Culture? You Mean the Kind in Yogurt, Surely
A Brit, a Jew, and a Polish guy all walk into the bar and say, "Holy crap, Romney is a douche."
Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to maintain a position for at least 24 hours? His flip-flopping has recently taken on such a head-spinning speed that someone is bound to get hurt just trying to keep up.
On Sunday in Israel, the GOP candidate for President was quoted as saying
"As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.... Culture makes all the difference."
Understandably, the Palestinians pointed out, as has Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, that to truly evaluate the Palestinian economy, let alone their culture, you need to appreciate that they have faced (in Netanyahu's words) "hundreds of barriers and roadblocks to the free flow of goods and people." Also understandably, the implied insult to Palestinian culture in Romney's statement upset them. The Daily News quoted one Palestinian official echoing a sentiment Romney had stirred up in the London leg of his journey as well:
"What is this man doing here?" said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official. "Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn't this racism?"
The fact that the Palestinians were upset made it back to Romney, though, and by Tuesday he was declaring he had been misunderstood:
Under fire from Palestinian leaders for recent comments suggesting that Israel's economic success is borne out of its "culture," Mitt Romney on Tuesday attempted to clarify his remarks, telling Fox News that he had not talked about "the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy."
"I'm not speaking about it, did not speak about the Palestinian culture," Romney told Fox's Carl Cameron, in an interview taped before the candidate's departure from Poland.
But, you see, his departure from Poland and his subsequent itinerary must have distracted Romney, because he seemed to have missed that many right-wing Americans actually agreed with his insulting assessment of Palestinian culture:
Romney, while not exactly retracting his initial statement, insisted on Tuesday that he didn’t mean to put down Palestinian culture or imply that they were inferior to Israelis. But high-profile neoconservative Republicans immediately claimed Romney’s speech was exactly what it sounded like to Palestinians — a tough condemnation of their values.
In one awkward example, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin praised the candidate’s speech as proof that Romney was not the “calculating” politician his critics alleged, and in fact “blunt and thoughtful,” giving the Palestinians a dose of hard truth about the importance of capitalism. “If this is the Romney we’re going to see during the balance of the campaign Obama is in deep trouble,” Rubin wrote. “This Romney is unapologetic.”
Almost immediately after her post went up, Romney told FOX News that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy” and that “I certainly don’t intend to address that during my campaign.”
Less than 24 hours later, though, Romney must have gotten word that his initial statement was popular with his base because, yes, he flip-flopped yet again:
On Sunday, Mitt Romney boldly declared that Israel’s economic superiority over the Palestinians was due to its culture. On Tuesday morning, he dismissed any notion that he had even discussed Palestinian culture. On Tuesday night, Romney reversed himself yet again, in an op-ed entitled “Culture Does Matter.”
“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,” Romney wrote in the National Review. “In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy. But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture?”
In an interview earlier the very same day with FOX News, Romney told interviewer Carl Cameron that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy” and that he “certainly [doesn’t] intend to address that during my campaign.”
That interview appeared to be directly at odds with Romney’s original speech, in which he directly compared the per capita GDP of Israel and the Palestinian territories and attributed Israel’s comparative strength to “culture” and the “hand of providence.” It also directly contradicts the first paragraph of his National Review op-ed, in which he explicitly says he was comparing the two economies and cultures.
It's hard to retrace all this in order to know where to agree or disagree with the candidate, even if you support him. One must assume the latest opinion, as offered in the op-ed, is the one we're supposed to assume he believes, but his history would suggest any criticism of that text would cause him to declare he was misunderstood, until his base insists "no, we like that opinion," in which case he'll embrace it again.
But to his point about culture, ironically, one of the commenters who supports Romney's op-ed highlighted the point made by noted economist Hernando de Soto that the single most important factor in whether a nation is economically successful is not culture, but rather property rights:
"In most developing countries, the vast majority of people live outside the legal economy," said de Soto. "Because they lack property rights, they cannot access capital or credit, so they cannot grow their businesses. Without a legal framework, the market system fails."
Who has the right to what property in Israel is undeniably a hot-button issue (see this example and this op-ed), and one that I am poorly equipped to do justice to, but let's just say that Romney's insistence that the Palestinian economic situation is a result mostly of their culture is a grotesque oversimplification at best and, indeed, racist at worst.
Why it's popular with his base speaks volumes as well.