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August 3, 2012

Mitt Romney versus Walter Ong on What's Important in Our Western Cultural Heritage

By Thomas Farrell

Mitt Romney believes in political freedom and economic freedom. So do I. These two kinds of freedom are as American as apple pie. If President Obama does not believe in these two kinds of freedom, he must be un-American. But Walter Ong's body of work about Western cultural history helps us understand how cultural conditioned our American political freedom and economic freedom are.


Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 3, 2012: When he was in Israel recently, Mitt Romney got himself into a controversy by saying that the cultural superiority of the Israelis over the Palestinians accounts for the economic advantage of the Israelis over the Palestinians. He also used some wildly erroneous economic statistics about both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But Romney subsequently posted an op-ed piece at the National Review Online affirming his basic position: "Culture Does Matter" (July 31, 2012), which is free from the wildly erroneous economic statistics he used in Israel. It is quite clear that the title of Romney's op-ed piece means that culture matters for economic prosperity.

Is President Obama likely to say, "No, culture does not matter for economic prosperity"? I doubt if he will.

But I have the feeling that Romney's op-ed piece expresses his core beliefs, which otherwise have been hard to pin down. For this reason, I want to discuss his op-ed piece.

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I want to give Romney credit for not saying in his op-ed piece that only culture matters. By not saying this, he leaves the door open for people such as Jared Diamond to highlight non-cultural factors such as biological and geographic features that can also contribute to economic prosperity. However, Romney may not have been this careful in his remarks in Israel recently.

In his op-ed piece, Romney emphasizes certain key cultural factors as extremely important: political freedom and economic freedom. In short, Romney's thesis in his op-ed piece is that political freedom and economic freedom are key factors in contributing to economic prosperity.

Now, is President Obama likely to argue the antithetical position -- that political freedom and economic freedom are not key factors in contributing to economic prosperity? I doubt if he will.

So if Mitt Romney and President Obama do not disagree about the importance of these two key factors, what kind of a political debate, if any, are we going to get between these two presidential candidates in 2012?

In his op-ed piece, Romney also says, "The linkage between freedom and economic development has universal applicability."

Hmm. At the present time, China seems to be experiencing economic development but without political freedom. But would any American politician pursue this line of argument against Romney about the link between political freedom and economic freedom? I doubt it.

In plain English, in his op-ed piece, Romney in effect endorsing key factors that are as American as apple pie. As a result, President Obama is not likely to be drawn into debating these two key factors with Romney, because such a debate would probably be political suicide for President Obama or any other American politician who gets drawn into such a debate.

Now, I am not a politician running for elective political office. I am an academic. In this capacity, I want to debate with Romney a bit. But I am not sure if President Obama should try to use my way of debating with Romney in the presidential election campaign in 2012.

As I have indicated, in general, I agree with Romney that culture matters in contributing to economic prosperity, and I further agree with him that political freedom and economic freedom are optimally linked together with one another.

However, I would argue that the political freedom and economic freedom that emerged together in American culture are themselves culturally conditioned in Western cultural history. In short, the political freedom and the economic freedom that emerged together in American culture did not come out of the blue, as it were, but out of a centuries-long cultural preparation in Western culture.

The most relevant account and discussion of Western cultural history is contained in the overall body of work by the American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), not in Jared Diamond's book GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES (rev. ed. 1999) or in David S. Landes's book THE WEALTH AND POVERTY OF NATIONS: WHY SOME ARE SO RICH AND SOME SO POOR (rev. ed. 1999), both of which Romney discusses in his memoir NO APOLOGY: BELIEVE IN AMERICA: THE CASE FOR AMERICAN GREATNESS (rev. ed. 2011). As important as Diamond's book and Landes's book are in many ways, Ong does a finer job of accounting for the infrastructure, as it were, of Western cultural development.

After working with the aural-visual contrast productively in his books RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958) and THE BARBARIAN WITHIN: AND OTHER FUGITIVE ESSAYS AND STUDIES (Macmillan, 1962), Ong subsequently became most widely known for working with the orality-literacy contrast in THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press, 1967) RHETORIC, ROMANCE, AND TECHNOLOGY: STUDIES IN THE INTERACTION OF CULTURE AND EXPRESSION (Cornell University Press, 1971), INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (Cornell University Press, 1977), and ORALITY AND LITERACY: THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD (Methuen, 1982), which has gone through more than 30 printings in English and has been translated into eleven other languages.

Over the years, Ong attempted to identify and name a certain key variable in Western cultural development using somewhat different terminology. Consider, for example, the subtitle of his first major book, RAMUS, METHOD, AND THE DECAY OF DIALOGUE: FROM THE ART OF DISCOURSE TO THE ART OF REASON (Harvard University Press, 1958). The art of discourse fostered through formal education in dialectic (also known as logic) and rhetoric in Western culture for centuries before the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572) programmatically trained students in the polemical structures of pro-and-con debate in dialectic and rhetoric. But in theory, Ramus's educational reforms were less polemical and more irenic in spirit. For example, in theory, Ramus and his followers did away with refuting any real or imagined adversarial positions. In practice, of course, they had to respond to real adversaries. Ong intimates that the less programmatically polemical orientation favored, in theory, by Ramism was also favored and indeed fostered by the emerging print culture. In any event, the less programmatically polemical orientation favored by Ramism also contributed to the historical emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism and of modern science and of modern democracy such as the American experiment in democracy.

Subsequently, Ong thematized this key cultural variable as polemic in spirit (Greek, "polemos" means war, struggle) in his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded published version of Ong's 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.

But later Ong thematized this key variable as agonistic in spirit (Greek, "agon" means contest, struggle) in his book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. In this work Ong also discusses the biological base of what he terms agonistic behavior.

In short, the political freedom and the economic freedom that Romney celebrates emerged together historically in American culture after centuries of Western cultural conditioning of the agonistic spirit discussed by Ong. However, in many parts of the world today, the infrastructures of Western cultural conditioning as detailed in Ong's account of Western cultural history have not yet made strong inroads in the different local cultures involved.

Submitters Website: www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Submitters Bio:

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book WALTER ONG'S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2009, forthcoming). The first edition won the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology conferred by the Media Ecology Association. For further information about his education and his publications, see his UMD homepage: Click here to visit Dr. Farrell's homepage.
On September 10 and 22, 2009, he discussed Walter Ong's work on the blog radio talk show "Ethics Talk" that is hosted by Hope May in philosophy at Central Michigan University. Each hour-long show has been archived and is available for people who missed the live broadcast to listen to. Here are the website addresses for the two archived shows:

Click here to listen the Technologizing of the Word Interview
Click here to listen the Ramus, Method & The Decay of Dialogue Interview