The flap over Mitt Romney’s Israeli vs. Palestinian culture comments is, of course, just another insignificant little teacup tempest. It’s silly season in American politics, so we need something to talk about. So what the hell, I’ll comply.
Here’s Romney’s comment in full:
Culture makes all the difference…And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things…As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.
Critics rightly responded that, especially in the case of Palestine, there might be a little bit more than just culture. A half-century long occupation might have had some effect as well. I have a former student whose family olive tree farm was obliterated a few years ago by Israel to make room for the wall. Her family wanted to keep farming, but their business was taken away from them. That’s not culture. Travel prohibitions, a nearly total ban on exports from Gaza, and a ban on many imports are hard to fit under the culture rubric as well.
But the Palestinian Authority’s response that Romney’s statement was “racist” is almost certainly inaccurate. Culture is not race. Romney’s birth state of Michigan has a large population of Arabs, including lots of Palestinians. They are very prominent in the business community of Dearborn, Michigan. What would Romney say about them? I think it’s most likely he would praise them. That is, I think Romney wouldn’t look at Dearborn and say, “that 7% unemployment rate, lower than the state and national average, is so high because there’s something wrong with Arabs.” Instead, I think he’d say something like, “see, in the right culture, Arabs are just as economically productive as anyone else.” That’s not racism, although it may be culturism..
But the left has a lot of ambivalence about culture. Their on-going reaction to eugenics–and it’s most extreme expression, the Nazi genocide of “inferior” races–leads them to favor social constructionist theories in which culture is everything, the whole force that shapes individuals. From that perspective, it’s hard to honestly object when someone uses culture as an explanation for difference, because that’s what the left itself does. That does not mean it’s wrong to critique the quality of the argument, to say that a Romney’s understanding of the particular cultures and their effects is wrong. And that happens, of course, but I’ve also seen this visceral reaction, the quick assumption that it’s really racism, before. When I was in grad school, an undergraduate said he thought Mexican culture made people lazy. An ignorant position, to be sure, but he was publicly excoriated, with at least one left-leaning professor publicly denouncing him as a racist.
I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the quick resort to racism stems from the left’s commitment to cultural equality. They frequently insist that cultures aren’t better or worse, just different, primarily as a means of denying western culture a claim to superiority over the cultures of regions that haven’t become as wealthy and politically dominant. But of course this runs them into problems, because it’s easy to find significant aspects of other cultures that the left just can’t stomach: footbinding, female circumcision, honor killings, machismo culture, and so on.
And as it turns out, culture does matter for economic development, and the left agrees. In grad school I remember some leftist students suggesting that China wasn’t a good candidate for capitalism because of its Confucian culture.* And of course they attribute much of western economic growth to aspects of western culture that they dislike, it’s materialism, greed, atomistic social relations, over-competitiveness, and so on. So they can’t easily deny that Romney may be partially right. But to do so would be to engage in criticism of an oppressed group, which is itself anathema to the left.
*They were very disconcerted when a fellow grad student who had been a businessman in Asia laughed at them and claimed, in contrast, that the Chinese were better capitalists than westerners.