Talking different languages

Isn't it reassuring that the Obama administration has invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Washington to resume what the Citizen delicately called "long-stalled direct peace talks"? Mind you, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned that "there will be difficulties ahead." Darn it all. Difficulties in the Middle East? How did that happen? You could start with George Will's column in Wednesday's National Post asking bluntly: "Negotiations about what?" Israel, he rightly said, is determined not to allow a third Islamic republic in the West Bank to go with those in Iran and now Gaza. And that is the Palestinians' minimum condition in negotiations.

Let me rephrase that. It is their minimum condition for negotiations. John Thompson, of the Mackenzie Institute, once ridiculed Yassir Arafat's "impulsive urge for trying to take the pot with a pair of fours and a lot of bluff." But it wasn't just him. The Palestinian leadership has catastrophically overplayed its hand at every turn since the 1920s; it is hardly surprising that they should now demand that in return for talking to the stinking Jews they should be permitted to sneak up behind them with murder in their hearts.

What is surprising is that so many in the West overlook or excuse this vicious and delusional attitude while insisting that if only Israel were more reasonable everything would be fine. Pay no attention to that blood libel in front of the curtain.

As Will notes, when the Israelis withdrew from Gaza and Hamas took over and started raining rockets on them, the so-called international community didn't object. ("The number of UN resolutions deploring this? Zero.") But world opinion was "theatrically appalled" when Israel retaliated.

So far, so sadly familiar. We say again and again that Israel isn't just the only place in the Middle East where gays or women have rights, it's the only place where Muslims do. So why do so many intelligent and, I strive to keep believing, well-intentioned people in the West blame Israel first, last and always or prattle soothing idiocies about an alleged Middle East Peace Process like Hillary Clinton?

Here I'd like to lay aside my usual scorn for social science and cite a story in Saturday's National Post about a study by Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia on co-operation, altruism and culture. Henrich et al revisited a famous experiment called the Ultimatum Game in which Subject A is given $100 and told that he can offer to divide it with Subject B any way A likes. If B says yes, they each get their agreed-upon share. But if B says no, neither gets anything. And each pair only plays once so there's no room for strategic decisions about future encounters.

It has long been known that educated Americans, if assigned the role of Subject A, will offer an average of $48. And when assigned the role of B, they tend to reject anything under $40. In other words, Americans, (and other Westerners) expect fairness, value it highly, and resent its absence. But Henrich and his colleagues discovered that elsewhere, starting in the Amazon jungle, people react very differently, usually making smaller offers as A and accepting them as B.

The researchers concluded that Westerners differ from non-Westerners. "Really?," I'm tempted to say. You discovered the Third World. Way to go. Have you ever been abroad? But better late than never.

What these researchers say is mostly true and important. Including their insistence that we are the weirdos. They call us "Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic" or WEIRD for short. I think this admittedly clever terminology puts too much emphasis on post-Industrial Revolution material conditions and too little on cultural factors going back at least to the fateful meeting of Athens and Jerusalem in the Roman Empire. But the brutal fact is that we in the West are unusual.

We are not the world. And what we're seeing in the Middle East, or trying not to, is a confrontation, one might even say a clash of civilizations, between a Western society and its non-Western neighbours who think very differently about getting along and value fairness far less.

In their paper, Henrich et al suggest that too much emphasis on WEIRD test subjects has misled behavioural scientists. To which I respond that they oughta meet our political and cultural elite. To adapt a jibe from William F. Buckley, our chattering classes are always chattering about different cultures but are always amazed to find that there are other cultures. They assume that because the Palestinians keep rejecting Israeli peace offers, those offers must have been somehow insincere or ungenerous because that's what it would mean if Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah were all good bourgeois exurban Westerners.

So yes, there could be difficulties ahead, most of the important ones coming from that obtuse attitude.

ColumnsJohn Robson