Mitt Romney and the Left’s Cultural Ambivalence

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.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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19 Responses to Mitt Romney and the Left’s Cultural Ambivalence

  1. Pinky says:

    I can recommend Daniel Kahnheman’s recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, to you. The issue here might not have anything to do with reality except that it raises an issue and gives support to a political bias. Check out the book:

  2. Troublesome Frog says:

    Culture is clearly an important issue for development, which is a shame because as you note, it’s easy to spin it as racism. Do you let your women go to school? Is bribery an accepted norm rather than an outrage? Or, if we want to take a close look at ourselves, is academic achievement praised or dumped on? It’s kind of hard to argue either that those things are not “culture” or that they don’t have anything to do with development.

    Using the Palestinians as an example was decidedly stupid and clearly just pandering (look! I’m with YOU and not THEM!). Admit it, though: Romney praising the Israeli health care system as a welcome contrast to ours was a hoot, wasn’t it?

  3. Pinky says:

    It doesn’t make any difference if using the Palestinians had anything to do with anything other than to keep the issue on the minds of the public. By doing this, the bias of a prejudiced people is kept active. Why do you think so many misrepresentations are made in any political campaign? Did you think it was because the lies are believed? What about the Birthers? Are they really concerned about Obama’s birthplace or are they just interested in keeping the bias active? It might be worth your time to read Kahneman’s book. It’s a real eye opener. He is highly respected in academia.

  4. Pinky says:

    If you can afford the experts, it’s easy to lead the public down one slope or another. Thinking that such important issues as who gets to hold political offices in our government is decided on facts is as lame brained as can be. Even the most respected experts can be easily deluded.

  5. James Hanley says:

    I haven’t read Kahneman’s book, but I’m familiar with his work and I did buy the book as a gift for someone else.

  6. Pinky says:

    Whoever you gave it to will let you borrow it back. It’s worth the effort.

  7. pierrecorneille says:

    I think one reason for liberals and members of the lefts’ quickness to link culturism to racism comes in part from the leaps that some people can make between culture and race. It’s not too many steps from the simplistic claim that “Mexican culture encourages laziness” to someone saying, “hey, that guy looks like a Mexican, therefore he’s probably lazy..” I agree that liberals are probably too quick to claim “racism!” when they should claim “simplistic reductionism of culture to certain practices and norms that are most visible to outside observer but things are really more complicated!”

    For one thing, the quickness to claim racism does discourage one from criticizing, say, footbinding. (I had a pro-Mao Chinese history professor who was very quick to say we shouldn’t criticize footbinding because 1) We shouldn’t judge them by western standards and 2) [forgetting point no. 1] Some upper-class women in England felt social pressure to wear damaging corsets. I don’t think he actually made the claim of racism, however.)

    I’m puzzled a little by this claim you make, however:

    Their [members of the left] 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.

    I see the left and to a lesser extent left-of-center liberals as much more willing to posit “structures” as shapers of individuals (and of culture). Sometimes they seem to use “structures” to mean “anything bad that happens at any time to any marginalized person because that’s how the man wants it.” But it seems to me they usually, or at least in their more reflective moments, mean “structures” as the set of institutional practices that perpetuate cycles of dominance.

    For a Marxist-leftist, these structures are the legal mechanisms to police the waged labor relationship in such a way as to compel people to work and (for a subset of them) the pro-union laws that incorporate unions into the dominant capitalist system. Under this view, cultural differences are epiphenomenal to the “objective” realities. For a feminist-leftist, these structures might be the incidents of patriarchy–laws of coverture, pro-life regulations, interpretations of law that make it difficult to claim wage discrimination for “comparable worth,” the practice of rape and the threat of rape as a way to control and intimidate women. Under this view, cultural differences can be more a manifestation of different ways of doing patriarachy, and not necessarily something that’s off-limits to criticism.

    I think I understand what you mean about the reaction against eugenics feeding a radical view of culture as sole determinant of human difference. Even then, I think its most obvious manifestation is to resist attempts to, say, over-interpret apparent differences in IQ’s.

    Still, the types of examples you mention–decrying as racist the suggestion that Confucianism makes a society less amenable to capitalism–do exist and need to be remedied.

  8. James Hanley says:


    It also manifest in a horror of any biological arguments whatsoever, particularly evolutionary ones. Apropos of track and field starting at the Olympics today, I’ve actually been told that the speed difference between men and women in track is just an artefact of social institutions, and has no biological basis.

    Very few liberals/the left are that extreme, obviously. There’s really no ambivalence when a person gets to that point. But there is some influence of the social constructionist thinking (and, I add, to some extent that’s good, since biology ain’t everything, either) that’s not normally well worked out, and that’s why I speak of “ambivalence.”

  9. Lancifer says:

    The “left” is obsessed with group politics. Marxism had its “classes” and modern leftists put people in categories that are delineated into “oppressed” and “oppressor”.

    The beauty of this scheme is that most people self-identify as “oppressed”. The left just has to subdivide people into various, races, sexual orientations, genders, ethnicities, nationalities cultures, linguistic groups etc.

    They then appeal to people that self-identify as a member of one of these “oppressed” groups as wanting to represent their interests against the “oppressors”.

    And the best part of this strategy is that the subset of people that can’t escape the fact that they are part of the “oppressor” group can get salvation from their guilt by joining the “movement” to “empower” the “oppressed”.


  10. Pinky says:

    You probably can cite some evidence top prove your claims about the “left” as you call those of us who claim to be liberals. I’d like to see itr.

  11. Lancifer says:


    You seem a bit touchy.

    Perhaps you have been oppressed. Contact your local Democratic party chair. I’m sure they will validate your victim status and get you in touch with someone that can make sure that you are not “disenfranchised”.

    Your observations about the “right” have not been annotated. Why the call for citations for my opinions of the “left”?

  12. Matty says:


    You have a point about the effect of left wing politics but I’d put the motives a bit less cynically. The left is a political tradition born in the French revolution and the image of peasants against aristocrats. To be left wing is to some extent to see yourself as on the side of the underdog and the fact is while everyone has some disadvantages the people with lots do tend to form identifiable groups. So when I say I support the gay rights movement I don’t mean that I want to separate gay people off as a separate group, I mean that where people, who happen to be gay, are on the weaker side of a struggle that attracts my political sympathies.

    Now unlike some leftist I’m suspicious of transferring our sympathy from individuals who are underdogs to the groups they happen to belong to, primarily because I worry that self appointed groups leader start telling people what their interests are but also as I share your worries about the effects of dividing people up. However I think identifying and siding with the people who are getting a raw deal is still worth doing.

  13. Pinky says:

    I identify with lhe struggle that is as old as history. Of course I see the oppression. Don’t we all?

  14. lancifer666 says:


    However I think identifying and siding with the people who are getting a raw deal is still worth doing.

    Of course “siding” with those that are getting a “raw deal” is the just thing to do. I would just prefer to frame it as fixing the system to provide justice for all individuals rather than one “side” versus another “side”.

    I find it ironic that the left is big on using the term “the other” to describe minorities that are being “oppressed” while continuing to reinforce the idea of group identity which has at its core the idea that people come in distinct “groups”. This perpetuates the perception of people in different groups as “the other”.

  15. Pinky says:

    Using the word, different, implies others..

  16. lancifer666 says:

    Strictly speaking everyone but “me” is the “other”.

    I think our country, and indeed the world, works best when people identify with all of humanity rather than playing “us against them” political games.

    While Ethiopia’s Meles Zanawi has been a tyrant and a despot he has attempted to end tribalism in his homeland. Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups or “tribes” that have different languages, physical features, and cultural customs. Meles Zanawi has attempted to end this destructive way of looking at people. I am often surprised at how well Ethiopians look past tribal differences and work together as one people.

    Often when I ask a person what is there tribal background they will say I am Ethiopian. Only when they realize I am just asking about their cultural ad familial ties do they identify with a “tribe”.

    This didn’t happen by accident and I think our country could learn from Ethiopia’s purposeful attempt to end the politics of racial and ethnic division.

  17. Pinky says:

    Aside from the idea that life could be a bed of roses if we would all just get along with each other, it’s obvious that isn’t the way things work.

    Progress appears to depend on some sort of struggle to keep everything moving along. It’s how we developed to be who, what, how, and where we are all the way from the beginning.

    I’m thinking we need the other in order to improve the state of our being.

  18. James Hanley says:

    I worry that self appointed groups leader start telling people what their interests are

    Matty hates democracy. ;)

  19. AMW says:

    Having lived in Israel for a couple of years (albeit more than a decade ago) I’m convinced of two things: 1) Palestinians would be a lot wealthier if their lands were unoccupied, and 2) A free Palestine would still be a lot poorer than Israel.

    But I’d sure like the Palestinians to have a chance to prove me wrong about #2.

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