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?
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