Friday, August 03, 2012

Jared Diamond refutes Mitt Romney (just like in Annie Hall)

Remember that scene in Annie Hall where Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) are waiting in line to see a movie and there's a pretentious academic blowhard behind them talking about Marshall McLuhan (the famous Canadian communications theorist)? (You can watch it below.)

"What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it," says an increasingly annoyed Alvy, who then turns directly to the audience: "What do you do when you get stuck on a movie line with a guy like this behind you? It's just maddening."

The guy then challenges him: "Wait a minute. Why can't I give my opinion? It's a free country."

To which Alvy responds, "Do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren't you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is... Marshall McLuhan, you don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan's work.

"Really, really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called 'TV, Media, and Culture.' So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity."

"Oh, do you? Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so..."

Whereupon the real Marshall McLuhan, playing himself, proceeds to tell the blowhard he knows nothing of his work. "How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing."

"Boy, if life were only like this," says Alvy.


Yes, if only.

But sometimes life does indeed imitate art, and sometimes this very thing happens. Like yesterday, when it happened to Mitt Romney, another pontificating blowhard who knows nothing.

You may recall that while in Israel recently Romney gave a speech in which he said that the difference between the Israelis and Palestinians in terms of political and economic success can be attributed to culture, and to that end cited two well-known books, including Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which he claimed makes the case that "the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there," not culture. (The culture argument, he claimed, can be found in David Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.)

Romney's argument was, and is, utterly ridiculous. James Fallows effectively picked it apart. What's more, as Jon Chait wrote, Romney doesn't seem to understand the issue at all, let alone the nuanced historical analyses of Diamond and Landes: "Romney oversimplifies the arguments to a degree that he badly misses the point."

And then came the Annie Hall moment.

Yesterday, Diamond published an op-ed in the Times refuting Romney, just like McLuhan refuted that blowhard:

MITT ROMNEY'S latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar’s arguments, oversimplified the issue.

It is not true that my book "Guns, Germs and Steel," as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, "basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth."

That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.

And so on... I encourage you to read the whole thing. Diamond even notes that Landes "would find Mr. Romney's statement that 'culture makes all the difference' dangerously out of date."

Isn't it great when life is like this?

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