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Right peddles ‘culture’ difference myth

Published in the Irish Echo on Oct. 31, 2012

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Mitt Romney got into trouble not once, but twice in 2012 with comments he made to donors behind closed doors. There was his writing off of 47 percent of Americans as moochers who weren't going to vote for him. He was pandering, of course, to super rich individuals who believe that they got all their money through their smarts and individual effort; and with regard to the latter: if they get 500 or 1,000 times more money than you or me it's because, well, they’ve worked much harder than we have.

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Some of them undermine others who might, too, like to be super rich one day by weaving a narrative that downplays how tax dollars aid wealth creation through research and development, education, infrastructure and so on.

The GOP's presidential candidate went there in a different way at an event in Israel, which was attended by Sheldon Adelson, an American hardliner on Middle East policy who gets much of his money thanks to the good offices of the Chinese government. The difference in income between Israelis and Palestinians, argued Romney, can be attributed to "culture."

Some objected to this on fairly simple historical grounds. For instance, WNYC host Brian Lehrer, who is himself Jewish, pointed to a centuries-long tradition of Arab entrepreneurialism.

More generally, this talk of cultural difference goes to the heart of conservative/liberal debates on immigration, poverty and other issues. The conservative social theorist Thomas Sowell, who is African American, is well known for his view that some immigrant groups do better than others because they have the right values.

Opposing the Sowell line from the left-liberal corner came Steven Steinberg of Queens College with his book “The Ethnic Myth” (published originally in 1981). Actually, he challenged a series of myths, even if they derived from the same misconception. One myth was that of Jewish intellectualism and that was discussed with the myth of Catholic anti-intellectualism. Steinberg sought to show that an interest in education was greatly determined by where one was on the socio-economic ladder.

Southern Italians and East European Jews arrived in huge numbers in the decades before World War I. Both groups were equally impoverished. However, the latter had two distinct advantages in moving up the ladder in America – they were skilled and had higher rates of literacy in their own language (Yiddish in the great majority of cases), which more easily facilitated the learning of the language of the new country. Although some Jews came from the rural towns and villages known as shtetls, more had been living in urban areas. Despite their poverty, said Steinberg, “Jewish immigrants were concentrated in economically advanced sectors of their countries of origin, and therefore had industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.”

The first American-born generation of Italians, of course, did learn to read and write in English, but for decades there was to be no easy path to the middle class for most families - even though they were associated with the traditional values of the sort that Sowell and other conservatives might agree with.

Timing has a great deal to do with members of a group moving up. Puerto Ricans were encouraged to migrate to New York after World War II, but the city would soon begin its long industrial decline. Race is another consideration. African Americans came North seeking opportunity, but encountered discrimination and exclusion.

Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, despite having certain truthiness issues (as Mr. Colbert would put it), has no problem lecturing the poor in a Dickensian vein about "character.” This has long been the default position of conservative people of means. In the 19th century, poverty was thought to be a character flaw; as time went on people found new ways to express that idea more subtly – or not so subtly with the rise of the New Right. Now the Ayn Rand-admiring Ryan and his ilk are adding new dogmatic twists to those prejudices.

Rand wrote about the “virtue of selfishness” and so it really shouldn’t matter if you make use of a hand-up or a handout along the way; you just don’t want anybody else to. However, the inclination is usually to think that you did it all yourself. Author and journalist Joan Walsh, who is interviewed on Page 2, writes of an aunt who would declare: “We worked for everything we had; some people had things handed to them.” That often is the biggest ethnic myth of all.