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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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; 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 (more...)

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