Where’s an Etch-a-Sketch when you need one?

The flap started with an article in the Telegraph (UK), and these lines ignited the controversy: “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.”   the resulting furor caused a bit of back-pedaling:

“Romney, in an NBC News interview, dismissed the comment but said the United States and Britain do enjoy specialties and that he believes Obama recognizes this as well.

“It goes back to our very beginnings — cultural and historical. But I also believe the president understands that. So I don’t agree with whoever that adviser might be, but do agree that we have a very common bond between ourselves and Great Britain,” the former Massachusetts governor said.” [Reuters]

Now perhaps the unidentified campaign adviser has been tossed under the circling and honking Romney bus?  However, there is some confusion.  Romney spokesperson Ryan Williams angrily denounced the Telegraph for “an anonymous and false quote,” [YahNews] and Andrea Saul, Romney Press Secretary also disavowed any connection between the campaign, the candidate, and the quotes. [CBS] Meanwhile, the Telegraph has published no revision to its original article, citing two of former Massachusetts Governor Romney’s foreign policy advisers.

Benefits and Doubts

The first part of the quotation is essentially accurate, as observed by Otto von Bismarck who replied to a question about was the greatest political fact of modern times, “The inherited and permanent fact that North America speaks English.” [OUP]  The phrase, “special relationship,” comes from comments made by Sir Winston Churchill in 1944.  As much as the attack on Pearl Harbor set Bismarck’s assessment in concrete, the ground wasn’t as firm before that event, as  Lynne Olson’s “Citizen of London” meticulously documents.   Before World War II isolationist sentiment was clearly evident in the U.S. and Franklin D. Roosevelt had to tread carefully before the Lend Lease Program was approved.  For their part, the  British seemed to have moved on from categorizing problems with American military personnel as stemming from them being, “over paid, over sexed, and over here.”  Since World War II the U.S. and U.K. have lent and leased almost every conceivable thing — tangible and intangible – between them.

There are some troubling inferences in the adviser’s comments, and some reasons to wonder why the Romney Campaign hasn’t announced someone’s resignation.

Possibility One: The Romney foreign policy adviser is alleging that the Obama Administration is incompetently unaware of the nature or history of U.S. and U.K. relations since the mid 1940’s.   The candidate himself places much distance between himself and this interpretation.

Possibility Two:  The foreign policy adviser was struggling to find a way to describe the Bismarckian origins of the special relationship and blundered into using “Anglo-Saxon” without thinking of the implications of its use by racists in the United States.  The foreign policy adviser also appears to have a limited range of historical literacy — 1066 seems to have disappeared from the overall context.  The British are Welsh, Northern Irish, Scots, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norse, and Anglo-Norman.  They are also Caribbean Black, African Black, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, and whatever else is included in the approximately 9% of the  population that isn’t classified as European white.

Given the historical and current diversity of the United Kingdom, why would a supposedly educated foreign policy adviser stumble onto to “Anglo-Saxon” as a major component of the origin of our Special Relationship?

It’s a WASP thing?  There are places in which the phrase White Anglo Saxon Protestant has great meaning.   The ironic part is that the Angle/Saxon element is almost extraneous.  The United States was for many decades controlled by elites who were predominantly White (British origin) and Protestant.   It may have been Josiah Strong who crystallized the notion during the 1890s of an Anglo-Saxon (English speaking) culture which could dominate weaker ethnic groups, dispossess others, and mold the remainder in its own image.

If the foreign policy adviser recalled, and then used, the term “Anglo-Saxon” as it is associated with the ethnocentric illusions of the early 20th century, then there’s a mind-set in close proximity to a candidate for the U.S. presidency that isn’t healthy in the early 21st.

Unsettled Questions

Why didn’t the foreign policy adviser say, “We share elements of a common British heritage?”   If the original phrasing emanated from the Josiah Strong school of blatant ethnic imperialism, then the interpretation of the remarks as fundamentally racist in character is appropriate.  If the original phrasing was a “dog whistle” that the current U.S. President is African-American and therefore doesn’t fully appreciate the special relationship because he is culturally excluded from the majority, then little wonder at the negative reaction to the comment.

Or, perhaps the expression was simply Waspish.  It came from the  elitist core of white Protestant America internalized by a foreign policy adviser, isolated and thereby insulated, from knowing how the expression might be received in other quarters.   The phrase “out of touch” comes to mind.

However out of touch the adviser may be, the comment should not be fully dismissed out of mind.  Unfortunately, it takes its place among other expressions which have not been warmly received in public.  “We’ve given all you people need to know.”  “I like being able to fire people who provide services for me.”  “My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs.” “Corporations are people my friends.”   The last thing the Romney campaign needs is yet another reminder of how inept its wordsmiths are in the presence of the press.

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