One just wants to shake one’s head at the controversy over hapless presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments (a.k.a. “gaffe”) regarding the role of “culture” in Israeli economic success and presumed Palestinian lack thereof. (1, 2)
Predictably, many responses were rhetorically overheated. The Palestinian Authority’s dour Saeb Erekat promptly declared that Romney’s statement was “racist.” Argument over, right?
One senses here a certain resistance to any attempt at critical generalization. Still, the general reaction is readily understandable. Obviously, any purported comparison of Israeli and Palestinian economic performance that does not take into account “the occupation” and Palestinian lack of sovereignty is, uh, let us say, incomplete. Less obviously but just as important, however, there is a real argument to be had concerning the effects of “culture”—whether in the sense of collective values or of the resultant institutions and policies—on the overall “success” of societies.
Whatever role “culture” may or may not have played in the initial success of the Jewish state, it is undeniable that a change in culture in those broader senses has, in the space of a generation, helped to catapult Israel from the level of wannabee mid-tier player to global economic and innovation powerhouse. It was a change epitomized by President Shimon Peres, who has evolved from a traditional socialist into an advocate of high-tech entrepreneurship still capable of criticizing “crappy and piggish capitalism.”
That some of these changes exacerbated income inequality in a country once known for its egalitarianism is also undeniable—except perhaps in the eyes of the former Massachusetts governor. Whereas Peres has warned that the excesses of capitalist “economic policies have resulted in 6,000 millionaires and 6 million beggars,” Romney sees only a benevolent “free market” “that has lifted people from poverty, created a large and enduring middle class.”
Rather than comparing Israel with the Palestinian Authority, Romney might more usefully have measured it against the completely sovereign feudal monarchies, dictatorships, and other assorted kleptocracies in the neighborhood. The 2002 United Nations Arab Human Development Report, courageously welcomed by leading Arab intellectuals, noted much progress but focused on the failure to advance “as quickly as comparable nations in other regions,” as reflected in: low female literacy, high infant mortality, and low per-capita income growth. The report cited “three areas where Arab institutional structures are hindering performance and crippling human development: governance, women's empowerment, and access to knowledge.” That’s a “cultural” explanation if ever there was one.
Thanks to his clumsiness and lack of sophistication, Romney complicated rather than advanced a conversation that has become more urgent in light of both the promise and the perils of the “Arab Spring.”
His comments, as such, tell us a lot about him and not much about anything else. I gladly leave the continuing debate to others, who are evidently keeping very busy (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Still, I could not help but gasp at one of one of the more minor but most revealing attempts to refute Romney.
Garance Franke-Ruta, “a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Politics Channel,” evidently thinks she scored a slam-dunk by dragging out an old quote from Bill Clinton, who, she says archly, “had a very, very different take from Mitt Romney on Palestinian culture and its impact on Palestinian economic success.” He said, inter alia:
"Palestinians are a hard-working and an incredible community. They have done remarkably well outside their country. I have never met a poor Palestinian in the United States; every Palestinian I know is a college professor or a doctor."
Ouch. It is true that Palestinians in the US, like other Arab-Americans, can boast of higher-than-average levels of both education and prosperity (1, 2). But the former President’s remark sounds disturbingly like the patronizing positive prejudice that praises Asian-Americans as a “model minority.” More to the point, does it prove anything? The logic is ludicrous. There is no art to this kind of impressionism-as-
It’s hard to say which is more disheartening: Romney’s simplistic understanding of the world or the equally simplistic argumentation of some of his critics. And should one be more surprised that one of our most intelligent presidents made such an inane remark—or that a professional journalist in a prestigious national periodical would cite it in the belief that it proved anything?
If this is the state of political discourse in the United States, maybe it’s our own culture we should be worrying about.
Jim Wald is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist