At the end of the nineteenth century, James George Frazer published a twelve volume study of various cultural practices from ancient times to our own. The book was titled The Golden Bough and was later brought out in a single volume, much edited, and has had a profound influence on cultural anthropology. Indeed, many regard it as a classic. I recently began to peruse the volume and found the following rather startling passage regarding the treatment of young women in primitive tribes:
“When symptoms of puberty appeared on a girl for the first time, the Guaranis of Southern Brazil, on the borders of Paraguay, used to sew her up in a hammock, leaving only a small opening in it to allow her to breathe. In this condition, wrapt up and shrouded like a corpse, she was kept for two or three days or as long as her symptoms lasted, and during this time she had to endure a most rigorous fast.”
This is only one of the practices enumerated by Frazer; several so-called “primitive” cultures did whatever necessary to seclude these young women from other members of the tribe until they had outgrown their “malady.” This includes the example of young women being secluded for as long as seven years in small tent-like buildings raised off the ground — until it was determined that they were safe to be among the other members of the community. Such passages are among the many Frazer includes by way of enlightening us about the way people have behaved over the centuries. And we might include in this list the ancient practice of Sati in which the husband’s wife is thrown on the funeral pyre at his death. Or it might include clitoridectomies in young women performed by a number of primitive tribes — with no anesthetic and with dull tools — to assure that those women become less promiscuous in their adult years. The list goes on and on.
In our day a postmodern army has taken over the universities and is intent on instructing the young about the crimes that have been committed in the name of Western Civilization; it makes a point of insisting that our civilization is rotten at the core and that, in the name of “cultural diversity,” students should learn about the superiority of other cultures. And all other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own, it is said. I dare say, Frazer’s book is not on the reading list. Nor is any mention made of the practices of the Guaranis. Nor, in all likelihood, are the other practices mentioned above. The idea is to make a point and that point is that Western Civilization is the main, perhaps the only, source of the many ills that have befallen humankind. It is only we, in the West, who are capable of unconscionable behavior to our fellow humans.
I am as aware as anyone else of the atrocities that have been committed — and indeed are even today committed — by our culture. I am aware of slavery and the abominable treatment of women and children for so many years; I am also aware of the genocide that was practiced against the native people of this continent in order to bring “civilization” to the New World. I am aware of the atrocities that are committed, even today in the name of capitalism and “freedom” that have resulted in the widespread poverty of millions of people in this country alone in order that a few can become terribly wealthy. I am, in general, aware of the sins committed by Western Civilization as it spread across the globe in an attempt to “civilize” the rest of the world.
But I am also aware that capitalism has made it possible for many to have so much more than they would otherwise have; that Western medicine has prolonged life and made us healthier than humans ever were before. I am aware of the beauty and the magnificence of the cathedrals that tower far into the sky in the name of God and “peace on earth,” and of the hundreds of thousands of beautiful works of art that are displayed around the world. As noted, I am also aware that the things we have done in the name of civilization are in many cases unconscionable. And it is this awareness, which applies to our own culture no less than it does to others equally barbarous, that is the result of the lessons that have been learned as Western Civilization was aborning. That includes the awareness of human rights — the rights of ALL humans. It also includes the awareness that such practices as Sati and clitoridectomies in young women are barbaric and violate universal moral principles such as the rights of all humans not to suffer needlessly. Finally, this awareness has raised moral outrage to a fever pitch in this country over the forced separation of children from their parents who seek asylum, forcing our would-be dictator to rescind his order and alter his plans — or so he says. That is to say, the awareness itself is the major prize of Western Civilization.
If we are going to teach young Americans to be more aware of the shortcomings of their own culture, it behooves us to also teach them of the strengths of their culture along with the shortcomings of other cultures. There is no such thing as “cultural superiority.” No culture on earth is without its errors, blunders, and atrocities. Ours is not unique in that regard.