Politics & Policy

Culture, Romney, and the Press

His purported “gaffe” demonstrates his thoughtfulness and the press’s ignorance.

Hermann Goering is usually “credited” with the line “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.” Apparently the allergy to the word “culture” remains strong, for its use by Mitt Romney has been viewed by certain Palestinian “leaders” and by the elite Western press as a scandal.

Romney has explained further: “During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy. But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?”

What did Romney actually say in Jerusalem? The full context of his remarks is conveyed in very few of the stories complaining about or attacking them, so here is the relevant portion:

I was thinking this morning, as I prepared to come into this room, of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about the differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice a dramatic, 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.

I noted that part of my interest when I used to be in the world of business is I would travel to different countries — was to understand why there were such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries. I read a number of books on the topic. One that is widely acclaimed is by someone named Jared Diamond called “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth. And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other, very similar, in some cases, geographic outlets.

But then there was a book written by a former Harvard professor named “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.” And in this book Mr. Landes describes differences that have — particularly among the great civilizations that grew and why they grew and why they became great and those that declined and why they declined. And after about 500 pages of this lifelong analysis — this had been his study for his entire life — and he’s in his early 70s at this point. He says this, he says, if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference.

The New York Times conveys its version of the remarks this way:

Mitt Romney found himself on the defensive yet again on his overseas trip, this time after offending Palestinian leaders with comments he made at a breakfast fund-raiser here on Monday. Speaking to roughly four dozen donors at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Mr. Romney suggested that cultural differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians were the reason the Israelis were so much more economically successful than the Palestinians, without mentioning the impact that deep trade restrictions imposed by the Israeli government have had on the Palestinian economy.

Professor David Landes wrote his book in 1998, and in those days the Times had not yet descended as fully as it has now into trendy liberal claptrap. Andrew Porter, the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College, London, and editor of The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume 3: The Nineteenth Century, was asked to review the book. Porter summed up Landes’s thesis this way:

Natural endowments, including landscape, water, soils, minerals or climate, have been more or less important at different times, but they were never sufficient conditions: geography is not destiny. The timing of opportunities for industrial development has brought variations in the paths of individual countries but no insuperable obstacles. The making of an industrial revolution has always been dependent ultimately on a society’s prior culture and continuing qualities. Riches, without the appropriate cultural traits, have never been secure or sustainable. . . . In the pursuit of wealth, failure or success are ultimately determined from within, not imposed from outside.

He quotes Landes writing that “If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes all the difference.”

This would not have surprised the Arab intellectuals who wrote the United Nations Development Program’s “Arab Human Development Report” in 2002. There they wrote: “There is a substantial lag between Arab countries and other regions in terms of participatory governance. The wave of democracy that transformed governance in most of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 1990s has barely reached the Arab States. This freedom deficit undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.” They then discussed the poor treatment of women in so many Arab lands and said, “As a consequence, more than half of Arab women are still illiterate.” But poor educational achievements are not a problem only for women: “Illiteracy rates are much higher than in much poorer countries.” Writing of “the knowledge gap,” they said that “Arab countries’ access to and use of cutting edge technology, exemplified by information and communication technology is very limited.”

They conclude that “culture and values are the soul of development” and that “traditional culture and values, including traditional Arab culture and values, can be at odds with those of the globalizing world.”

Perhaps Mr. Romney should have quoted some of this. Perhaps he should have invoked other cultures as well. Who can doubt, for example, that the economic success of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan owes something to Chinese culture? Is that a controversial statement for me to write? Perhaps he should have quoted Max Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

In fact what he said was clear enough, and ought not to have been controversial. His purported “gaffe” actually demonstrates two things.

The first is that he has actually read and thought about these issues: What causes development, why are some nations more advanced than others, and what explains prosperity? Had Al Gore or Barack Obama mentioned reading the two books Mr. Romney mentioned, the press would have spent weeks fawning over their intellectuality, brilliance, and learning. If Mr. Romney is elected, it will be interesting to see how he reforms our foreign-aid programs. I would like to have been present during his conversation with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas, when they discussed Palestinian economic development.

The second thing that was demonstrated is the ignorance and irresponsibility of the press, which immediately called Romney’s discussion a “gaffe.” The Times’ coverage of this “gaffe” relied heavily on Saeb Erekat, a PLO official most famous for his lies (see “>this or this) about the “Jenin massacre” in 2002. But that was ten years ago, and the Times’ correspondent accompanying Mr. Romney and writing about his “gaffe” was only 19 at the time and may not have been paying attention.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and deputy national-security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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