Romney is right, culture matters Part Five


Richard Landes

Richard Landes, a medieval historian at Boston University, takes to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to demonstrate that Mitt Romney was right to focus on the cultural dimension of Israel’s economic growth and of Palestinian drift. Landes is the son of David Landes, the former Harvard professor on whom Romney relies, in part, for his views about the importance of culture in the economic realm.

Richard Landes explains:

Israel, a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the Ottoman Empire, rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone. 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. . . .

[T]here are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary but coerced and zero-sum relations, where the principle of “rule or be ruled” dominates political and economic life. The elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, and they distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy. Public criticism brings sharp retaliation. Powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making.

Few cultures on the planet better illustrate the latter traits than the Arab world, a fact outlined in painful detail by a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals. As “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” [the book by David Landes] points out, Arab culture intensifies these problems with its attitude of hyper-jealousy and misogyny toward women, which turns out entitled sons and cloistered daughters.

Even the huge influx of petrodollars 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 akin to those of oil-bereft Egypt and Syria. Change may occur, but it is hindered by an authoritarian culture that fears it. Such societies impoverish the masses, while elites thrive on their debasement.

As I noted in an earlier post on this subject, Palestinians actually perform more impressively in the economic realm than Arabs generally. Landes links this to culture and, in particular, the fact that Israeli culture has rubbed off on Palestinians to some degree:

Strikingly, Palestinian culture compares favorably with that of other Arabs. Palestinians have higher education, a strong work ethic and successful entrepreneurs. Much of that 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, Arab populations grew and prospered where Jews settled (Tel Aviv, Hebron, Jerusalem) and remained stagnant and poor where they didn’t (Gaza, Nablus, Nazareth). 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 “occupation”) the West Bank was one of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world in the 1980s.

Other Palestinians, however, found Jewish economic leadership an unbearable blow to their pride. Said one to the British Peel Commission in 1936: “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.”

Sooner rule in hell than share in heaven. These actors have dominated Palestinian political culture, and terrorized Israeli and Palestinian alike, for generations.

It is sad to think that the mainstream media chose to ignore this reality for the purpose of attempting to argue that Mitt Romney doesn’t understand the Middle East. But the truth may be sadder still: the mainstream media is so reflexively pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel that it actually believes Romney got it wrong when he called out the self-destructive Palestinian culture.


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