Thursday, August 02, 2012

Fall Into The Culture Gap

Pulling a double-reverse on his statements about the role of culture in the success of Israel versus the failure of the Palestinian territories, Mitt Romney penned an op-ed in which he cited, among others, Jared Diamond's Guns,Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies to defend his position.  Diamond has returned the favor, penning his own piece for The New York Times, in which he states, among other things, that Romney seems not to have read the book he cites.
MITT ROMNEY'S latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar's arguments, oversimplified the issue.
It is not true that my book "Guns, Germs and Steel," as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, "basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth."
That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it. My focus was mostly on biological features, like plant and animal species, and among physical characteristics, the ones I mentioned were continents' sizes and shapes and relative isolation. I said nothing about iron ore, which is so widespread that its distribution has had little effect on the different successes of different peoples. (As I learned this week, Mr. Romney also mischaracterized my book in his memoir, "No Apology: Believe in America.")
That's not the worst part. Even scholars who emphasize social rather than geographic explanations - like the Harvard economist David S. Landes, whose book "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations" was mentioned favorably by Mr. Romney - would find Mr. Romney's statement that "culture makes all the difference" dangerously out of date. In fact, Mr. Landes analyzed multiple factors (including climate) in explaining why the industrial revolution first occurred in Europe and not elsewhere.
Now, it should be clear that it is possible Romney read Diamond's book, and merely misunderstands the larger argument the author makes.  Nothing wrong with that, readers do that all the time.  My point is not to prove or disprove Diamond's assertion on whether or not he read the book in question.  Rather, it is to point out how meaningless the entire idea of "culture" has become, a buzzword that can include or exclude whatever the user might wish, without any even basic rigor of definition.  As a result, we have far too many discussions that focus on something, "culture", that none of those involved in the discussion either understand or limit.

These discussions tend also to betray a lingering essentialism, in which "culture" becomes an outward expression of the inner life of the collection of individuals underneath whatever cultural umbrella we choose.  In the immediate case, Israeli economic success versus Palestinian economic failure becomes demonstrative, in Romney's telling of the tale, of some inner cultural superiority the Israelis possess, rather than numerical and military advantages by which they impose severe restrictions upon the Palestinian populations under their heel.

Other examples, such as the North Korea/South Korea divide, can be laid, not at the feet of culture, but at the feet of politics and policy; so, too, the United States/Mexican divide, which is a case in point of the much larger dominance of the US over much the rest of the western hemisphere.  The kinds of rebels against this hegemony - Castro's Cuba and Chavez's Venezuela - are as much protests against paracolonial exploitation as they are practical expressions of political ideologies.

There is no distinction inherent in a population, expressed as "culture" that explains anything about who the people are.  I would go so far as to insist that the very idea of "human nature", this holdover from Aristotelean essentialism, is as fraudulent as the metaphysics that accompanies it.  The reality of the variety of human social life belies any appeal to some inner core that explains much of anything.  That there are other, better, explanations that fit Ockham's famous razor far better than the insidious idea of "culture" should be clear enough.  That Romney continues to believe otherwise is more than a little troubling.

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