and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
December #1

Some cultural traditions are just plain wrong
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, December 6, 2007

In my personal culture, Christmas begins on Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas.

That's when I turn on the window candles and Christmas music. It's an ongoing tradition in my family; many of my German-American grandmother's great-grandchildren heard a knock on the door Wednesday night and found the first gifts of the season on their doorstep.

Christmas is a cultural event for people of many lands, and is celebrated by people who enjoy the tradition even if they aren't practicing Christians themselves. Some variation of the winter solstice fires is found in many ancient, traditional and New Age groups.

Culture is what adds richness to our lives, variety to our melting-pot nation, and color to the tapestry of the world. But it can also add ugliness and ignorance. It is our job as human beings to honor the richness, enjoy the color, tolerate the variety - and deplore cultural wickedness, even if it is part of a particular group's religious observances.

Yes, we understand you want to toss a virgin down a well; but no, you can't, even if she says she's honored to be chosen.

Let us celebrate intolerance of the bad things that various societies have tried to pass off as legitimate cultural practice. Most human beings have rejected human sacrifice, slavery, child abuse; next, let's work on the fundamentalist Islamic treatment of women and homosexuals.

We are properly horrified when some Sudanese fundamentalists want to lash a British teacher who allowed her little Muslim students to name a teddy bear "Mohammed". Fortunately, the British government objected and the Sudanese president pardoned her - because I for one would have supported a joint British-American invasion of that sorry country. And while we were there, we might have done something about Darfur. Genocide has also been justified in the recent past as a method of cleansing a culture.

Todd Feinberg, the intellectually solid WRKO talk-show host, got a good discussion going on radical Islam last week by arguing that it's hard to remove oneself from one's own cultural bias when judging others. Unthinking religious belief (while hardly foreign to our own culture), is hard, he says, for the average American to get his head around when it causes behavior that is strange to us.

Feinberg used the teddy-bear incident to try to shift people's perspective so they could look at our country as if they were a person sitting outside our culture, considering the possibility that we might appear radically wrong to that person. He cited the case of the man serving 16 years in prison for killing his mother, then being set free to murder again. In countries that cut off the hands of thieves, our unwillingness to protect our citizens from criminals appears strange.

In Saudi Arabia, a young woman was sentenced to be lashed for being alone with a man unrelated to her, just before both of them were abducted and gang-raped. While expressing horror at the entire situation, we Americans need to cultivate a little dismay at little girls paraded in clothes once worn only by prostitutes, now also popular with teen-age girls. Unwed mothers, whom our culture celebrates when they are celebrities, have had a seriously bad effect on our society.

Is there some middle ground between the Muslim and the current American culture, relative to women? Sure, that would be American culture of just a few decades ago. And could we also be lots more tolerant of gays than Islamic cultures, but also understanding of the resistance of some religions to their legal marriage? General tolerance on both sides of the American culture debate would be nice. We could practice during this holiday season.

If that works out, we could carry it forward into the election year.

The American political culture was firmly set on separation of church and state right from its beginning. So how did we get from there to a discussion of which candidates believe every word of the Bible?

On one side, some religious Republican primary voters are demanding an actively Christian president. On the other, some Democrat activists are bringing up religion at every opportunity, trying to ridicule or demonize candidates who are practicing Christians.

In the middle of this, candidate Mitt Romney has to prove to some that his Mormon religion is truly Christian, while proving to others that it isn't the scary fundamentalist version. Good grief. Do he and his family really strike anyone as radical lunatics?

I had a Mormon friend in college. Rollie didn't drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks, smoke or use illegal drugs. She said her religion required her to take care of the body God had given her. She said her family was expected to keep six months of supplies on hand in case of an emergency so it would not be a burden on the community. Her culture seemed to be big on personal responsibility. Ours could use some of that now-rare attitude.

Americans should continue to enjoy the good things about many cultures. But we must also insist on the condemnation, no matter how politically incorrect, of the bad things about some cultures, including our own.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.