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

CNu said...

I was all like, "OK, dude. I get it. You burn through all your resources, you collapse. Point taken.

and yet this observation, simple and obvious as the assertion that "water is wet", is damn near invisible on the radar of current political "thought leadership".

One of the.most.fundamental.reasons to mistrust the Hon.Bro.Preznit.Double-O - as much or more than empty suit Mitt Romney.

With Romney, like Dubya, you know exactly what you're bargaining for and exactly what you'll get. The long-legged mack daddy on the other hand, still very rorschachian.

CNu said...

But Racism 2.0 says,"Racists are bad people. And I am not a bad person. No matter what racist nonsense I believe. Therefore I am not a racist."

Abstentus is truth!

Accept no substitutes...,

Anonymous said...

Romney seems to be putting his foot in his mouth everywhere he goes.

I am inclined to go with theory number two and three on Romney's understanding of the books he claims to have read.

Anne O'Nimmus said...

I'd add Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man" and Ronald Segal's "The Black Diaspora". Both excellent books.

Adam H said...

@CD: I wouldn't be so sure Romney hasn't done his homework. You may recall how much democrats made fun of Bush Jr.'s pronunciation of Nuclear (its hear by the way). This is a very dangerous heresthetics Romney is likely dealing in. His advisors aren't dumb. Bush junior's advisors played this card over and over again, and it was brilliant. It seems somebody's been reading Skowronek's works cover to cover. All should read who wish to watch out presidents back!

It is just as you say CD: How many people have read it cover to cover (I think I didn't the Epilogue of Diamond's work, while we're all putting it out there). Obama's image is obviously vulnerable: If he acts too smart, he ranges the spectrum amongst populist voters from no-it-all-liberal to uppity negro. If he acts to stupid he is an undeserving dumb black man. The nice thing about Romney is that he's a millionaire. Through the lens of most Americans he is smart by definition. Yet he doesn't take intellectuals too seriously.

Obama's in trouble my friend. How do we overcome this toxic combo and push Mitt back on the run?

If I was his strategist, I wouldn't respond to this kind of a gaffe from Romney at all. Patient defense is the way to be. Wait till Romney is just a little bit closer fire before tripping him.

CNu said...

Boehner: Hon.Bro.Preznit.Double-O has never had a real job for chrissakes!!!

Jason Antrosio said...

Thank you for posting this. My take is that the really scary thing is not how Mitt Romney misused, misinterpreted, or just didn't read Jared Diamond. It's that Romney’s views are very much in line with Diamond: the differential success of the world's nations--and European imperialism--is due to accident, except when societies "choose to fail."

I would add that the other scary thing is how much the "typical liberal crowd" has been gushing over this as a "smackdown" of Romney.

Jared Diamond won’t beat Mitt Romney.