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Romney Wins the “Culture” Argument

Whether it’s general ignorance of religious issues or the impossibility of turning a complex issue like the Middle East into easily digestible sound bites–the American media’s specialty–the mainstream media’s coverage of the region is ghastly. Nowhere was this blind spot more obvious than the press coverage of Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel and his comments echoing what Arab leaders and scholars have said for years (though less harshly) about the ways Arab culture has held back regional economic development.

What Romney said is clearly true, which helps explain some of the terrible reporting. For example, I wrote about the Washington Post’s awful write-up of the story, in which the reporter made snide remarks about Romney and offered demonstrably false assertions without consulting the experts. This is most likely by design: had the reporter consulted experts, they would have told him what everybody knew: that Romney was, of course, correct. But the media’s attempt to write the first draft of this story and set the narrative against Romney was so egregiously off-base that it has made commentators across the ideological spectrum uncomfortable enough to speak up. One example comes from the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who writes:

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.

How could such cultural criticism be the opposite of racism? Cohen explains that not only does Arab culture hold the Palestinians back, but the West’s soft bigotry of low expectations only exacerbates the problem:

This hubbub about culture may seem esoteric, but it is really very important. The tendency to hold the Arabs blameless for their own culture is part of the predilection to hold them harmless for the lack of peace agreement with Israel. The Israelis have much to account for, but they are not alone in this matter and they are not the ones who have over and over again rejected peace plans. The adamant refusal to hold the Arabs accountable infantilizes them — a neo-colonialist mentality that is, in the end, simply insulting.

Beyond columnists, the debate has become academic as well. Yair Rosenberg notes that Albert Einstein held to this theory long before Romney did. More recently, however, it was David Landes, whose work on the subject Romney explicitly mentioned in his Jerusalem speech. That led to a somewhat amusing round of commentary in which Jared Diamond, author of a book Romney also mentioned, wrote that Romney not only misunderstood Diamond’s book, but that Landes might not even agree with Romney. That inspired Landes’s son, Richard, to take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to ever-so-politely point out that Diamond knows nothing of Landes’s work–but that Romney got it exactly right.

It is, as Cohen acknowledges, somewhat shocking to be even having this conversation. Our current secretary of state once characterized the culture of Palestinian child development as blanket “child abuse”–farther than Romney, Landes, or Einstein were willing to go. That half a decade later this country’s flagship newspapers have elevated their interpretation of political correctness and cynical point-scoring above even basic facts offers us an uncomfortable truth about the extent of the intellectual rot at the institutions of American liberalism.



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