10/17/2012 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Listening to Romney

The Chinese have a secret for understanding their politicians: watch their faces.

"I remember when Nixon was on TV debating," my Chinese teacher used to say. He was a well-known poet and taught Chinese at Stanford. His father had helped save five-thousand years of Chinese art from the Japanese invasion of the 1930's and then from the communist takeover of 1949. The poet had grown up among exiles and the remnants of Chinese culture they had tried to preserve. So he knew a little about Chinese culture.

"We would turn the TV down, my father and I, and just stare at his face. We would stare at it for minute after minute until we could come to a clear conclusion of his character."

The conclusion, of course, was that Nixon was a crook. And my professor always argued that he had applied this technique well in advance of Nixon's decline.

Today, however, with traffic so much worse and so many Americans listening to the debate on their car radios, the technique might well be applied to listening. It would still fit with Confucius' idea that a leader is there to set a tone for the society more than anything else.

So I listened. Trapped in my car, in rush hour traffic, I listened like a good Confucian to the tone, rather than the substance, of a potential leader. Like my professor, the poet, I listened not so much to what Romney was saying, but how he said it. It was chilling, his voice had the timbre of a specter, or a bad actor using fear to chill the spirits of a movie. It was like a man talking inside a can. Each breath he took, each oscillation of his voice was like the cold bellows of a nightmarish voice. Even Vincent Price, in Michael Jackson's Thriller, had a meatier, heartier laughter. Listening to Romney was like listening to an airbag filled with pure fear.

I'm not saying the president was so inspiring. His voice was more like a trumpet. It was grandstanding, filled with the bland, empty pump of oratory. But at least it was not filled with deadening, chilling, whispering terror. Romney's voice was the kind of voice you hear from the evil villain in the B-grade movie, from the older establishment good-guy detective or general who you thought was on your side as he discusses -- after he has you rendered powerless -- how he is going to dissect you or how he has already dissected your sister. A voice sans heart.

But in some ways, it is a voice that is suitable to an era of incertitude. Among the college students I teach, there is such paralysis about getting jobs that knowledge is no longer knowledge but is considered tantamount to a credit rating.

"The more facts we know," a student said to me yesterday, "is equivalent to having a higher credit rating."

So in this atmosphere, it is no wonder that Romney has risen to such heights using his whisper of doom. Listen to it. It is not that he interrupts, refuses to acknowledges questions, character assassinates when he should be responding to facts, it is this in-drawing of breath and this cold atmosphere of breathless chill that hovers in his tones that heightens fear.

As a matter of fact, the only real inspiration anyone seems to be deriving from anyone these days is from the Chinese. The politicians can't help blaming them for their problems. They've obviously done something right. They are the new scapegoat, the new fait acomplis.

And on university campuses, it is the thousands of Chinese students arriving on our shores that are inspiring. They and their parents are using their hard-earned cash to study the Italian Renaissance, English poetry, Greek history, as well as the usual math and engineering and physics.

They're not fazed by Romney's threats. They laugh off his whisper of chill. They've heard it all before. In their country, roughly 200 million poverty-stricken people scour the countryside in search of work. And their politicians stay in power by constantly threatening of the chaos that would follow any disruption of power.

But they also recognize that an atmosphere of chilling paralysis can indeed paralyze a society. I told the same student that three of my closest childhood friends nearly ended up in court over a business deal. One of them had reached the pinnacle of the one-percent through an internet deal. The other two had managed restaurants for him. Now they were on the verge of a massive lawsuit.

"We Chinese value friendship above all else," said the student. "But when you get to the point where friends are in entirely different classes, they can't see each other as they used to in the beginning."

Romney knows this. And he counts on this. Don't let his chilling tones enter your heart. Or soon you will begin to doubt your friends, too.