A few weeks ago Mitt Romney caused quite the stir when he pronounced that culture is what determines why some countries and rich and strong and others poor and weak. He cited the differences between the economic life of Israelis and Palestinians as an example. There are a lot of problems with his example, such as the problem of ignoring the very real policies-check points and such-that make it enormously difficult to transport goods or people even a few miles in Palestinian areas. This is not to say that Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the West Bank and Gaza strip are necessarily wrong (I am not a Shin-Bet agent or a human rights lawyer so I will defer on that question), it’s that they are very important in terms of understanding the economic differences between the two groups. It’s also wrong because it ignores the very real historical events that resulted in two very different forms of governance and institutions for the two nations. That is Israel won its independence from the British Empire, defeated attacking Arab armies from a number of countries and was created after a series of events generally called The Israeli War of Independence or The Founding of the State of Israel. The Palestinians by contrast were largely on the losing side of said war and became a stateless people both inside the historic areas of the British Mandate of Palestine and scattered all over the world, including millions in refugee camps in other Arab countries. These are very different historical courses and they certainly impacted why there are economic disparities between the two groups. This is pretty basic stuff and if its news to Romney would someone please rent him a copy of Exodus? I mean he could be the next President of the United States.
Romney’s argument is wrong as well, just like his example. First of all, when people ascribe success to a group’s culture they never define what they mean. Are you talking about informal norms or religious ceremonies? Family structure or folk dances? Define your terms! Instead all they do is offer a series of vague cultural stereotypes, at best, from groups that are comparatively wealthy. Thus America is successful because of its “strong work ethic”, do Mexican roofers in the US without proper documentation not work hard? Or we “value education”. Really? Recently former US Senator and Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum announced that young people shouldn’t go to college because they would be “indoctrinated”. Do people living in poverty in the slums of Mumbai not hope and dream their children could get the chance to go to a University?
Secondly, cultural proponents ignore that many of the cultural traits they see as being good or bad can be present in both wealthy and impoverished societies. If you described a society where corruption was seen as normal and everyone knew an easy way to get out of a speeding ticket was to simply wrap some money around your license as you hand it to the cop Romney would probably nod his head and say that’s bad culture. But I could be describing life in 1970’s Chicago or a poor Latin American country. If I described a society where the highest value and most important thing was loyalty to your family I could be describing Sicily or Japan. Sicily has always been poor compared to the rest of Italy, going back to the Roman Empire. Japan is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. This chicken or egg problem is common throughout descriptions of Asian societies by modern academics. Through much of the late 19th century and early 20th century it was common for the smart kids to explain the poverty and failures of Asian nations through the lenses of culture. British academic-lord-high-muckitymucks described Indians as “enfeebled”. The Confucian tradition was blamed for why East Asian countries like China, Korea and Japan were poor and unable to stop foreign intervention in their internal affairs. This is because it promoted family loyalty and conformity not the Western traditions of individual achievement and the pursuit of money. Then in the 2nd half of the 20th century when Asian societies started doing better the narrative flipped, now their culture was better than us Americans because the promoted such values as self-discipline and such, hence the American obsession with Japanese culture in the 1980’s and early 90’s. Now the key to economic success is getting auto plant workers to do mass calisthenics before shifts in Ohio, and anyone can kick anyone’s ass if you learn the ancient art of “wax on, wax off.” The culture was the same, the reality of life in Tokyo in 1880 or 1980 just changed.
In 1966 journalist Neil Sheehan, who would later win the Pulitzer Prize, wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine about his own experience covering the Vietnam War entitled “Not a Dove, But No Longer a Hawk.” Its opening paragraph is one of the best things I’ve ever read about the Vietnam War:
Americans, because they are Americans, arrive in Vietnam full of enthusiasm and with the best of intentions. After a prolonged period of residence, they leave with their enthusiasm a victim of the cynicism that pervades Vietnamese life and with their good intentions lost somewhere in a paddy field. I am no exception.
Sheehan’s culture was overwhelmed by the realities of life in South Vietnam: a savage war that would kill god knows how many people, a corrupt and dysfunctional system of government that (he later goes on to tell a great anecdote about how that society was run: “Numerous complaints from the American Embassy led Premier Ky to warn his fellow generals at one meeting of the junta that they were embezzling too much and should exercise some restraint. Their reply was that they had to think of their families.”) couldn’t solve any problems and all existing under crushing poverty. After the fall of Saigon many Vietnamese (and Laotians and Hmong and Cambodians) would come to the United States where they would flourish in communities like the Twin Cities. Because they stopped eating pho and started eating hot dogs? Of course not, they went from an impoverished society torn by decades of war where education and social advancement were restricted to only a minority of well-born families (another great anecdote about the “democracy” we were supposedly defending: “A friend of mine once visited a hamlet with a South Vietnamese Army major who is one of the few field grade officers to defeat the system by rising from a humble beginning. The major spoke to the farmers in peasant dialect instead of in the sophisticated urban Vietnamese most Government official’s use. “You are not a major,” said one farmer in astonishment. “Yes, I am,” said the major. “No, you’re not,” said the farmer. “You talk like a peasant and no peasant could become a major.”) to a rich society that hadn’t fought a civil war in a hundred years where school attendance was mandatory and anyone could start a business.
Apply Romney’s logic to our own society and ask why Detroit-once the fourth largest city in the country-is poor and losing population and Chicago-one of the richest cities in the country-is prosperous and can make a strong bid to host the Olympic Games. Is it because rooting for the Bears and eating deep dish pizza is better than rooting for the Lions? I highly doubt it. I think the following is more important. Detroit’s economy was heavily based on the manufacture of cars, which would go into decline in the second half of the 20th century as American auto manufactures lost out to foreign imports. Chicago’s economy had a large manufacturing sector but it was broader based. It’s also a center of transportation, commerce and finance. The price of grain around the world is set on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and O’Hare is one of the world’s busiest airports, oh and there’s another one, Midway, both inside the city limits. Detroit’s airport is out in the burbs. Agency and chance also played a role. Chicago produced Richard J. Daley during the 20th century, a man who would wield more personal political power than probably anyone else in the history of the Republic. He could pick Governors and be incredibly influential in the state legislature in Springfield. So he could convince the University of Illinois to build a huge campus in the heart of Chicago to educate the city’s working class sons and daughters, even though the Board of Regents didn’t want to. The University of Michigan is located in Ann Arbor not Detroit. He ruled the Chicago City Council with an iron fist and so could bulldoze neighborhoods to build that University, despite their protests. He controlled Cook County government and so could easily get vast amount of land to build O’Hare. He could reliably control 14 votes in Congress and so could get the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to pony up the dough to build that airport and the branch of the Blue Line “L” to connect it to the heart of the city. Detroit had no champion like this. And so in 1970 Daley could convince the world’s largest retailer Sears, Roebuck and Company to build a massive new headquarters in the heart of the loop: the Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest with 4.4 million square feet of interior space, second only to the Pentagon. Meanwhile Detroit had to deal with Chrysler deciding to move to a 1,700-acre complex 17 miles outside of the city.
Cultural explanations for the wealth or poverty of nations or cities are just wrong. But it’s important to recognize the deeper reason for these arguments. They are meant to ascribe the misery of the miserable to themselves, and make a moral argument that the wealthy and powerful have what they have because they deserve it, they are superior beings. This is an old line in conservative politics, people get what they deserve so don’t feel bad for the disposed. And never think their but for the grace of God go I when you walk past the homeless man. I mean Jesus, you might vote for Obama if you think that.