01 August 2012
Romney's 'culture' war in the Middle East
Mitt Romney's first international tour as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee did not go well. Observing from home, Democrats accused him of denigrating the British because of comments he made -- from a position of acknowledged expertise as a past Olympic organizer -- about London's preparations for the current Summer games. More consequential were comments made in Israel, where Romney appeared to attribute economic disparities between Israelis and Palestinians to cultural differences. The backlash clearly has Romney reeling, for he has tried to have it both ways since. Whether he can get away with that depends on what he meant by culture in the first place. His original remarks were provocative because many who heard or read them assumed that by "culture" he meant something intrinsically Palestinian, Arab or Muslim. The candidate told FOX News that he meant nothing of the kind, but in an article under his byline on the National Review website he insists anew that "culture" does matter. He makes no comparison, however, between Jewish or Zionist culture, on one hand, and Arab or Islamic culture, on the other. Instead, he restates his theme in American ideological terms. Asking "what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture," Romney now says that the crucial distinction is between "a culture that is based on individual freedom," -- the kind the U.S. and Israel have under the best circumstances -- and something else that goes unspecified. The implication is that Palestine, under Fatah or Hamas, lacks such an individual-freedom culture, particularly in the economic sphere. The problem for Romney is that, by leaving it implicit only -- by failing to present evidence, even if it only satisfies Republican standards, that Palestinian policies retard their economy -- he leaves himself open to the inference that he blames Palestinian backwardness on Islam or Arab cultural traits. But were he to talk, as he would in an American context, about job-killing regulations, he might have to acknowledge that some of the regulations burdening Palestinians are of Israeli rather than Palestinian authorship. Having made that point, I should add that the relationship between "culture" in any sense of the word and progress in any sense of that word is a fair topic for frank discussion. To this day, historians debate whether Christian culture retarded or encouraged progress during the Middle Ages; neither side of the argument is politically incorrect. The problem with Romney's approach to a similar question in the Middle East is that he approached it with a politician's vagueness rather than a historian's commitment to precision. However offensive his original statement seemed to many people, he was probably trying not to be offensive. If so, it was naive of him to think he could draw comparisons between Israel and Palestine without angering somebody. He may as well have been upfront with what we assume are a Republican's criticisms of Palestinian culture across the board. Instead, we have to infer something more from the National Review piece, in which he cites both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement as examples of a culture changing itself for the better. What would an equivalent change for Palestine look like? One can guess that for Romney it would include an end to hatred of Jews. Beyond that, the candidate remains vague, but it's apparent that the burden of change, as far as he's concerned, lies entirely on Palestinian shoulders. That's an opinion that can be challenged, as is any that denies any Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian predicament -- but I'll refrain from challenging it further here because I don't want to put any more words in poor Romney's mouth. He's had a hard enough week already.