Crisp: Brits put Romney in his place
Mitt Romney's first attempt as a presidential candidate to establish his foreign affairs credentials quickly turned awkward in Britain. Given the opportunity to evaluate the prospects for success of the London Olympic Games, he, not understanding the principle of economy in language, said much more than needed. He called some of the security issues "disconcerting" and mused aloud that, "It's hard to know just how well it [the Games] will turn out." Even though many Londoners had been having some of the same doubts, Romney's impolitic remarks did not go over well. "We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities in the world," Prime Minister David Cameron sniffed, "Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere." And from Britain's largest newspaper, The Sun: "Mitt the Twit." Subsequently, in a Romneyesque reversal, Romney expressed his deep confidence in the prospective success of the Games.
Were the British too sensitive to Mitt Romney's injudicious expression of his doubts about London's preparedness to host the Olympics? If they were, it's understandable. Permit me the assertion that Europeans pay more attention to our politics than we do to theirs. No doubt many of them are aware that Romney's party, both its mainstream and its right wing, has mounted a campaign of anti-Obama rhetoric that includes more than a little Europe-bashing.
For some Republicans, few attacks pack more wallop than to connect President Barack Obama to Europe, as Romney did after his victory in the New Hampshire primary: "He [Obama] wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state. ... This president takes his cues and inspirations from the capitals of Europe." He didn't mean this as a compliment.
Considerable scholarly work has been done on the notion of an inherent American inferiority complex when it comes to Europe, and especially to Britain. Some Americans have spent time worrying over whether our comparatively young, rough-hewn culture can compete with the mature cultures of Europe. Sometimes we overcompensate with bluster and condescension.
And then it's only a short step to the concept of American Exceptionalism, a theory of our self-worth that's often promoted among Republicans. In this way of thinking "exceptional" doesn't mean only different from; it also means better than, a point that is probably not lost on many Europeans, if they bother to think about it at all.
Romney's primary connection with Europe is the two years that he spent in France as a Mormon missionary. But missionary work implies superiority -- that is, "My religion is better than yours." One wonders what the worldly, jaded French thought of the earnest, young Romney and his eccentric, pure-American, latter-day religion. And if they've gotten over him yet.
Another assertion: Europeans really like to like America, but we don't always make it easy for them. All in all, the British accommodated Romney, despite the inherent anti-Europeanism of his party and despite his ill-considered remarks about the Games.
In fact, they gave Romney a good seat at the opening ceremonies, where he was able to witness an impressive, offbeat, eclectic review of British history. This tiny island nation has had a disproportionate impact on world affairs, not always for good, but sometimes for very good. I hope Romney noted that in its celebration of its achievements, from Shakespeare to Paul McCartney, Britain took the trouble to spell out "NHS" with oversized illuminated hospital beds.
"NHS" stands for National Health Service, the socialized system that provides good health care for all 62 million citizens of the United Kingdom. Many Brits are aware that socialized health care is anathema to Romney and his party, despite his record in Massachusetts. But they probably take some pride in their Number 18 position on the World Health Organization's ranking of health systems, while the U.S. lags behind at Number 37.
In fact, a proud Brit might say, "Take that, Mr. Romney!"
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org