Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: Romney and Landes on Israelis and Palestinians

The following is a longer and linked version of the op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 in response to Romney’s comments of the difference between Israeli and Palestinian economic culture. At the time, I could only post a portion of the essay on my blog (i.e., material that was not in the Journal version). Here is the complete version.

To clarify what aspects of this essay specifically reflect my father’s thinking, I have put those passages in bold. But generally, I would say, he tended not to get embroiled in political fights and stuck to his specialties in historical matters, so in some senses these are sentiments he held but did not share publicly.

We did jointly publish a couple of essays in the New Republic, one in 1997 (the fiftieth anniversary of Zionism), and one on 9-11 in October of 2001, and given their tenor, I think he did not have any hard and fast position on not publishing his political ideas.

In rereading it, I am struck by how much subsequent events have borne out this analysis.

Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment

Mitt Romney’s comments in Jerusalem last week about the cultural dimensions of economic growth have raised a firestorm. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, (correctly) seeing an implied criticism at Palestinian culture (which Romney tried to deny), called Romney a racist and complained that the occupation stopped the “Palestinian economy from reaching its full potential.” Journalists then jumped on Erekat’s reaction to point out how Romney’s blunt partisanship for Israel has disqualified him as a broker for peace.

The comment and the reactions, however, reveal as much about the misunderstandings at play in the Middle East conflict, both socio-cultural and political, as they do about presidential politics. First, the issue of culture and economic development, in which Romney cited The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Like so many other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or built-in natural advantages like resistance to disease, access to primary resources and location. Jared Diamond, author of the “evolution” inclined Guns, Germs and Steel, has written a NYT op-ed where he moves toward the middle (both) and tries to draw David Landes in with him.

But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only Wealth and Poverty examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient. As Romney himself has earlier noted, Israel illustrates the sufficiency of culture alone: a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the economic backwater of the Ottoman Empire, it rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred. We tend to assume everyone shares our thinking about economic behavior, a cognitive egocentrism that accepts as a universal “norm” our own Western developments. For Adam Smith, rational man made economic choices based on his self-interest regardless of whether they might benefit others as well (or more). We assume that we should strive to get to “yes,” to positive-sum, win-win, voluntary relations. We hold productive work in high respect, and prize the principles of fairness embodied in the meritocratic principle of “equality before the law.” But probably the most important trait in any such society is the ability to self-criticize, to allow people to “speak truth to power,” to encourage people to recognize valid criticism and learn from it. Societies with such cultures treasure intellectual capital, encourage curiosity and risk-taking, prize transparency, and foster innovation. The better a society can embrace the paradox of rebuke (it’s easier to take than it is to give well), the higher their learning curve, the more effective their entrepreneurship. With the institutions built on such values, one that can make use of whatever primary products the land offers to generate wealth… in a phrase, a culture dedicated to making, not taking money. On the other hand, there are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary positive, but coerced zero-sum relations, where the principle of “rule or be ruled” dominates not only political but economic life. Here, where someone else’s gain is experienced as one’s own loss, one may decline opportunities that benefit others as well. As Adam Smith pointed out, men prefer inefficient slavery to wages because they treasure dominion over wealth. The leisured elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Ubiquitous protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy; public criticism brings sharp retaliation.

Many analysts prefer to emphasize institutions over culture. While that may be true in some cases, the attempt to impose economically beneficial institutions (rule of law, free press) cannot succeed where the culture rejects it. For example, one can legislate a press “free” as often as one wants, if the alpha males in the culture find public criticism an attack on their manhood, they will retaliate in ways that make sure the press self-censors. As our experience in Iraq shows, democratic institutions, even well-attended elections, cannot overcome the pervasive mistrust of tribal, ethnic, and religious commitments. In the “prime-divider” societies created by such zero-sum values, powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making, an ethos that goes back to the tribal warrior’s principle, “plunder or be plundered.”

For the plains Indians, he who raised horses was not nearly as manly as he who stole them from the enemy (other). Or, as Bernard Lewis put it, in some cultures, you make money to go into politics, while in others, you go into politics to make money. As a 2002 report by Arab intellectuals to the UN outlined in painful detail, few cultures on the planet today illustrate better the latter complex of traits. As Wealth and Poverty points out, in a politically incorrect chapter of epic proportions (24), Arab culture intensifies these problems with its attitude of hyper-jealousy and misogyny towards women, with the unfortunate results of turning out entitled sons and cloistered daughters.

As a result, even the huge influx of petrodollars in the post-war period did not change the basic contours of Arab economies: rather than fueling economic development that benefited all, it bloated corrupt and opaque elites. Oil-rich countries like Libya and Iraq have social structures much like oil-bereft ones like Egypt and Syria. Change may occur, but everywhere hindered by an authoritarian culture that fears it, as King Laius feared his son Oedipus. These are cultures of impoverishment where the majority (the masses) live in impoverished conditions, while elites thrive on their debasement.

Strikingly, Palestinian culture compares favorably with other Arabs. They have both higher education, a strong work ethic, and successful entrepreneurs. Much of that – alas for Arab honor!), comes from their close association with the Zionists, who unlike Western imperialists, settled the land without conquest, by dint of making everyone more prosperous.

From the late 19th century on, where Jews settled (Jaffa, Hebron, Jerusalem), Arab populations grew and prospered, and they remained stagnant and poor where Jews did not (Nablus, Gaza, Nazereth), something noted by pro-Zionist Arabs like Hasan Bey Shukri, as early as 1921. Many Arabs, found the presence of Jews a great advantage. Thus the Palestinian diaspora is among the best-educated and most competent in the Arab world, and, under Israeli rule (the notorious but remarkably prosperous “occupation”) the West Bank became one of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world in the 1980s.

To this day, every Israeli policy-maker, right, left and center, advocates encouraging economic growth in the West Bank: in classic positive-sum terms, it’s in Israel’s interests to have a successful Palestinian economy. Others Palestinians, however, found Jewish economic leadership an unbearable blow to their pride. Said one rioter from 1936 to the Peel Commission:

You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it.” (Palestine Royal [Peel] Commission Report (1937), p. 131)

Sooner rule in hell than share in heaven. And these actors have dominated Arab political culture (and their public sphere), starting with the attempt to obliterate the offending “Zionist entity” in 1948. The Arab League, shamed by the psychological Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, implemented disastrous negative-sum policies, imprisoning their own refugees in camps, and kicking the Jews out of Arab countries. That Jewish exodus, now being replicated by a Christian one, left the Arab world bereft of a vital economic force.

As a result, just like the Spaniards who had kicked the Jews out in 1492, the huge flow of wealth that followed – gold from the New World for Spain, petrodollars from the West for Arabs – washed through these economies like water through desert soil.

Palestinian “leaders” and the frustrated alpha males of the “Arab Street” followed suit, preferring to sacrifice their own people on the altar of lost honor. They denounced and punished anyone working with Jews as traitors. They fostered the culture of death that praises suicide mass murderers as “martyrs,” that poisons the minds its own children with burning hatreds. In the 1980s, they trashed the growing West Bank economy with an “intifada,” rapidly led by the newly minted, paranoid and genocidal Hamas, in the late 1980s.

Recently, Nabil Shaath, a PA figure Western journalists often label “moderate,” denounced the economic prosperity brought on by cooperation with Israel as accepting “servitude for prosperity,” not because living well alongside Israel – Palestinians have the highest standard of living of all Arabs in the region with the exception of Israeli Arabs – necessitates servitude, but because in their zero-sum world, if Israel wins, Palestinians lose, and so not dominating means servitude. The new youth group, Palestinians for Dignity, carries on the “honorable” tradition even today: they threaten to throw their own people under the bus just to force the EU to snub Israel.

This political culture of zero-sum honor, gives new meaning to the expression “cutting of your nose to spite your face.” Even where Israelis played no part, these patterns of behavior applied. Arafat took over the West Bank and Gaza and parceled out the successful businesses to henchmen; the myriad “security forces,” paid for out of Arafat’s vast and opaque funds, established protection rackets; and, of course, when Arafat said “no” to Camp David he brought further catastrophe upon his people. Decades of open borders and employment vanished rapidly in the years of terror.

When Saeb Erekat called Romney’s remarks “racist,” and blamed Palestinian economic difficulties on Israel’s “occupation,” he illustrated my father’s larger point: blaming – scapegoating – others for one’s own failures only prolongs those failures. Even though his own government daily chooses a culture of death, not life, he wants to blame Israel for all of Palestine’s woes; no admission here that he and his colleagues might have some role in the suffering of their own people. And the eagerness with which many observers have seized on Erekat’s complaints, sometimes against their own logic, reveals an underlying prejudice against the very people they think they defend. The “cultural argument” is precisely not racist. It’s not genes but values that matter, it’s not predetermined, but a matter of choice.

And anyone who considers Romney a racist for praising Israel by pointing out the obvious, because that hurts Palestinian feelings, tacitly assumes that Palestinians cultural traits, like a deep aversion to self-criticism and a corresponding appetite for scapegoating, are inalterable. That’s a prejudice almost as bad as racism, even if disguised as sympathetic condescension.

So when Westerners denounce Romney’s speech and predict that his insulting “gaffe” surely disqualifies him as a “broker” for peace, they actually do a great disservice to the very people they think they come to defend. Palestinian entrepreneurs and administrators, the ones who wept at Camp David when Arafat said “no,” know well the costs to their people’s well-being engendered by this hard zero-sum thinking. Had Western observers criticized Erekat for his silly and dishonest response, they might have strengthened the hands of those Palestinians who really could lead their people to the promised land of independence and prosperity.

Of course that would mean passing up a chance to criticize Romney, and abandoning a tacit belief that the Palestinians can do no better than this, that it really is a problem so ingrained in Arab culture that they cannot change. Is that to large a price to pay for not throwing genuine Palestinian moderates under the bus? Diamond concludes his column:

Mitt Romney may become our next president. Will he continue to espouse one-factor explanations for multicausal problems, and fail to understand history and the modern world? If so, he will preside over a declining nation squandering its advantages of location and history.

Anyone who thinks that “culture” is a one-factor explanation does not understand the argument for “culture.” On the contrary, until Westerners start thinking in far more sophisticated and less essentialist ways about cultural differences and change, there’s no way we’ll understand history and the modern world, and we will preside, as the current dominant voice in both academia and journalism seem to do, over a declining civilization, squandering its hard-won and hard-earned advantages for the chimeras of moral equivalence and post-colonial anti-Zionism.

Richard Landes is the son of David Landes. He is a medieval historian at Boston University. Most recently author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, and currently working on a book entitled, They’re so Smart cause we’re so Stupid: A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. He blogs at The Augean Stables.

One Response to Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: Romney and Landes on Israelis and Palestinians

  1. w.w.wygart says:

    When Diamond says of Romney:

    Will he continue to espouse one-factor explanations for multicausal problems, and fail to understand history and the modern world?

    The error he is committing when appealing to “multicausal problems” is an essential unwillingness to evaluate causes in terms of importance. This comes from a ‘flatland’ style of thinking where in order to gerrymander the notion that everyone is in actuality equal, all factors must be made to be seen as contribute equally. There is of course a big chunk of old fashioned intellectual vanity, if you can use “multicausal” successfully in a sentence it means your Right, correct? What would that be in Latin: “argumentum ad multiplicitate”?

    Yes, there is deep complexity in the world, the human world particularly, but like a computer, the ‘cultural operating system’ tends to set a great many of the constraints around which a society will run – some operating systems are better than others in different historical epocs. Given the human wet-ware of the brain, if you live up-river in the Amazon, ‘Witoto 3.0’ with its vast capacity for fish and bird traps and tropical herbal medicine might be the best choice for your tribe; in a modern technological world based on hi-tech manufacturing and electronic information exchange ‘Israeli System 7’ might be the better choice – ‘Arab Clasic’ might not be a good choice at all whole system might crash with its neighbors.

    To extend the metaphor, all cultural operating systems are full of bugs, but some are more fault tolerant than others, more error correcting, and some have a better team of software engineers working on improving the code.


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