Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent overseas tour didn’t go well according to most in the press. The British press, in particular, blasted Romney for his comments regarding Britain’s preparedness for the Olympics. Then, Romney went to Israel. There he avoided offending his hosts but managed to offend Palestinians and some other nations while he was at it.
Romney said that, “Culture makes all the difference,” as he compared the GDP per capita of Israel to “areas managed by the Palestinian Authority.” He then noted a “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” “between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.” As a sociologist, I certainly agree that culture matters but Romney’s use of culture as the key causal mechanism for global inequality implies a scale of cultural superiority similar to the one that animated racist justification for colonialism and slavery.
The implicit criticism of Palestinian culture point was not lost on Palestinian officials. Saeb Ereket, a senior aide to President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority said, “It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation.” No politician in the United States would dare call Mr. Romney a racist. Romney did not actually use a racial epithet or even mention a race. Then again Mr. Ereket did not actually call him a racist either, although most people reading that quote likely interpreted it that way. However, Romney did give voice to the basic underlying premise of racism.
Just in case someone thinks I, or the media, am picking on a misstatement, Romney made a very similar point in his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. The reference to countries near one another is a critique of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which points to the role of geography in societal development. In his book, Romney argued that Diamond ignores culture by focusing on physical characteristics of the land. Diamond in an op-ed in The New York Times disputed this reading noting that Romney oversimplified his work. Diamond further asks if Romney will continue to “espouse one-fact explanations for multicausal problems.” Indeed, Romney dismissed more than the role of geography.
The notion that “culture makes all the difference,” or for that matter that geography makes all the difference, as some have misinterpreted Diamond, ignores most modern social science. While op-ed writers and comedians were quick to mock Romney’s ability to ignore obvious causes of Israeli/Palestinian inequality, Romney doesn’t simply ignore the rather obvious occupation in Palestine for the sake of American politics, but in his broader analysis ignores much of world history.
Slavery and colonialism and the white supremacist ideology that justified these systems cannot be antiseptically quarantined in the past. As Charles W. Mills argues in The Racial Contract, “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” To ignore the impact of white supremacist institutions like slavery and colonialism ignores the sources of present-day wealth and poverty in the modern world. Sub-Saharan African poverty and Western Europe wealth are not separate phenomena. Neither is the poverty on Indian reservations and the wealth of American west unrelated phenomena. Somehow I doubt that racism is among the cultural values Romney uses to make his case for American greatness. Slavery, most would say, is one of those things worthy of at least an apology.
Romney, however, treats nation-states as if they are isolated entities rather than parts of a global economic system which none of them, not even the United States has wholly made. Romney then severs culture from its structural foundations. In doing so, he posits an epiphenomenal culture or perhaps one arising from “the hand of providence.” The role of culture plays in creating a social order has long been a topic of sociology. Max Weber offered his now famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as, in part, a refutation of the materialism of Karl Marx. Weber, however, noted that, “it is not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and history” (183). Romney, however, seems to determined to do just that. While Romney would certainly not endorse the racist discourse of the 19th Century, by ignoring the role of the past and adopting discourses of cultural superiority he provides a similar justification for inequality.
Lastly, Romney’s kind of cultural analysis has implications for all manner of inequality – including racial inequality within America. Romney seemingly avoids this by imagining nations as homogenous masses. But to really test how ludicrous his notion of per-capita GDP as a measure of cultures, as one op-ed writer put it “from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome,” we should contrast the per-capita GDP of Massachusetts with Mississippi.
I wonder if Romney will opine on the superior culture of New Jersey compared to West Virginia when he comes to my home state for fundraising?