Mitt Romney has triggered a new round of culture wars, with his comment in Israel attributing the backwardness of the Palestinian economy to “culture.” He suggested that differences in “culture” also explain the gaps between the United States and Mexico.
Critics said his explanation failed to account for how much the Palestinian economy suffers from Israeli impediments to Palestinian self-governance and trade.
Now Romney defenders, like The Post’s Marc A. Thiessen, are coming back and saying, no, Romney was right: Those impediments are Israel’s legitimate defense against Palestinian provocations, which are, in turn, a function of Palestinian culture — specifically, Thiessen says, “a culture of repression, a culture of corruption and a culture of terrorism.”
Why democracy and capitalism thrive in some places and not in others is a rich and fascinating topic. Internal and external factors are always present, and they act on each other in complex ways. I agree with Thiessen that it would be foolish to absolve the Palestinian people or their leaders entirely from responsibility for their impoverishment.
But here’s why I don’t like the “culture” explanation: It carries far too much of a suggestion that whatever conditions exist today will continue tomorrow. It’s always been a favorite refuge of experts explaining why certain countries, regions or ethnic groups aren’t suited to democracy or capitalism. And those experts frequently have been proved wrong.
Thus, it was well understood that Asian “culture” was inhospitable to democracy and entrepreneurship — because of Confucian deference to elders, or rice-paddy village organization, or . . . well, some other plausible-sounding explanation you can find in old textbooks. Then the Japanese people decided otherwise, followed by South Koreans, Taiwanese, and so on.
Latin Americans weren’t going to develop prosperous democracies, either, because of the legacy of plantation agriculture, or of Spanish colonialism, or some other aspect of their “culture.” Now most Latin American countries are democracies, including Mexico, which not only just staged a highly competitive presidential election but also is growing a middle class so rapidly that net migration is now flowing south.
Every country is shaped by its specific history, religion, geography, ethnic makeup and more. That’s why efforts to transplant development practices from one place to another, or to apply supposedly universal rules, without accounting for local differences generally fail.
But no country’s future is dictated by its past, or by a culture that is transmitted from generation to generation. The desire for political and economic freedom is universal across the human species.
Arabs, another ethnic group written off by many experts as culturally unsuited to democracy, have been manifesting that universal desire over the past couple of years. On the road to freedom, they may stumble down detours, as have many other peoples. The role of an American leader should be to encourage and, when suitable, assist their quest, not offer explanations for why it may be doomed from the start.
That’s why it was encouraging to hear Romney, in trying to explain his remarks after he was criticized, emphasize “the choices you make culturally — do you have democracy, free enterprise, human rights, education, rights for women.” These are choices, not preordained by culture.