Melting Pot or Emulsification?

My recent post “Gaffes and Jackasses” appears to have prompted a record number of hits from readers. Apparently the subject – criticism of Mitt Romney’s take on Arab-Muslim culture as a major, if not primary, cause of the Palestinians’ distress – is of great interest. It should be.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reputed to have said “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” My study of history teaches me that Moynihan’s “conservative truth” is probably more attune with reality. For example, the state of European society remained pretty much the same for the millennium plus from the end of the Roman Empire until the culture evolved with the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. These movements preceding and caused the political change. The Enlightenment in particular was the cultural force behind the successful American Revolution, and the less successful, but still sea-changing, French Revolution. Many other examples can be had, most somewhat more complex and nuanced to be expounded in a short blog.

Richard Landes followed up with a rather cogent essay from which I quote:

“In making his brief case, Mr. Romney cited two books: “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by geographer Jared Diamond, and “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by economist David Landes (my father). As in other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or from natural ones such as resistance to disease and access to primary resources. Prof. Diamond, whose book focuses on societies’ natural advantages, last week wrote an op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing both culture and nature and trying to draw Prof. Landes in with him.

“But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only the Landes book examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient for economic development. Israel, a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the Ottoman Empire, rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of a certain kind of culture: Even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world.

* * *

“But there are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary but coerced and zero-sum relations, where the principle of “rule or be ruled” dominates political and economic life. The elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, and they distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy. Public criticism brings sharp retaliation. Powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making.

“Few cultures on the planet better illustrate the latter traits than the Arab world, a fact outlined in painful detail by a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals. As “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” points out, Arab culture intensifies these problems with its attitude of hyper-jealousy and misogyny toward women, which turns out entitled sons and cloistered daughters.

“Even the huge influx of petrodollars did not change the basic contours of Arab economies: Rather than fueling economic development that benefited all, it bloated corrupt and opaque elites. Oil-rich countries like Libya and Iraq have social structures akin to those of oil-bereft Egypt and Syria. Change may occur, but it is hindered by an authoritarian culture that fears it. Such societies impoverish the masses, while elites thrive on their debasement.”

The entire essay can be found here.

Still, the most distressing aspect of the debate is that so many supposedly learned persons equate culture and race, or ethnicity.   The benefits of identity politics to some factions aside, there is an intuitive reason for this notion. The historical isolation of peoples tended to cause human physical traits to evolve somewhat differently, mostly in response to environment. Cultures developed in the same way. But humans are human and share in excess of 99% common genes. Culture is behavior based on a value system, and behavior is not genetic, at least within the same species. In other words, humans can learn, and change their behavior when a superior culture – a value system – is presented to them. The American culture is not based on race or ethnicity. This nation’s culture has been formed, maybe not as a melting pot, as has been said, but perhaps by emulsification, or synthesis. No wonder why things get a little testy and tense from time to time.

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