Mitt Romney’s ‘culture’ analysis defended by historian’s family

WASHINGTON – The son of historian David Landes—whom Mitt Romney has been citing since 2005 to back up his argument that some countries are more economically vibrant because of their cultures – says that both him and his ailing father generally support Romney’s views.

David Landes, author and former Harvard professor, had a stroke and is unlikely to respond to controversy over Romney’s analysis of his work, according to his son. But Richard Landes, a history professor at Boston University and author himself who is currently spending time in Jerusalem, provided a statement Friday morning to the Globe that is largely supportive of Romney.

He said he was speaking on behalf of himself and his father.

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“As Romney himself has pointed out, Israel illustrates the sufficiency of culture alone: a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the Ottoman Empire, it rose to the top of the developed world in a century,” Landes wrote in an e-mail. “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.”

He added that Palestinians are better off than citizens of Arab nations, in part because of their proximity to Israelis.

“Strikingly, Palestinian culture compares favorably with other Arabs,” Landes wrote. “They have higher education, a strong work ethic, and successful entrepreneurs. Much of that comes from their close association with the Zionists, who, unlike Western imperialists, settled the land without conquest, by dint of making everyone more prosperous.”

Earlier this week when Romney was in Jerusalem, he triggered a firestorm when he told a group of Jewish donors that Israel was more economically vibrant than the Palestinians in part because of their culture. The comment outraged Palestinian leaders, who called it racist.

The Globe on Friday reported on Romney’s views, and how they have been informed by David Landes’s book, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.” Romney has been quoting from the book since 2005, using it frequently to explain his economic and social world view.

“The multiculturalism movement must be unmasked for the fraud that it is,” Romney wrote in his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” “There are superior cultures, and ours is one of them. As David Landes observed, ‘Culture makes all the difference.’ ”

Romney has cited another book, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” using it as a point of contrast with the book written by Landes. Diamond’s book argues that societies have grown more as a function of their access to natural resources, while Landes emphasizes their human characteristics.

Diamond wrote an opinion article Thursday in The New York Times under the headline “Romney Hasn’t Done His Homework.” He wrote that Romney had “misrepresented my views” and “oversimplified the issue.”

Diamond also argued that Romney’s summary that “culture makes all the difference” is “dangerously out of date.” He said culture does play a role in determining relative levels of economic success, yet it is far from the only, or even the driving, factor.

Richard Landes on Friday rebutted some aspects of Diamond’s argument.

“Diamond, despite some real anthropological talent, seems to be determined to downplay culture,” Landes wrote in an e-mail. “He addresses the Israeli-Palestinian split from his perspective in an update to his book, but then veers towards institutions. … But as Iraq shows amply, institutions will not transform a tribal/ethnic/religious society.”