Cultural Matters and Minefields
The current flap over what Mitt Romney said or meant about cultural differences having something to do with economic disparities between Israel and its nearest neighbor accentuates (1) exactly why culture does indeed matter, and not just economically; and (2) exactly why politicians generally work triple time from even inching up on the subject, and not just in foreign affairs.
During remarks at a fundraiser in Israel the other day, Mr. Romney cited David Landes, an emeritus professor of economic history at Harvard, as having concluded, after a lifetime of study that, “culture makes all the difference” in explaining quite a lot. The fact that the soon-to-be-official Republican presidential nominee now claims he really wasn’t talking about Israeli and Palestinian cultures is “unfortunate” (as they say in the diplomatic trade) because he described Professor Landes’ fundamental conclusion pretty close to perfectly, off by just a modifier. Or at the very least, his comments were close enough to perfect as campaign appearances go.
Here, for example, is an opening paragraph by Professor Landes in an opening chapter to an invaluable anthology published in 2000, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, edited by another two distinguished Harvard scholars, Lawrence E. Harrison and the late Samuel P. Huntington.
“Max Weber was right,” he began,
If we learn anything from the history of economic development, it is that culture makes almost all the difference [emphasis supplied]. Witness the enterprise of expatriate minorities – the Chinese in East and Southeast Asia, Indians in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, Jews and Calvinists throughout much of Europe, and on and on. Yet culture, in the sense of the inner values and attributes that guide population, frightens scholars. It has a sulfuric odor of race and inheritance, an air of immutability. In thoughtful moments, economists and other social scientists recognize that this is not true, and indeed they salute examples of cultural change for the better while deploring changes for the worse. . . . The technician would rather change interest and exchange rates, free up trade, alter political institutions, manage. Besides, criticisms of culture cut close to the ego and injure identity and self-esteem. Coming from outsiders, such animadversions, however tactful and indirect, stink of condescension. Benevolent improvers have learned to steer clear.
Chances are excellent that Mr. Romney, being the fast learner that most successful candidates are, will take Professor Landes’ kicker about “benevolent improvers” steering clear very much to heart and long-term memory, and I trust there’s barely a chance in the world he’ll be comparing and contrasting any worldwide cultures again in the foreseeable.
That’s fine, or at least not terrible. But thinking now of profoundly difficult domestic issues in which fixing the culture is much more important than fixing the equivalent of exchange rates (family breakdown and educational failure, as you might imagine, come quickest to mind), it would be even more “unfortunate” if Mr. Romney winds up steering clear there, too. This is especially the case since he has so much to personally offer on such tough subjects. (Am I offending or hurting anyone’s self-esteem by saying that Mormons have been known to be great when it comes to families and education?)