Romney on the Palestinian work ethic

The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. … Brotherly love, … is expressed in the first place in the fulfillment of the daily tasks given. … This makes labor in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by him.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (1905/2002), pp. 108-9.

Reporters on the campaign trail have a difficult task. They must report faithfully on the words and actions of their subject — while at the same time rendering these words and actions interesting and intelligible to their readers. The two do not always go hand in hand as campaign handlers works very hard to make sure their candidate does not stray from a script, keeping “on message” at all times. It is a good day then, when a candidate says something new, interesting or controversial for it allows a good reporter to show his command of the craft.

The presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate has been taking some hits for comments made on his latest overseas tour. Some members of the press corp have been putting a bit of stick about in their coverage of Mitt Romney, characterizing his latest comments as insensitive gaffes. Romney is not ready for prime time is the song playing on the campaign radio right now.

A 30 July 2012 story in the Washington Post entitled “Romney faces Palestinian criticism for Jerusalem remarks as he heads to Poland” is representative of this style of reporting. But in their zeal to play gotcha with the Mittster and focus the criticisms, the five WaPo reporters credited on the story have overlooked ethical and religious ghosts that might well have made this a better piece. And what is better? Better is an article that peals away on campaign cant giving a fresh look into the mind of Mitt Romney.

Let me walk you through this story and show you what I mean. The lede begins:

JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

Palestinians said that Romney was ignoring long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which are an enormous drag on commerce.

“All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education. He doesn’t know the region, he doesn’t know Israelis, he doesn’t know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement,” Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview.

Though this appears in the domestic politics section of the Washington Post, the Post’s reporters have written a story about the opinions of second-tier Palestinian government officials. An accusation of racism is leveled at the top of the story by a Palestinian official in response to Romney’s comments on culture.

The article notes Romney’s  comments on the sharp economic disparity between Israel and Palestine and recounts the words that led to the racism charge. Citing a 1998 book by Harvard economics professor David Landes entitled “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” Romney said:

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

A decision was made by the authors of this narrative to enter the story through the door of response to comments. Why? As we go deeper into the article there are signs the Romney campaign were unhelpful. It moves to denials by the Romney campaign of any “attempt to slight the Palestinians.” The article did note that Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, pushed his boss deeper into the mire: “Reporters pressed him to explain what Romney meant by ‘culture,’ but he declined to do so.”

The action shifts to Washington with comments from the Obama campaign and World Bank officials before it moves on to the next leg of Mitt’s overseas adventure. A diagram of the article’s content and perspective would be: Key Sentence: Romney is a racist Palestinian official claims — Palestinian quote — Romney quote — Romney campaign non-explanation — Obama response critical of Romney — Expert voice critical of Romney — Close as scene moves to Poland.

The Romney campaign appears to have been unhelpful and their man comes off badly from their actions. Yet what is also missing is an inquiry by the Post into Prof. David Landes and his book — which would go a long way toward answering the question of “what is culture?”.

And it is here was have the ethical and religious ghosts to this story for Landes’ book places great stress on the role of religion in economic development.

Two avenues of inquiry immediately present themselves — corruption and Islam. Is Mitt Romney saying that the Muslim culture of the Palestinian Authority is less conducive to economic advancement than the Jewish culture of Israel? Sociologists have been debating the role of religion and economic growth for over a century — most famously we have Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper last year entitled “Religious Identity and Economic Behavior” that found in the U.S. there were differences between the faith groups/denominations on their attitudes toward work.

We randomly vary religious identity salience in laboratory subjects to test how identity salience contributes to six hypothesized links from prior literature between religious identity and economic behavior. We find that religious identity salience makes Protestants increase contributions to public goods. Catholics decrease contributions to public goods, expect others to contribute less to public goods, and become less risk averse. Jews more strongly reciprocate as an employee in a bilateral labor market gift-exchange game.

While Islam did not play a part in this study, recent academic studies have sought to include the attitudes toward work in the Muslim world and define an  Islamic work ethic. Is the economic success of Israel due to its Jewish culture — and are the economic failures of the surrounding states tied to their Muslim cultures?

And then there is corruption. It is odd the Washington Post article would stress the economic disadvantages of the security check points and trot out an expert to say this is a cause of the problem — some commentators have taken this idea and rather foolishly run with it even further. Why I saw it is odd is that the World section of the Post has featured articles discussing the problem of corruption for the economic, social and political development of the Palestinian Authority. A March 2012 Palestine Public Opinion Poll identified corruption as a significant problem in the PA.

73% say there is corruption in the PA institutions in the West Bank while only 62% say there is corruption in the institutions of the dismissed government in the Gaza Strip. These percentages are similar to those obtained three months ago. In the context of the recent step by the PA in the West Bank to submit corruption cases to courts, we asked the public if it thinks the PA is serious about fighting corruption: 53% said it was serious and 43% said it was not serious.

Is corruption a Muslim problem or a Palestinian problem? I don’t think so. In my own work I have reported on the problems of corruption within the Christian churches of the Palestinian Authority, and have written dozens of stories over the years about corrupt and crooked bishops from the U.S. to Africa.

Also, please hear what I am not saying — I am not saying Israeli security measures do not have some degree of harm for the Palestinian Authority’s economy — I am saying that there are other factors involved that may play as great or a greater role.

And, I am also saying the Washington Post story missed an opportunity to tell us more about Mitt Romney. There is a hundred years of sharply contested scholarship on the intersection of religion and economic advancement. Given Romney’s Mormon faith and its pronounced views on this topic I would have thought that this area would be explored in any story on culture and the economy emanating from the campaign. What we have is a rather tired and predictable story that advances a silly claim by a Palestinian functionary and partisan campaign officials. It is not really worth the time it takes to read.

What say you Get Religion readers? Did the Post miss the story? Was it justified in playing “gotcha” in light of the apparent unhelpful Romney campaign? With five reporters on the story should it have cracked open the covers of the book that formed Romney’s thinking on nations and culture? Or, because I write about religion, do I see it everywhere? Was this really just a Romney gaffe story? Or, has the press decided the trip was a failure and hence everything that arose from it must be deemed a failure?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About geoconger
  • sari

    As has been frequently noted on this blog, the media has its causes. Just as Catholicism boils down to anti-abortion/anti-gay marriage in the States, I expect nothing but pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli coverage whenever the press covers Israel. Why? Because the media is appallingly consistent and unconcerned with actual facts; Americans support the underdog. Call it a cultural bias.

    I’m not quite sure this is a religion story, except insofar as the majority of the Palestinians are Muslim with a significant Christian majority and most Israelis, but not all, are Jewish. The cultural and historical forces which have shaped each group are more important: the Palestinian’s economy pre-Israel, under the Ottoman Empire and later the British; Jewish culture as shaped by centuries of marginalization/persecution in Europe and its response to the short period of full integration into European culture before the horrors of the Holocaust, along with the traditional emphasis on education (secular and religious). The religious ghost, to my mind, is how the current situation filters through the mind of a man for whom the beehive is a potent symbol and whose religion has many parallels to Judaism. Since its inception, the Church of LDS has been sympathetic to the Jewish People; it supported the fledgling Jewish community in Salt Lake and has unique ties to and privileges from the Jewish State, in return for building a BYU campus in Yerushalayim. In fact, missionaries are never dispatched to Israel.

    This kind of research, into all players’ backgrounds -and- their historical interactions, is what the article lacks.

  • Chris Jones

    I really do not understand what your complaint is with this story. By venturing out on a major foreign trip during a Presidential campaign, Governor Romney is attempting two things: to burnish his foreign policy credentials (an area in which he is perceived (rightly, in my mind) as weak and inexperienced); and to “appear Presidential” by representing our country and its interests on the world stage. Reporting and analyzing how he comes across, and how leaders and opinion-makers in other countries respond to him, is a legitimate and important thing for journalists to do in such a situation, and I think this article does a reasonably good job of it.

    Romney is the one who decided to take a high-profile foreign tour and tackle foreign-policy issues in a very high-profile way; that makes “how well does Romney play on the world stage” a very legitimate question for the press to explore. And given Romney’s remarks about “culture,” it makes the response from the Abbas administration very newsworthy.

    It’s true that the article could have explored in more depth what Romney may have meant by “culture,” but that really would have been the province of a longer analytical piece rather than a straight news story like this. And it is not as if the reporters did not give Romney and his campaign the opportunity to elaborate and clarify. Since they did not choose to do so, they have only themselves to blame if the clearest analysis of Romney’s “culture” remark is that of Mr Erekat.

  • Jerry

    Given Romney’s Mormon faith and its pronounced views on this topic I would have thought that this area would be explored in any story on culture and the economy emanating from the campaign. What we have is a rather tired and predictable story that advances a silly claim by a Palestinian functionary and partisan campaign officials….

    What say you Get Religion readers? Did the Post miss the story? Was it justified in playing “gotcha” in light of the apparent unhelpful Romney campaign? With five reporters on the story should it have cracked open the covers of the book that formed Romney’s thinking on nations and culture? Or, because I write about religion, do I see it everywhere? Was this really just a Romney gaffe story? Or, has the press decided the trip was a failure and hence everything that arose from it must be deemed a failure?

    First, I don’t find it to be “silly” as you asserted. Instead I’d use the word “predictable”. The blockade and other anti-growth measures Israel has imposed on the Palestinians is absolutely part of the picture. It’s impossible to know the reality of today without understanding all the factors of yesterday, religious, cultural, political and military.

    Yes, religion is part of the picture. Culture is influenced by religion, no doubt. But the Islamic middle east of today is not the advanced and scientific civilization it once was. But it’s still Islam. Why religion helps a culture flourish at one point but then hinders it at another is worth exploring.

    For example, if you look at the sayings of Muhammad, you find these and the question becomes why the culture is not supportive of such efforts:

    To Spend More Time In Learning Is Superior To Spending Time In Praying. It Is Better To Impart Knowledge One Hour In The Night Than To Pray The Whole Night.

    There Is No Wealth Greater Than The Power Of Reason, No Poverty Like Ignorance And No Heritage Better Than Noble Manners.

    So we need to avoid “Islam…” versus “Christianity…” and focus on “as it is practiced today”.

    The same should apply to theories of government. A very interesting report on the differences between Muhammad’s Compact of Media and where the Taliban’s idea of government came from. I’d love to read a news report where a reporter asked various people in the middle east to compare/contrast their ideals about government with that discussed by, for example,

    I guess how I’m feeling now is that it’s better to not cover a complex religious/cultural question unless it’s done well. And, sadly, the odds of it being done well are very low.

    • geoconger

      The silly charge referred to was the one of racism leveled against Mitt Romney. As I stated in the article I have no doubt that some role is played by political/military conflict — but that is far from being the sole or main culprit.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The only racism is from those who think this could possible be a racial problem. The majority of Jews in Israel are immigrants from the Middle East and their descendants. To see them as racially different then the Palestinians is just a bunch of hogwash.

  • Harris

    Certainly part of the difficulty about the culture critique would be its implicit assumption that both sides are starting at roughly the same point. The problem of Israel’s security efforts (and settlement building) basically precludes making that assumption.

    As a test case, one might ask how Christian refugees from the region have fared. Apparently, in a land of freedom they do quite well, becoming political leaders, industrial leaders and the like. If they succeed here, then the assumption that the differences in outcomes between Israelis and Palestinians derives from culture would not particularly stand. (A more cynical mind might even think that the turn to culture is more a function of American political rhetoric than deriving from analysis of the actual situation on the ground).

  • tioedong

    Yes, Romney was wrong, but so is the press (both the pro Israel and anti Israel press).

    Actually, Palestinians are better educated than most Arabs, and a large number of them (especially those who are Christian) have left to live and work elsewhere.

    Palestinian diaspora Wikipedia.

    Their problem is not Israel, but the corruption. (this is not a “Muslim” problem, since we here in the Catholic Philippines have a similar problem).

    Indeed, much of the “Arab spring” is not about religion but corruption: and the choice of the Muslim related leaders in elections is because folks hope that a religious person won’t steal as much as the secular ones.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Not long after attacking Romney for trying to give the Brits the benefit of his experience by mentioning that there are always last minute glitches that need to be resolved in organizing Olympics– just as in the Salt Lake City Olympics he saved. Ironically, the media was full of stories about such glitches and security problems galore the next few days. I guess the media prefers our politicians to lie.
    As for Romney visiting a shrine to Pope John Paul II in Poland—could the media have been any more rude, crude, and disrepectful at a religious shrine?? As they screamed and shouted questions at Romney at a holy place did it ever occur to them the word “sacrilege???”

  • John Penta


    I’m confused by what you mean by a “significant” Christian presence among Palestinians. If you include all of those claiming Palestinian ancestry, okay, maybe.

    But among those living in the region? Last I heard, the local Palestinian Christian community was something like 2% of the population and dropping – I don’t know if I’d call it significant.