Practically before dawn on a frigid Thursday morning, Lawrence Harrison walks to the front of a small auditorium in Boston, where a dozen early risers have gathered to hear his views on how culture has hindered the progress of some nations and groups.
Most of the attendees - adults catching some intellectual enrichment before work - are still in a sleep haze. Harrison, a Harvard professor, starts by coaxing them to sit closer to him. It's a tentative start. But soon, questions fly. His thesis - that values and traditions can be a "hindrance" - has struck a controversial chord. One woman is close to tears.
Such tension is not unusual for discussions about culture. In academic alcoves or in eclectic coffee shops, such conversations can get as touchy as race talks.
It wasn't always so. When anthropologist Franz Boas studied the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic in 1883, culture to most Americans meant season tickets for the opera.
Today, the US is a full-fledged "multicultural" society - and knows it. Your average college grad can tell you that capitalist culture is prevalent, wonder about hip-hop culture, and shake her head at starch office culture.
Since Sept. 11, however, many Americans are thinking more broadly and redefining their concept of culture, especially in light of how the US differs from Arab and Islamic cultures. "A lot of Americans have begun to compare their own culture and other cultures in a way they haven't before," says Gary Weaver, an international studies professor at American University in Washington.
"Before" meant a tendency to view all cultures as equal, to downplay the idea of universal values. That kind of cultural relativism worked fine, some say, until terror came to US shores.
Now, a deep desire to uphold certain cultural values - namely US or Western ones - is gaining ground. But the days of Western travelers' notebooks describing foreigners as "barbaric" and "uncivilized" are long gone. Instead, the struggle is under way to evaluate other cultures without resorting to old imperialist lines.
With no compunction or academic footnote, Tom Cushman, a sociology professor at Wellesley College, comes out and says it: "The US is a better place to live than the former Soviet Union." Cushman, a critic of relativism who has lived in Russia, thinks more people should be comfortable making such judgments.
He finds many students yearn to confront tragedies of their lifetime: Rwanda, Bosnia, Sept. 11. His course, "Sociology of Evil," has had large turnouts in the past three years. However, Cushman says, "people generally are taught that you can't judge other cultures."
Opponents say cultural relativism is flawed in two ways. First, it contradicts itself: to state that no one should judge other cultures or that all cultures should be equally defended, is itself a judgment.
Then there's the problem of the slippery slope. When anthropologists first embraced relativism early in the 20th century, it was in the spirit of scientific rigor: The way to understand another culture, they argued, was to abandon one's own values and assumptions. But relativism seeped into other contexts, until all ethics became relative. Radical relativists were willing to defend female genital mutilation in some societies.
For Cushman, the flaws of that logic are now painfully obvious: Academics who cling to ethical relativism have failed to offer explanations for how a society might have bred an Osama Bin Laden.
But those turning their backs on relativism don't wish to resurrect the image of US colonizers in the Philippines in the 19th century, staring at natives with Protestant disdain. Rather, they're looking for a more liberal middle ground.
The first step, for some, is distinguishing between tolerance and relativism. The former allows for respecting cultures without necessarily condoning all their traditions. But a set of universal values is then needed as a broad guideline. The most popular option currently may be the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but some anthropologists resist even that as a Western import.
Still others argue that the perils of ethical relativism are overplayed by those with conservative agendas. Gautam Ghosh, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says students today are weaned on a "default cultural relativism." But he argues that any taboo against evaluating foreign cultures is restricted to public situations. Alone, or even in office hours with Ghosh, these students are less hesitant to judge and blame.
Julie Taylor, at Rice University in Houston, doesn't think Americans censor their judgments even in public. An anthropologist, she says foreigners almost unanimously find Americans quick to moralize - in politics (Clinton saga), in foreign policy (humanitarian issues in China), and in personal relationships.
Taylor says her time abroad helped her recognize how even small American phrases like "how kind of you" reveal a Puritan impulse to see the world in moral terms. She says such language has become more pronounced since the attacks: "What the rest of the world objects to is that Americans feel they have some kind of moral mandate after 9/11."
All of this heat takes place against the backdrop of another shifting sentiment. It's no longer fashionable to see cultures as giant monoliths, hovering over nations and guiding individual lives like a version of Adam Smith's invisible hand.
Rather, any culture is highly differentiated, with a range of values. Moreover, the argument goes, those who speak for a culture are likely to be those in power - and unlikely to represent a majority in less democratic countries.
President Bush offered a nod in this direction just after the attacks. Lest the public assume all Arabs and Muslims were of the bin Laden ilk, he cautioned Americans to remember they were fighting terrorism, not an entire culture.
Such generalizing surfaces in more mundane situations, too - such as how certain cultures operate in political or business negotiations.
That troubles Murray Leaf, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas, who says even small judgments - that Japanese, say, are less direct than Americans - are a bad idea. "When you start talking to people," that kind of information is useless, says Professor Leaf, who has spent time in India.
Leaf says people tend to exaggerate differences among cultures, failing to see commonalities. Yet Americans are no different from others in this respect, he stresses. "I find the same range of views of America in India - the same stupid questions and the same smart observations - as I do about India in America," he says.
Some believe such caution can go too far. Norvell DeAtkine, director of Middle Eastern studies at the JFK Special Warfare School in Fort Bragg, N.C., confesses to an "incurable romanticism" for the Middle East. Mr. DeAtkine briefs military students who are to be stationed there.
His primary teaching tool is Raphael Patai's "The Arab Mind," (Hatherleigh Press), a controversial text among scholars who frown on attempts to paint a national personality. But DeAtkine says his troops find the cultural knowledge - everything from how Arabs feel about their language to their sense of time - more than useful, adding that some briefing is better than landing on foreign shores with a blank slate.
Harrison, the Harvard professor, goes further, assigning cultural factors a causal role in some nations' apparent inability to prosper. Some say Harrison's thesis at best overestimates what culture can affect, and at worst smacks of the "Bell Curve."
It's a view that underscores how elusive firm conclusions about culture can be. Indeed, as the guests gather their coats at the end of Harrison's talk, one young man seems particularly unwilling to leave the debate. He invites everyone to a nearby coffee shop to pick up where Harrison left off.