Mitt Romney’s position is simple: The economic difference between Israel and Palestine largely comes down to Israel’s culture, but not Palestine’s culture, of which Romney has nothing to say. It’s a very simple comparison between two different concepts, one of which Romney wasn’t actually talking about. Got that?
That, at least, is the line from the Romney campaign about its candidate’s pronouncement, on Monday, that Israeli wealth and Palestinian poverty could be attributed in large part to the superior “culture” of Israel. After a member of the Palestinian government—among other people—decried Romney’s claim as “racist” and pointed out that it ignored decades of systematic oppression, Romney tried to correct the record on Tuesday with two rather baffling clarifications.
In the first clarification, speaking to Fox News’ Carl Cameron, Romney noted that he had not directly mentioned ”the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy.” Which is true, but sort of irrelevant, because he was making a comparative statement about the Palestinian economy and the Israeli economy. It follows that whatever he said about the Israeli economy meant something about Palestine.
For example, if I say that the difference between chocolate ice cream and vanilla ice cream is that chocolate ice cream is delicious, am I not saying that vanilla ice cream is not delicious? Even though I never actually made a direct evaluative claim about vanilla ice cream? By the same token, Mitt Romney has made it clear that he does not find Palestinian culture delicious.
The second clarification, though, is beyond baffling: it’s deeply alarming. In a column for National Review Online called “Culture Does Matter,” Romney writes: “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 other words: Israeli ice cream is delicious, and Palestinian ice cream is not.
But what makes this second clarification so confusing isn’t just Romney’s attempt to un-say what he said while still somehow saying it: it’s that Romney seems to have no clear idea how culture and economic development interact. As far as I can parse from his column—which, just so we’re clear, is not a transcription of an off-the-cuff segment, but something that he or his campaign staff sat down and thought hard about—good “culture” for Romney just means “capitalist liberal democracy.” This is a very odd, extraordinarily narrow way to think of culture.
Consider that, besides Israel and Palestine, the examples Romney uses to illustrate his point East and West Germany and North and South Korea. Of course, East and West Germany had several thousand years of shared culture to their name; but, by means of a partition enforced on them by the international community, West Germany became a capitalist liberal democracy and East Germany became a Soviet satellite state. “Economic freedom” did not emerge organically out of German culture, whatever that would mean, but was enforced by the Allied states that had just defeated Germany in a war.
Of course, a similar claim could be made about the Palestinians: their economic fate is not in their hands. Their poverty has been enforced by third parties. If that’s “culture,” then the word is so elastic as to be basically meaningless, except as a way of shifting blame for poverty away from where it truly belongs.