Sometimes the world seems a little smaller.
Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel was such a moment. Demonstrating rhetorical instincts that should get him booked routinely on MSNBC, Palestinian official Saeb Erekat denounced the Republican candidate as a racist. It was a heartening display of the commonality of Romney critics. Whatever their varied backgrounds or interests, they all speak in one voice when it comes to attributing racial hatred to the former Massachusetts governor.
In Jerusalem, Romney’s offense was noting at a fundraiser the starkly different economic performances of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel has a per capita GDP of $31,000, the West Bank and Gaza just $1,500. “As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation,” Romney said, “I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”
At that, Erekat pounced. “It is a racist statement,” he huffed, “and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.” Judging by his performance, Erekat is almost as good at calling Republicans racist as people in the United States who do it for a living. His understanding of the fundamentals of economic growth and the Palestinian predicament isn’t as impressive, though. Otherwise he wouldn’t get the vapors at the mention of the word “culture,” or the suggestion that contemporary Palestinian culture is lacking.
Erekat evidently hasn’t read much Tocqueville — and that’s a cultural deficiency right there. “I am convinced,” Tocqueville wrote, “that the luckiest of geographic circumstances and the best of laws cannot maintain a constitution in despite of mores, whereas the latter can turn even the most unfavorable circumstances and the worst laws to advantage.”
Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America is in part a study of how the cultural inheritance of this country shaped it. Even before they came here, even before they were Americans, emigrants from England were used to an active civic life, trial by jury, freedom of speech and the press, individual rights and their assertion. “They carried these free institutions and virile mores with them to America,” Tocqueville writes, “and these characteristics sustained them against the encroachments of the state.” They made themselves, as a result, wealthy and free.
This has nothing to do with race. The author Lawrence Harrison wrote a book called The Central Liberal Truth on the interplay of culture and development. In it, he notes the difference between the basket case of Haiti and relatively well-governed, well-off Barbados. Both are populated by the descendants of slaves from West Africa. Both were European sugar colonies. The difference is that Haiti won its independence from France early in the 19th century, while Barbados steadily absorbed British values and institutions until it eventually gained its independence in 1966.
Israel is part of the culture of the West, as can be seen in its commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and individual achievement. Romney adviser Dan Senor and Saul Singer co-wrote a book on Israeli entrepreneurship called Start-up Nation. “It is a story,” they write, “not just of talent but of tenacity, of insatiable questioning of authority, of determined informality, combined with a unique attitude toward failure, teamwork, mission, risk, and cross-disciplinary creativity.” In short, it is a story of a culture of entrepreneurship.
Yes, the Palestinians are hobbled by Israeli roadblocks and the like. But they are crippled by the fact that they live in an illiberal society obsessed with perpetuating the conflict with Israel over almost all else. Lawrence Harrison cites many examples of countries that have undergone cultural change — from South Korea to Ireland — under farsighted leadership and the pressure of events. Change is particularly difficult, though, when the need for it is “brought home by the strengths of other cultures that have achieved higher levels of progress.”
In Jerusalem, Romney only said what was obvious. Meaningful change won’t come for the Palestinians until they admit it.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry(at sign)nationalreview.com. © 2012 King Features Syndicate