Out of the Palestinian Cultural Context

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 1 2012 10:22 AM

Out of the Palestinian Cultural Context

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US Repulican party presidential candidate Mitt Romney stands in front of a picture of the Jerusalem Old City walls at an event in Jerusalem on July 29, 2012. Romney hailed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in an apparent endorsement of a position held by the Jewish state but never accepted by the international community. AFP PHOTO/ALEX KOLOMOISKY ===ISRAEL OUT==== (Photo credit should read ALEX KOLOMOISKY/AFP/GettyImages)

Photo by ALEX KOLOMOISKY/AFP/GettyImages

For once, the red telephone that connects the Romney campaign to Jennifer Rubin seems to be malfunctioning.

On July 30, in Israel, Mitt Romney wondered why his host country was so much richer than the territories it controls. "[A]s you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel, which is about $21,000," he said, "and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality." It put him in mind of Jared Diamond's work on civilizational success. "If you could learn anything from the economic history of the world," said Romney, "it’s this: culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference. 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."

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This was reported, pretty understandably, as "Mitt Romney commenting on Palestinian culture." At first, he denied the spin. He "did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy," consarn it! A few hours later, he reversed course and published a National Review op-ed on culture and its economic legacies. "During my recent trip to Israel," he wrote, "I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it."

And Rubin chose this moment to publish a warning to journalists about the uses of the phrase "out of context." What was fair? Criticizing Barack Obama's Roanoke speech and using the "build it" line however you liked. What wasn't fair?

“Out of context” also doesn’t mean “you said something I didn’t say.” The latter is a lie or misreporting. Mitt Romney, for example, never said the phrase “Palestinian culture.”

What the hey? Romney did not use the words "Palestinian" and "culture" next to each other, but by his own admission he was talking about whether the Palestinian Authority's culture hurts it economically. No major news outlet put the phrase "Palestinian culture" in quotes and attributed it to Romney. Not the LA Times. Not Yahoo! News. Rubin seems to be saying it's out of bounds to paraphrase what a candidate said even if it's absolutely in line with what he meant. Yeah. I think I'll opt out of this rule.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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