Matt S.: Thanks for encouraging me to take my very first philosophy class, way back when, and for being a model for so much that followed as a result.
Matt F., Aldo, and Glen: Thanks for the laughs and the good counsel, and for helping to make my first year at BYU about as good as such a year could possibly be.
Mary Ellen: Thanks for making The Daily Universe a place of good memories, rather than bad.
Scott and Nick: Thanks for teaching me just about everything worth knowing about food and movies, and for more sympathy and generosity over the years than I could ever repay.
Ross, James, and Mark: Thanks for all the music and conversation and movies and dinners and babysitting and get-togethers in D.C.; I still miss those days.
Rob: Thanks for never letting me forget about Zion (or birds).
Jacob: Thanks for inspiring me to get into blogging in the first place.
Damon: Thanks for tolerating (but never blandly putting up with) my many intellectual permutations, and for the pleasure of having been able to contribute to a few intellectual and spiritual permutations of your own.
Laura: Thanks for making me laugh, and making me think, and so often doing both at the same time.
Tim: Thanks for showing us all how to be for one's side without being of one's side, and for doing so with such thought and wit.
John and Belle: Thanks for being so smart and funny, for teaching me what to think about David Frum, and for the pony.
Hugo, Scott, Rob, and Dave: Thanks for holding my feet to the fire.
Harry, Henry, and everyone else at Crooked Timber: Thanks for being my first blog-stop, every morning, every day.
Steve: Thanks for letting me blog along with people far cooler than myself.
To the whole Times and Seasons gang: Thanks for making me part of something important and good, and for helping me think about what I have to share (and for helping me share what I have thought about) in a way I perhaps never would have otherwise. In particular, thanks to Kaimi for running the show, to Jim for always striking the right tone, to Nate and Frank for never letting any of my lousy arguments stand, and to Kristine, for sticking through it all.
Mom and Dad: Thanks for almost everything.
Melissa: Thanks for everything else, and more.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Matt S.: Thanks for encouraging me to take my very first philosophy class, way back when, and for being a model for so much that followed as a result.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
The New Republic this week is just about all-France, all the time, with long and thoughtful pieces by Paul Berman, Keelin McDonell, and David A. Bell. Berman's essay digs deep into French anti-American literature . . . and the French literature on French anti-American literature. He makes some fine observations, especially in the last part of the essay, when he makes use of a recent book by Andre Glucksmann to discuss parallels between anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. Like most things Berman writes, even if you can't swallow his grand conceptual synthesis, the details are fascinating.
The Bell essay is also very rewarding, and very pertinent to events in France over the last month or so. His basic thesis is that France's "republican model of integration," which was really an unheralded success for several generations, has over the past 40 years irreparably broken down. This is something of a great loss, in Bell's telling--rather than approaching the pluralism of modern life through policies of (as James Forsyth, in another TNR article, put it) British or Dutch-style liberal or "laissez-faire" multiculturalism, France had shown the value of placing an "unyielding emphasis on universal, enlightenment values" in the education of its citizens. Becoming French had nothing to do with addressing, balancing out, or even acknowledging, racial or religious or ethnic grievances (that's why France famously refused to even gather ethnic data on its citizens); rather, it had everything to do with embracing French language, civilization, and history as steps on the road to enlightenment. To really make that kind of republican model work, however, you have to have a faith in the Enlightenment project, and a faith in its identity with the particular civic norms being taught in the schools. In other words, it required a sense of destiny and confidence in the place on one's own project. And Bell is very clear on the consequences of the loss of that confidence by the late 1960s:
It was into this changed and diminished France--stripped of its empire, unnerved by the wars of decolonization, deprived of its traditional peasantry, and shaken in its cultural authority--which the new immigrants from Africa arrived as cheap labor. Even had they come at an earlier time, their integration would have proved far more difficult than that of Italians, Portuguese, or Jews. The cultural differences were greater, as was the sheer extent of the racial and religious prejudice against them. But, in the context of the '60s, they had hardly any chance. The French state simply no longer had the will to apply the older model of integration fully. Instead, for a time, the state held fast to the fiction that the newcomers were mere "guest workers" who would eventually return home. When it became obvious that large numbers of Arabs, Berbers, and black Africans were in France to stay, the state shunted them into bleak suburban housing projects, effectively segregating them far more radically than earlier waves of immigrants. . . . I have known several French teachers who worked in suburban lycées where North African students were the majority. Only one of them saw the assignment as a chance to follow in the footsteps of those teachers who went forth to proselytize for French civilization, and she received precious little institutional support for her beliefs. The others have endured it simply as a purgatory and counted the days until their release.
[I]n practice, [the French model] was never simply about the principle of making everyone equal within the civic sphere. It was also about genuine missionary fervor--about taking little Gascons and Normans, little colonial subjects, little Italian and Jewish immigrants, and converting them, in the full meaning of the word, into French men and women. The absence of that sort of fervor in places like Clichy-sous-Bois or Saint-Denis, where some of the worst rioting has occurred, has contributed powerfully to the alienation that has expressed itself in the recent wave of arson and destruction. The very use of the word "immigrants" for these second- and third-generation French youths is an insulting reminder of just how little attention official France has given them.
Observations like this can't help but underscore the degree to which some kind of "faith" is a necessary component in establishing the boundaries within which a free and also multicultural society can operate. If the riots in France are even remotely the result of an anger which comes from the French establishment's inability to educate and incorporate the many North African Muslims who have called France their home for decades now into the mainstream of French life--an education and incorporation which would surely require, given France's (I think admirable) commitment to the republican ideal, a rethinking of just what destiny French men and women ought to have confidence in--then I would argue that much of this year's unrest was foretold a couple of years back, in the midst of the "headscarf" controversy regarding the banning of "blatant" (which in practice meant primarily Muslim) religious garb and symbols in the country's schools. As I wrote then:
"Secularism always has been a poor tool for solidarity. One could score cheap (though perhaps justifiable) points along these lines by pointing to the abysmal lack of "solidarity" manifest during last summer's heat wave in France, in comparison to other nations which haven't severed their ties to their religious heritage quite so firmly, but far more relevant (to my mind at least) is the simple truism that religious identity is almost inevitably communal: even mystics gather in groups. Of course rival groups can lead to Balkanization, but still: religion (even when the habits of faith are 'merely' ethical or social, rather than pious, for any particular individual) directs the inner person outward, towards an engagement with others, and why would anyone want to premise their social existence on an ideal which rejects personal manifestations of that public fact? This is a lesson as old as Tocqueville's writings on civic religion, and the evidence in support of his old thesis is plentiful; it's remarkable that France, of all places, was so desperate to reject the Catholic establishment that they forgot all about the insights of their native son. No, religious communities are not necessarily 'better' communities, but an aggressively irreligious community--especially one which actually goes so far as to label, as Chirac did, individual expressions of religious faith to themselves be 'an aggression'!--is a dubious accomplishment, at best. So the fact that this particular response to one aspect of France's (and to a certain extent, all of Western Europe's) identity crisis is so popular among French citizens is doubly distressing: because it is likely a poor way to negotiate that crisis, and because it moves, I think, in the wrong direction entirely anyway."
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 12:43 AM
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Last month, Smithsonian Magazine ran an excellent, thoughtful piece that gave voice to a bunch of individuals rarely heard in the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--specially, the indigenous people who actually live there. The area is dominated by two main tribes: the Gwich'in, whose villages are scattered along the migratory route followed by the caribou which traverse ANWR, and the Inupiat, a coastal people whose homes and lives have been transformed (mostly, if not entirely, for the better) by the flow of North Slope oil and the money it has brought to the region. The author did a fantastic job of capturing telling moments in the lives of both tribes (the Inupiat slightly outnumber the Gwich'in). On the side of the Gwich'in, who oppose any development of ANWR because of its unpredictable consequences on the local caribou herds, you see a mix of proud traditionalism, interest-group savvy and paranoia; on the side of the Inupiat, a contempt for the quasi-spiritual, development-opposing environmentalism that so many Native opponents of drilling have adopted, but also the fear that too much development and pollution could cut into their primary traditional economy--whaling. If you can find a copy of the October Smithsonian, check the article out; it's an example of the best kind of environmental reportage: one that brings people into the equation, in all their complexity.
I was reminded of the article by this essay which appeared in Orion on the grave threat which environmentalists pose to indigenous peoples:
It's no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention. . . . [In 2004,] at a Vancouver, British Columbia, meeting of the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping, all two hundred delegates signed a declaration stating that the "activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands" . . . .
"We are enemies of conservation," declared Maasai leader Martin Saning'o, standing before a session of the November 2004 World Conservation Congress sponsored by IUCN in Bangkok, Thailand. The nomadic Maasai, who have over the past thirty years lost most of their grazing range to conservation projects throughout eastern Africa, hadn't always felt that way. In fact, Saning'o reminded his audience, ". . . we were the original conservationists." The room was hushed as he quietly explained how pastoral and nomadic cattlemen have traditionally protected their range: "Our ways of farming pollinated diverse seed species and maintained corridors between ecosystems." Then he tried to fathom the strange version of land conservation that has impoverished his people, more than one hundred thousand of whom have been displaced from southern Kenya and the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania. Like the Batwa, the Maasai have not been fairly compensated. Their culture is dissolving and they live in poverty. "We don't want to be like you," Saning'o told a room of shocked white faces. "We want you to be like us. We are here to change your minds. You cannot accomplish conservation without us."
The article does a great job documenting the shock, condescension, frustration and arrogance which the complaints of native persons have elicited from many leaders of diverse conservation programs around the world. The fact that local human beings, with their farming and wandering and hunting and industry, might actually need occasionally to be part of any real discussion about how to preserve habitats and species was something that eclipse the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Western, overwhelmingly wealthy patrons who make up the bulk of self-described "environmentalists" the world over. Some groups, thankfully, are coming around to an acknowledgement of the obvious, populist point which Saning'o made above, a point which (as I noted in an earlier post) has even penetrated some levels of the U.S. government: a conservation which does not tend to the local knowledge and needs of the people who actually interact with that environment one wishes to conserve is not only likely to be incoherent on its face, but is also likely to fail.
This is a concern I've had for a long time; it goes back to frustration I felt about the Clinton administration's creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah in 1996--a tremendous accomplishment, and a worthy monument to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's vision of federal leadership in land-use planning, but also an act of conservation that antagonized rather than respected the locals, as Babbitt himself now apparently admits. And it's a concern I wrote about a couple of years back, when Nicholas Kristoff took off for ANWR to write for the New York Times about the importance of preserving a land "where humans are interlopers" (he meant "humans" like himself, obviously). This is not a rejection of any and all environmentalist arguments for maintaining the natural world for more than just materialistic reasons: I am hardly immune to or dismissive of the romantic and aesthetic qualities of the earth. But it is a suggestion that the sublime ought not be imagined without some reflection upon who, exactly, experiences that sublime. It is relatively easy for those who--like Kristoff--find something appealing about visiting (but not living in; oh no, of course not that) a place where "bears are king" to condemn all those who have problems with, say, the slow re-introduction of grizzly bears and other potentially dangerous animals to populated areas as unenlightened knaves; the fact that a lot of those locals buy sufficiently into an us-vs.-the-government mentality as to allow them to participate in covering up crimes against endangered animals only makes such condemnations even easier. But the tendency to ignore such factors--to ignore how one's wealth or distance can lead one to see those actual people who want and need to work and live around the vistas you might want to "protect"--needs to be resisted. The story (at ANWR, and elsewhere) is more complicated than that.
In the end, I think the attempt to purge the human, to reduce the everyday productive place of actual human beings from one's picture of the natural world (an attempt that can lead ultimately to rather bizarre conclusions), rests on a perverse kind of anthropocentrism. Isn't anthropocentrism exactly what deep ecologists have long said is the root of our problem--the way in which our economies and societies assume that human beings are the center of creation? Yes. But isn't the belief that human beings are utterly and uniquely destructive of the natural world, that in our ordinary consumptive lives we cannot help but be a "foreign" presence on the earth, equally anthropocentric? In fact, it might be an even worse anthropocentrism: in the real world, farmers and gardeners and all those who care about the earth take seriously their stewardship of it, a stewardship which makes them, in my experience at least, humble and careful, aware of the fragility of their relationship with nature. Whereas radical environmentalism too often allows for no such complexity; there is humanity and there is nature, and the further the two are kept tightly separate from each other (close enough for the former to look at and "commune with" the latter, but nothing more), the better for both. For any who find themselves agreeing with this position, I strongly recommend 1491--a wonderful, provocative new book which argues that "pristine" New World which European explorers "discovered" and invaded in the from 15th to the 17th centuries, and which many today consider today to have been a kind of paradise lost, was to a great extent the creation of prolonged human interaction. The Amazon basin, the buffalo herds--all a result of generations of indigenous "species maintenance" and "land planning" (though tragic accidents played a part as well). Real environmentalists know that human technology and society, for better and for worse, are as much a part of the geography of the planet as the life patterns of any other species. Only a truly anthropocentric thinker would think that you can take humans--like either the Gwich'in or the Inupiat--out of the equation, and call what remains to be conserved truly "natural."
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 5:12 AM
Monday, November 21, 2005
Thanks to this post by Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, I've been alerted to a recent article by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker on Bob Casey, Jr.'s campaign for the Senate in Pennsylvania against Republican senator Rick Santorum. I'm going to have to dig up a copy of the article, which I probably would have missed otherwise. Scott didn't think much of the piece though: he felt Boyer's treatment of the abortion issue amongst Democrats was, at best, facile, and downright credulous in the way he presented the complaints of Tim Roemer, a tone-deaf conservative Democrat who apparently thinks the reason he couldn't get any traction in his race against Howard Dean for the leadership of the DNC was because of his anti-abortion voting record, whereas the real reason is that Dean actually worked for it, meeting with local Democrats and building an organization instead of grandstanding. All that may be true--but I'm interested in the article anyway, because I'm fascinated by what a Casey-Santorum campaign could mean, and it'll perhaps help salve my annoyance at not living in Pennsylvania right now: there's no prospective senate race in America right now I'd be more interested in contributing to than that one.
From what I can tell from Scott's and others' summaries of the Boyer article, the central question is whether or not the Democratic base, all the big donors and activists, will be willing to support a "pro-life" (I hate that term, by the way) if that's what it'll take to get rid of Santorum. This kind of talk annoys Scott to no end; he has frequently insisted that Republican tolerance of "pro-choice" candidates and politicians is mere window-dressing, while at the same time pointing out that the number of Democrats who describe themselves as opposed to abortion and yet are somehow able to pass the "litmus test" supposedly enforced by the party's base is not insignificant. This is true--but it is also incomplete. I completely grant that the decision by the organizers of the Democratic national convention to refuse to allow Casey's father, the pro-life then-governor of Pennsylvania, to speak in 1992 has been blown far our of proportion; and that, in many ways, when it comes to simple (including religious) declarations of belief, the Democratic party today is often more tolerant and supportive of a diverse range of candidates than the Republicans. But of course the issue for social conservatives is not merely to keep the pro-life flag waving one way or another; it is, very simply, to discourage abortion. Here the tolerance of the Democrats ends (and rightly so, Scott would say). The reason Bob Casey excites people like myself is that he is no conservative, whatever that term means today; rather, he is a Democrat with a strong progressive record on trade and the minimum wage, public education, and Social Security, while also being a candidate who won't be pro-life the way Harry Reid, or for that matter John Kerry, are--that is, he is a candidate whose social conservatism just might not be retired to the backwater of personal belief, but instead will be taken as a piece of his religiously grounded progressivism.
Of course, such a hope is, for a great many secular liberals, one that would cut the heart out of the Democratic party if actually realized: as Michael Kinsley recently put it, Democrats like himself "believe that forcing a woman to go through an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth is the most extreme unjustified government intrusion on personal freedom short of sanctioning murder." Not a lot of room for compromise there, especially when the stakes regarding abortion have been judicially stacked in such an absolutist way, and majorities have developed accordingly. (As everyone familiar with the issue knows, two things can definitely be said about public opinion regarding abortion in the U.S.: 1) a consistent majority of voters oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade, and 2) it is quite easy to get a majority of Americans to confess that they consider abortion to be "immoral" and in need of greater restrictions, depending on how you frame the question.) Nonetheless, "left traditionalists" like myself still exist, and still hold at the hope that, every once in a while, the Democrats will throw us a bone (given that the odds of the Republican party of Bush and Delay suddenly remembering social justice are vanishingly small). Perhaps Casey could be one such, and believe me, we'll take whatever we can get. If along the way our hoped-for candidate can take out an incumbent like Santorum, and thus perhaps incidentally make the point that civic compassion and family values still have to be defended and paid for, not just cheaply invoked, then all the better.
There isn't going to any sort of agreement between someone like Scott and myself on this particular issue, at least not without a lot of difficult debate, and perhaps not even then. For my part, I see Bob Casey's potential presence in the Senate as, perhaps, just possibly, a step towards making this debate a reality, rather than the Kabuki theater which Scott and others rightly observe that the Republican party constantly engages in. Is bringing on that debate so important to me that I'd vote any self-described conservative into office? By no means; there is too much that could be lost in the meantime. But, leaving aside the disagreement between myself and others over the supposed identity between abortion rights and all the other elements of the progressive agenda, I see no reason to think that Casey's (as yet not-fully elaborated) opposition to abortion rights could usher in, should he be elected, a wholesale progressive retreat. Scott, unsurprisingly, isn't sure; he points to the fact that Casey has been silent about Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, and wonders how "a strong union man could even consider advocating his confirmation." He's got a point--but again, his point is incomplete. The hostility Alito has shown in the past to most kinds of legislatively-created rights and protections should obviously be worrying to anyone with even the smallest populist bone in their body; but as Jacob Levy pointed out in a comment in a Crooked Timber thread addressing the above-linked article, it's not as though those (like myself) who are terrified of the "Constitution-in-Exile" movement that Alito may well represent have explained exactly where they think the boundaries of proper legislative authority ought to rest either. Casey's silence regarding Alito, if it isn't just canny campaign politics, may represent nothing more than a general faith that socially responsible reforms need not come to an abrupt end even if the Supreme Court does become even more unfriendly to progressive politics than it is today--in fact, such an occurance might turn out to be a helpful step in getting Democrats to take popular, grass-roots legislation more seriously. Of course, this brings up one of Scott's other bete noires: the notion that progressives are better off without relying on the judiciary, with the enormous hostility and controversy engendered by Roe v. Wade as exhibit number one. He's argued with folks like Nathan Newman about this endlessly; I haven't a clear opinion one way or another. Still, any position whose advocates include Bill Galston and Jeremy Waldron is one I take seriously--at least, seriously enough to hope Bob Casey, and all that I think and hope he may mean, all the luck (and votes) in the world come 2006.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 12:40 PM
Friday, November 11, 2005
I love holidays, as anyone who has read this blog for a while surely knows. In particular, I enjoy the holiday mentality which descends upon the U.S. during the fall, or what my father-in-law calls (jokingly, but not without affection) "Hallothanksmas." Yes, it's true, for a lot of Americans Halloween and Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays all smear together, sometimes creating a cascade of annoyance and stress, all of which is greatly aided and abetted by a consumer culture that starts shoving holiday commercials and goods down our throats at the first opportunity. (I can remember watching TV at my grandmother's house after Thanksgiving dinner when I was a child, curious to see the Christmas commercial season begin. Nowadays, when Santa Claus starts making appearances at some shopping malls around November 1, that seems like a century ago.) Nonetheless, I still think it's a wonderful time. Partly this is simply because of the turn of the season; the arrival of autumn and eventual its transformation into winter is, in much of the North American imagination at least, an even greater seasonal marker than the arrival of spring: it generates feelings of remembrance, renewal, and thoughtful reflection (as well as some great writing in the blogosphere, as the foregoing links attest). But mostly, I think, it's because these are still, nonetheless, good holidays, which year after year give us a chance to ground ourselves in traditions that both enlighten and entertain.
A couple of weeks back, Scott McLemee wrote a snarky-but-somewhat-serious column about Festivus, the Seinfeld-inspired holiday that, apparently, actual people actually "celebrate." The fact that I just put "celebrate" in quotations marks (and, indeed, just did it again) is part of McLemee's point: Festivus is so wholly manufactured, so completely a creature of the mass media and the narcissistic world of ironic detachment that it enables, that it can't possibly be celebrated without that celebration itself being comment on the presumed constructedness of all celebrations; Festivus is, therefore, the "postmodern 'invented tradition' par excellence."
It's a funny and sharp piece, like everything Scott writes, but something about it bugged me. The way he set up his analysis on Festivus leaned on Eric Hobsbawm's argument about the invention of tradition. Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian who played a large role in developing the "constructivist" or modernist reading on nationality, is of the opinion that the fact that we associate certain traditions with holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so forth, is indicative of our historical position vis-a-vis those holidays: only when they are no longer binding, no longer obligatory, no longer necessary--in other words, once the world had sufficiently modernized that we could actually partake of forms of life that our illiterate, village-dwelling ancestors couldn't possibly have imagined--do any of these holidays actually suggest anything traditional. In other words, "traditions" are themselves always invented. They are modern creations, cobbled together from "bits and pieces of the past," as Scott put it; pieces that allow us to imagine what that lost world must have been like, a world that isn't any longer, but which still holds a kind of longingful "the way things ought to be" over our lives nonetheless. No one who actually lived what we reconstruct as "traditional" ever thought about it that way; that kind of sentimental treatment of various rituals and practices only comes along when one doesn't actually live that way any longer (assuming you ever did).
That last parenthetical aside is the heart of my complaint with this interpretation. Scott doesn't press the point, but anyone familiar with such Hobsbawmian readings of history know that central to such arguments is the presumption that our acts of cobbling bits of the past together are always profoundly flawed. Scott eludes to this when he mentions the argument that "traditional Christmas carols" only became such when moderns started getting interested in identifying and encouraging the singing of carols at Christmastime as a way to preserve the feeling of the day, whereas the actual historical record of Christmas observances suggests that for centuries people just sang the same hymns in church all year long, whatever the season. In short, this argument tells us that holiday traditions, indeed all traditions, are more about our own longings (and perhaps our own power struggles) then anything which actually "connects" us to a larger historical or cultural whole; any "meaning" drawn out of a tradition, therefore, like any meaning attached to a community or nation, is a sentimental fiction. Which makes it that much easier (and even, in the eyes of many, admirable) to tire of all the presumed pressure which modernity puts upon us to prop up connections to whatever came before, say "bah, humbug!" to the whole thing, and celebrate--if one celebrates at all--with complete detachment from one's own arbitrary inventions. Bring on Festivus!
My complaint with this argument isn't, primarily, with the history (though I'm one of those who think the meaningful ties people feel to a culture or nation are a lot less arbitrary and a lot older than Hobsbawm & Co. would have you think). Rather, it's with the little normative punch hidden within it--the implication that, obviously, as all our reflecting and cobbling are driven by psychological factors and hang-ups, the mature thing to do is to just adopt a Festivus-type attitude towards all of them. Again, this isn't Scott's argument, at least not directly, but it's one that lurks over much of the debate about holidays and traditions. It assumes that the ability to meaningfully affirm things through ritual and observance depends upon a "naivete" which has been destroyed by modernity, and that talk of "tradition" means little more than aspiring to some kind of blinkered "second naivete" that will cover up our constructive role in establishing said rituals and observances in the first place. Such aspirations, some say, are both flawed and foolish. I'm bringing in Ricoeurian language here, I realize, and I don't want to derail this into a belabored philosophical discussion (I've done that a couple of times already), but I think it's necessary in order to refute both those claims. It is not as though holidays and traditions in the premodern world somehow existed in the absence of any sort of subjectivity or interpretive correspondence; the constructive identification of rituals and observances with particular ends has always been present. (This point is underlined by Scott's offhand description of premodern holidays as something you did because "[n]ot doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable"--which implies, of course, that there were acts of imagination involved, acts which defined what rituals pertained to the holiday and how and why they so pertained, thus allowing one to label that which was out of bounds or abnormal.) And if this is the case, then the increased subjective awareness which attends our own rituals and observances does not mean that our appreciation of them is categorically different from what came before; we may well be inventing something when we celebrate holidays today, but whatever we come up with need not be an arbitrary invention, because our inventing can very possibly a kind of adaptive remembering, a connecting that is potentially every bit as morally valid as that which was experienced by those who went through the same process as the seasons turned a hundred or even a thousand years ago.
Recently, when listing a bunch of favorite holiday children's books in our family, I mentioned Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner. It very entertainingly tells the story of Sarah Hale, an abolitionist, editor and social reformer, who spent thirty years writing letters and publishing articles, trying to get the U.S. government to officially acknowledge (and thus hopefully resuscitate) Thanksgiving, the observance of which in the mid-19th century was slowing dying out. She finally succeeded, and the book makes President Lincoln's declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday out to be Sarah's greatest triumph. But I think we can take a lesson from that. Sure, you could cynically dismiss Hale as a sentimental busybody. But maybe she was more; maybe she was committed to helping her country engage in a little creative remembering. The fact that what she accomplished was, strictly speaking, a political invention doesn't, I think, take anything away from the real connections it made possible for all Americans. That's a valuable point to keep in mind. Note that if you accept this view of holiday "inventions," it becomes possible to actually critique the construction of holidays, to study and reflect on their rituals and observances as better or worse adaptations of the meaning of the day. This is especially appropriate today, on Veterans Day, an American holiday that honors people richly worth honoring, but along the way does terrible disservice to the deeper roots of the day, roots far better honored in those countries that have preserved November 11th as Remembrance or Armistice Day. (See here, here, here, and here for just a sampling of those who agree.) You could make no such critique if all holidays, and all the remembering they make possible, were essentially just arbitrary poses adopted by nostalgic moderns.
Not to say that you shouldn't celebrate Festivus, and be as postmodern as you can, if it turns you on. And it's not like I'm suggesting holiday traditions can't be mocked. (Misrule plays a part in every Christmas, after all.) But don't read that postmodernism back into the very existence of modern holidays, if you please. There's too much truth to be found in letting traditions seasonally locate you in a place and time and community to stand for that.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 4:25 PM