Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Culture Matters

According to a study by a coupla profs at Columbia and Berkeley,
U.N. diplomats from countries with cultures of pervasive corruption flaunt New York parking laws far more regularly than diplomats from countries with cultures that frown on corruption.

Examining the years 1997-2002, they found a direct correlation between the number of diplomats that parked with impunity and the level of corruption in their home countries, measured by the Transparency International corruption index.

As an example, diplomats from Sweden had no unpaid parking violations while diplomats from Chad averaged 124 unpaid parking violations.

The authors conclusion?

“Culture, norms, and emotions - in other words, factors other than legal enforcement - play a key role in government officials' corruption decisions . . . understanding these factors should be taken seriously in debates about the causes of corruption and the policy measures to combat it."

I’m obviously not posting to thrash Chadean diplomats. But the study points out something that seems pretty obvious to me: culture matters. Particularly when you’re talking about the effect culture can have on the potential for economic development. Corruption strangles the possibility for uplift in country after country.

Unfortunately, the whole phrase ‘culture matters’ has become associated with a kind of mean spirited, right wing and sometimes racist approach that often seems more concerned with demonstrating the superiority of white westerners and, increasingly, some Asian cultures.

So I understand why so many people genuinely concerned for economic development among the poor here in the US and in the rest of the world shy away from using the phrase or even seriously examining certain elements in various cultures that—in my mind--help keep a whole lotta people trapped in poverty.

Lots of people here in the Rockies are roasting white, Democratic, ex-governor of Colorado Richard Lamm on a spit right now because of his new book, Two Wands, One Nation, and some of his recent comments.

An example:

"Let me offer you, metaphorically, two magic wands that have sweeping powers to change society. With one wand you could wipe out all racism and discrimination from the hearts and minds of white America. The other wand you could wave across the ghettos and barrios of America and infuse the inhabitants with Japanese or Jewish values, respect for learning and ambition," Lamm wrote. "I suggest that the best wand for society and for those who live in the ghettos and barrios would be the second wand."

Yes, stupidly put. Obviously a gross and unfair overgeneralization. Sure to make lots of people furious and therefore possibly useless in actually bringing about change. Clearly the wrong messenger.

But still....

People don’t choose their own original culture(s) any more than they choose their eye color. Cultures become what they are through a complicated historical process mostly beyond the control of current individual members of that culture. Jared Diamond made that case powerfully in Guns, Germs and Steel.

And certainly some of the worst elements in every culture get a boost out of abuse at the hands of other temporarily powerful cultures.

As a result, you don't have to blame others needlessly or go off on a jag of moral superiority to acknowledge that aspects of culture can sometimes consign people to poverty.

I think a lot of us repudiate a clumsy and sometimes malicious appropriation of the term ‘culture matters.

How can we take it back and make it our own?

Seems like we’ve got to do it if we're serious about rolling back poverty.


Blogger 3wishes said...

If New York City cant afford to let diplomats park.........lets just set up camp somewhere else. My goodness, what a way to treat "our friends". Invite them over and then bill them. Hmm, New York City you say?????? Hmmm

2:14 PM  
Blogger jon said...

Would have been angry at this post 5-7 years ago. Much agreed nowadays.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Good point 3.

But sometimes guests abuse their welcome.

9:19 PM  

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