Culture Matters, Supplemental

Let me slip in behind Paul’s series on culture to add a couple of thoughts, starting with noting that WaPo columnist Richard Cohen has slipped off the liberal reservation again.  First, he does a blog post deploring Harry Reid’s “gutter politics,” even as most of the pro-Obama media remain resolutely silent about Reid’s gutter politics:

In “The Godfather Part II,” a senator from Nevada is portrayed as corrupt. His name is Pat Geary. In real life, a senator from Nevada is a jerk. His name is Harry Reid.

Good for Cohen.  But then his Sunday column essentially says that Romney was right about Israel, Palestine, and the importance of culture:

The cultural difference between Israel and its Arab neighbors is so striking that you would think it beyond question. But when Mitt Romney attributed the gap between Israel’s economic performance and the Palestinians’ — “Culture makes all the difference,” he said in Israel — the roof came down on him. PC police the world over raised a red card, giving him demerits for having the temerity to notice the obvious. Predictably, Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, denounced the statement as “racist.” It was, of course, just the opposite. . .

The book that Romney cited for his views on Arab culture, David S. Landes’s “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” goes further than I would in blaming the Arabs for their own difficulties, and it was written long before the Arab Spring. But it is a vigorously written attack on the sort of thinking that blames the West for all that ails the East and for disregarding indigenous cultural problems. Landes is particularly tough on the Muslim societies of the Middle East for the plight of women — a cultural phenomenon that does not exist in Islamic Asia but does, just for the record, among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Romney could have been more diplomatic and eschewed a shorthand explanation of what ails Palestinian society — he might also have acknowledged Palestinian achievements — but he identified what are, indisputably, two problems. The first is that of culture. The second is the reluctance to discuss it.

David Landes

With allowance for the unnecessary caveats Cohen throws in to cover his left flank, not bad.  I’ll add that it is encouraging that Romney openly cites the David Landes book, which is one of my favorites, too.  (I still recall wincing in 2008 when Romney said one of his favorite books was L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth.  Great—just what a Mormon candidate needs to do to reassure conservative evangelicals: embrace a book by the founder of the worst religious cult in the nation.  Good to know his taste in books has improved.)

Landes is, of course, politically incorrect.   Here are a few samples from The Wealth and Poverty of Nations:

As the historical record shows, for the last thousand years, Europe (the West) has been the prime mover of development and modernity. . .

The historian may not erase or rewrite the past to make it more pleasing; and the economist, whose easy assumption that every country is destined to develop sooner or later, must be ready to look hard at failure. . .

The first [of other successful non-European societies], Islam, initially absorbed and developed the knowledge and ways of conquered peoples.  By our period (roughly 1000 to 1500), Muslim rule went from the western end of the Mediterranean to the Indies.  Before this, from about 750 to 1100, Islamic science and technology far surpassed those of Europe, which needed to recover its heritage and did so to some extent through contacts with Muslims in such frontiers as Spain.  Islam was Europe’s teacher.

Then something went wrong.  Islamic science, denounced as heresy by religious zealots, bent under theological pressures for spiritual conformity.

Landes is not much nicer to China, where he says its long economic history “offers examples of technological oblivion and regression.”


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