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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


Campaign volunteers, charity 5K runners, advertising executives—everyone's on a mission these days, desperate to disseminate their views and values and have the world conform to them. In fact, the deepest divide in the world today, writes Richard Shweder in the summer issue of Daedalus, is not between left and right but rather "between those who embrace universalizing missionary efforts of either a religious (Christian, Islamic) or secular (human rights, international liberationist) sort—and those who react to such missions with diffidence, doubt, distrust, indignation, and even fear."

Count Shweder among the diffident and fearful, says Martin Marty in an entry in his Sightings newsletter. Shweder is responding to President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, in which Bush suggested that "non-negotiable demands of human dignity" are the basis not only of a good society but of an American effort to reform the world—and that these truths are so objective as to overcome the risks of "imposing our culture," as Bush put it. Shweder, Marty says, rehashes the instances of cultural imperialism that have resulted from such self-righteous missionary efforts (the British empire's "white man's burden" to tame savages makes its requisite appearance). Unfortunately, Marty doesn't question Shweder's false alternatives: preachy imperialism versus a mostly hands-off affirmation of the variety of valid cultural norms.

The problem is that after Shweder all but dismantles the notion of intercultural applicability of moral absolutes, he then lamely tries to rebuild the idea in his own terms. But after his setup, he is unconvincing in his cautious endorsement of certain "objective judgments about moral progress" and "non-negotiable demands of human reason that apply universally." He pronounces that one such demand is the willingness of an "insider" of a culture to engage with a respectful "outsider" in a dialogue about the good of the insider's cultural customs. As a "universal missionary effort," this is as arbitrary as anything Bush proposed; would not an insider be reasonable in declining to participate in such a dialogue if she feared that it could lead to the dilution or domination of her culture by the outsider?

Besides, Bush did play by Shweder's rules: he outlined what he saw as an objective good that is universally desirable, then outlined the specific situations in which his policies would, in Shweder's words, bring "more and more of something that is desirable." The better way to argue against Bush's invasion of Iraq—which occupies Shweder for his last three pages—is to say that while Bush's aims to bring "the rule of law," "equal justice" and "religious tolerance" to Iraq were indeed commonly desirable, the misinformed (as we now know) and reckless (it can be argued, given the lack of a workable plan to rebuild Iraq) military invasion was a poor way to achieve these aims. That is a more workable argument than discrediting Bush's moral foundation and then awkwardly attempting to lay another one.

Daedaluson happiness
The dubious conspiracy theories about Bush and religious fundamentalists
Mark Noll on the history of missions, in B&C


From the New York Times :

OLYMPIA, Greece — Until the original Olympics were banned as a pagan event some 1,600 years ago, naked male athletes gathered every four years on the bone-dry plain here to sprint, grapple and heave javelins in the most famous sporting competition of the ancient world. Not much remains from those glory days but ruins: ridged columns felled by earthquakes, the stone outline of a temple to Zeus, the judges' marble box seats and the stone starting line for foot races. But on these ruins—not in the floodlighted stadiums of modern Athens—the Olympics really returned home [last week]. Olympia was host to the original Games, a much different affair from the 21st-century pageant of sport and commerce in Athens, 190 miles to the northeast.

Related:Smithsonianon the Ancient Olympics

VIGO PARK, Tex. — It was just a little country post office in the panhandle in the back of a 1907 general store where shelves still held World War II meat-ration coupons. The mail for 52 people was sorted into 18 old paymaster's boxes from the Union Pacific Railroad, and the combination to the antique post office safe was scrawled on the wall. Until, that is, Nov. 27, 2002, when United States postal inspectors swooped down on this quiet rural crossroads between Amarillo and Lubbock and busted the quaint operation—acquired only months before by an Austin couple through thoroughly modern eBay. Nearly two years later, with Vigo Park's only store still closed, forcing people to drive some 55 miles round trip for groceries in Tulia, the tale remains murky. The Postal Service will not discuss its action against the operators.


  • "Too often, when journalists write about Hispanics and other minority groups, they head straight for the barrios, the enclaves, the ghettos, and totally miss what is happening beyond those tried-and-true places," Elizabeth Llorente, immigration reporter for the Bergen County, N.J., Record, tells the Columbia Journalism Review. What's happening, CJR says, is that "once-homogeneous bedroom communities are now the destination of many new immigrants—a pattern that is altering the demographics of the country." CJR praises the reporting of Llorente, a daughter of Cuban immigrants, for its empathy and originality. But it spends little time on its title: "The Suburban Myth," except to mention at the end "the images of the television sitcoms that perpetuate [the] stereotypes" of the suburbs. Article
    Earlier: Exurbia and suburban identity
  • Nary an age goes by wherein someone neglects to hold forth on "the changing American family," but several current disputes in family law arise from some unprecedented trends, says the Christian Science Monitor. "The legal tangle is driven by converging technological and social forces: the rise of surrogates and egg or sperm donors; same-sex parenting; grandparents or even nonrelatives who act in caregiving roles." Article Since the piece is only about legal issues, it provides relief from the tired lament that changes in the American family portend society's doom, but it does suggest that the fluidity of modern familial relationships can be disorienting as well as liberating.
    B&C's special issue on marriage, Sept./Oct. '04
    The contested social history of the family, from the New Yorker
    Children as an economic "public good," also from the New Yorker
  • As family law adapts to social change, American workers are adapting to "a 24-7 globe" by working overnight shifts in greater numbers, says the Monitor in a story on the growth of the graveyard shift. "Once the haunt of cops and bakers, the night shift is now the fastest growing, according to the census: One in five Americans now goes to work between midnight and 6:30 a.m." Many of these workers are white collar, the Monitor says, though service industries that give them coffee and doughnuts are also growing. With more workers altering their sleep habits, the Monitor says, it raises questions about their productivity, health, and relationships. Article
  • As the Olympics return to Olympia (see above), something is missing: the temple to Zeus that once stood there. Most of the other Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have also vanished; only the Pyramids at Giza remain. One filmmaker has taken it upon himself to poll humanity for a New Seven Wonders of the World; the Great Wall of China, the statues of Easter Island, and the Taj Mahal are early favorites. In an Atlantic essay on this wonder-ful campaign, Cullen Murphy offers his tongue-in-cheek nominations, including "the Santa Monica Freeway near the I-5 interchange, site of perhaps the worst traffic jams in North America" and tribute to the highway system, "one of the glories of our age"; the luxurious environs of the Terrace Suites of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, where "ailing potentates congregate"; and the Brautigan Library of unpublished books. Preview
  • Don't tell the Swiss, but one of their most beloved national stories is shot through with holes—unlike the alleged apple on William Tell's son's head. "Many historians doubt that Tell ever shot an apple off his son's head in 1307 or sparked the Swiss struggle for independence," says the current Smithsonian. "In fact, many doubt that William Tell ever existed. Instead, Tell's oft-told tale is a product of mangled chronologies, borrowed folk tales, and ample helpings of wishful thinking. But that hasn't kept him from becoming a beloved symbol of Switzerland's national character." Preview and PDF
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant atBooks & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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