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The Corner

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Candor and Culture



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Culture — not race, geography, or location — is the greatest factor in economic, and military, dynamism. It used to be that the classically liberal view focused on culture — because it was not race-based and often is a volatile and fluid concept that can be changed. For example, the economy of contemporary China came to resemble Taiwan’s rather than Taiwan’s emulating 1960s China. Few believe that a unique micro-geography in North Korea explains why its way of life differs from the South, or that climate ensures that Tijuana is a very different place from San Diego, or that the differences between East and West Germany were due to genetic or racial variables, or that China between 1964 and 2012 underwent climate change. “Western” does not denote a race, but rather a set of values and protocols that originated in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem and were adopted, modified, and expanded through the next two millennia of European history — and are undergoing radical changes as we speak.

Culture can encompass politics, and is affected by history, and in the long view perhaps by climate and geography as well, but it is mostly a pattern of accustomed behavior across a society that alters the otherwise shared expression of a common human nature. The differences between the West Bank and Israel that Romney observed cannot be attributed to the so-called occupation, given that, with a smaller population, Israel also has a far larger GDP than, say, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, or Yemen. The 2002 “Arab Human Development Report,” written by a team of Arab scholars, was reasonably clear about the cultural causes of Middle East economic stagnation — a general discrimination against women, a lack of transparency and meritocracy, impediments to free expression and the rule of law — while gingerly stepping around the chicken-and-the-egg question of whether Arab authoritarianism was a driver of such stasis or itself a reflection of larger, popular cultural assumptions about politics, religion, education, and gender and ethnic differences. 

The real issue is only whether we are allowed to say things, from time to time, that everyone assumes to be true. Barack Obama chooses to put his children in a particular school that is based on very different “quality of life” assumptions from those operating in the Washington, D.C., public-school system. Nancy Pelosi makes cultural assumptions all the time in matters of where she buys her homes. Most elites I know prefer Menlo Park to Tulare, even though housing is far cheaper in the latter and it is much closer to the Sierra. The most virulent Western critic of Israel, if suffering a heart attack in Damascus, Amman, or Cairo, would prefer, if possible, to be operated on in Tel Aviv. Sharp Arab critics of the West often send their children to American and European schools. Again, the hysteria is over candor, not truth.



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