The fracas over Mitt Romney’s nameless aide, who appears to have said that Romney is better placed than the president to understand the Anglo-Saxon heritage that Britain and the United States share, is a complicated one, and it deserves more attention than either a reflexive defense of the campaign or the now ubiquitous charge of “racism” can allow. But before looking at exactly what the aide said — or at least what he was reported to have said – there are a few things to get out of the way; things that are getting lost in the hysteria and that may well be falling down the cracks that have emerged between our shared national assumptions.
Firstly, it is undeniable that Britain and America share an “Anglo-Saxon heritage.” It is not, of course, the only American heritage — or British heritage, for that matter — but it is the dominant one, and it is the one whose values have ruled for better or for worse for the last 400 years. That much is historical fact. My view of this fact is that the British Empire and American project have both been net Good Things and that we should be thankful for them. I am unapologetic in this view, although I regret that the term “Anglo-Saxon” is a little limited and is often deployed inaccurately as a proxy for “British,” ignoring both the Scottish – unfortunate given that they did much, if not most, of the work — and the attendant protestantism that was crucial to American conceptions of liberty and much of British imperial success. Those who have jumped on this incident to decry Anglo-Saxon heritage per se remind me of Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea, the left-wing agitprop group from Life of Brian who ask, ”apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, viniculture, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Further, as a Brit who has lived both in my country of birth and in the United States during President Obama’s tenure, I have been disappointed with the manner in which he has treated the special relationship — rudely returning the bust of Churchill, often omitting to mention British soldiers who have died alongside their American counterparts, his lack of support over the Falklands, and so forth — and I have ardently hoped for closer ties to be restored when he leaves office. It takes two to tango, and Barack Obama is not the only wallflower in the complement — the British establishment can be reflexively anti-American and sickeningly pro-Europe, and benefits from neither – but there is nothing remotely controversial about regretting that the ties between London and Washington aren’t stronger, nor observing that the president is culpable in this regard.
As such, this part of the Telegraph’s story seems wholly uncontroversial:
“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.
This is uncontroversal in part because it is true and in part because it includes the crucial word “heritage.” Britain and the United States share the same language, the same system of laws, many of the same traditions, and — historically, at least — a protestant majority. The two countries have the same mother: Britons founded the American colonies, wrote the Declaration, and fought for Independence; the East coast is full of British names with “New” in front of them; and each country has often borrowed the thinkers of the other. These links have continued to the modern day and been strengthened by other combined interests and values. The busiest air route in the world is between London and New York; Britons and Americans fought alongside one another in two world wars; and their cooperation has formed the basis of global security since that time, including in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher worked together to help bring down the Soviet Union.
Indeed, so intertwined are the countries that Barack Obama’s mother, like millions of others in America, can trace her lineage directly to the Mayflower. Despite this, the president has been notably cool toward the British. To my eyes, then, this critique seems equally fair:
“Obama is a Left-winger,” said another. “He doesn’t value the Nato alliance as much, he’s very comfortable with American decline and the traditional alliances don’t mean as much to him. He wouldn’t like singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.”
That being said, there are real problems with the Romney aide’s remarks — or at least with how they were reported. (The Romney camp denies them.) Were one to remove the “heritage” part and to move away from the system of values and historical ties and toward the issue of race — in other words, to move from facts to conjecture — then what Romney’s aide allegedly said would clearly be wholly unacceptable. Certainly, the British did not do so well historically because they were British or because they were white, but because their systems and ideas and history developed in a certain way over time that lent itself to immense success. This is not an issue of race — there’s nothing genetically special about Anglo-Saxons — but of culture. There are good ideas and bad ideas and they do not rely upon the color of one’s skin. Unfortunately, the second paragraph in the Telegraph’s piece reads:
In remarks that may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity, one suggested that Mr Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr Obama, whose father was from Africa.
If the “whose father was from Africa” part of that sentence is merely the journalist adding a fact, then there is no problem. But if it is crucial to the meaning of the aide’s words, as it appears to be — i.e., “Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr. Obama because his father was from Africa” — then there is a pretty big problem here. It is not only absurd and offensive to imply that someone without American (or British) parents is less capable of understanding Anglo-Saxon heritage than someone born of them, but the very idea that one’s race should so define them flies directly in the face of the best parts of that very heritage — a heritage that has created the richest, freest, and most tolerant societies in the history of the world, and — lest anyone forget — the only one in which a white majority has elected a black head of state. (Just have a look into the likelihood of this happening in Europe to discover which is the exceptional nation.)
For this reason, if true, this contention from the aide is also problematic:
Mitt Romney would restore “Anglo-Saxon” understanding to the special relationship between the US and Britain, and return Sir Winston Churchill’s bust to the White House, according to advisers.
While the return of the bust of Churchill would be welcome, there is no such thing as “‘Anglo-Saxon’ understanding.” There are Anglo-Saxon values, to which one can subscribe or which one can reject — and many Anglo-Saxons disdain their historical values while many immigrants adore them. The advantage of America is that these values are strong enough that (almost) anyone can come here and assimilate with them if they so wish. One certainly does not need to be Anglo-Saxon or a WASP to be an American; one needs only to subscribe to values that were established by Anglo-Saxons and WASPs. Along with everybody else, Mitt Romney’s aides would do well to observe that distinction, for it’s crucial to the American idea.