Thursday, January 20, 2011

Response to Tushnet: Traditions, Same-Sex Marriage, and Martin Luther King

To follow up on what's been happening on Cato Unbound: Eve Tushnet, John Fea, and James Poulos have all posted thoughtful responses to my essay, which I really appreciate: they both clarify and challenge my ideas about tradition. My first reply, solely to Eve, has gone up today; hopefully, a reply to John and James will go up soon as well. In the meantime, here's a copy of my response.


Eve Tushnet's response to, and extension of, my argument about traditions and traditionalism makes wonderful reading. She is especially acute about one of the primary implications of my argument--namely, that once one rebuts the attempt to reduce traditions to an historical arbitrariness which ought not, to use Tushnet's term, "entangle" us, then one is presumably obliged to take the next step: to deal with that recognized entanglement, to judge it and its several (themselves always shifting) parts, and to ask oneself exactly how and how much and when and where one ought to sacrifice something--a choice, a preference, a resource, a desire--on its behalf.

She opens up this implication by way of an observation by Paul Kahn, who wrote that "Recognizing that there is no subject without parents, for example, hardly tells us how we should view our parents." Charles Taylor once made a similar observation, about what he saw as the frequent confusion between "ontological issues" and "advocacy issues" in the liberal-communitarian debate. Acknowledging the entanglement of our subjectivity in the particular meaning-construction of someone or something else (our parents, the English language, the holidays on our calendar, etc.) does not, in itself, tell us how to deal with our parents, our language, our holiday traditions; as Taylor put it, "Taking an ontological position does not amount to advocating something," though at the same time "the ontological does help to define the options which it is meaningful to support by advocacy." [Taylor, "Cross-Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate," in Liberalism and the Moral Life, Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 161] It is here that we see the effort to get clear on traditions most often challenged by some libertarian or individualistic thinkers of a philosophical bent. While many--perhaps most--of this disposition may see no reason to dispute the way their subjectivity is enmeshed in, perhaps even constituted by, histories and cultures and traditions that necessarily shape and even obligate them in certain ways, more than a few are leery of the kind of advocacy that such an ontological allowance may, and often does, potentially bring along with it. Hence their not infrequent reliance upon the claims of Hobsbawm which I criticized in my essay, asserting that, as what we are enmeshed in is little more than a "constructed" reification of some historical moment, its claims are arbitrary, and therefore can (and, it is usually implied, should) easily be escaped. In rejecting that "bizarrely simplistic, ahistorical" argument, as Tushnet rightly puts it, I am unavoidably placing a follow-up question before us: how should we think about, and respond to, these larger things?

This follow-up will inevitably take us, as Tushnet titled her response, "beyond liberalism." Liberal culturalists such as Will Kymlicka, as I noted before, would almost certainly dissent from this: as they view traditions as resources that individuals may embrace or reject as they seem fit, they would likely argue that such follow-up questions can (and, again, should) be answered privately, without any shaping or obliging which extends beyond individual preference. But this is not the case, since the context of this follow-up concern--how to deal with the traditions we are entangled in--requires us to think about matters which cannot be fully articulated without reference to a community of others (both living and dead). Tushnet suggests that the matters entwined in the context of our responses to such traditions are things like beauty, love, honor, and suffering; I could add to that list pleasure, solidarity, and a sense of place and wholeness. Any and all of those potentially draw upon such a huge variety of media and measures that an authority of something or someone beyond one's own interest has to come into play; the act of interpretation practically demands it.

Tushnet thoughtfully presents tradition as that which gives substance to the often abstract authorities on whom we usually rely as we make judgments about how to deal with that which our culture, history, parentage, or calendar presents us with. I would quibble with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and thus gain authority thereby; it seems to me, rather, that some activities (such as certain religious rituals) are held as authoritative from their origin or from some stage in their process of origination (or transformation), and become something traditional to be passed down accordingly. Mostly though, her point about authority is well taken. It is the idea of authority, after all, which makes sense of the idea of obligation, shaping, and adherence. So, to move the discussion from the philosophical to the political, what might be authoritative understandings of things we love, honor, or wish to be in solidarity with, which traditions can, though associating us with others, "put flesh and costume" (to quote Tushnet again) upon?

An easy one to start with, since I am writing this on the day itself: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In my essay, I made mention of the work of Sarah Hale, a 19th-century feminist who cajoled and corresponded with politicians, business leaders, and women's groups for years to get the national government to officially declare Thanksgiving Day a holiday, with all the legal and economic ramifications such a declaration inevitably had. Similarly, this January 17th was the 25th anniversary of the first public honoring of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday, the result of years of activism by labor unions, civil rights groups, and Democratic politicians, who clearly understood pushing the holiday as a way to continue to distinguish their record during the civil rights movement from that of the Republicans. I remember the arguments both for and against the holiday which abounded during my middle and high school years in mostly white, mostly conservative communities in the American west; friends of mine from white communities in the South have similar recollections. Honoring Martin Luther King would challenge the solitary honor which George Washington had previously enjoyed in the federal calendar; it would oblige states to introduce unpopular concepts into elementary school curricula; it would require contorted balancing acts to satisfy various constituencies (creating a "Civil Rights Day" or the short-lived "Lee-Jackson-King Day" were just two ways different states sought to accommodate themselves to the national government's decision). Holidays, of course, are not generally occasions of high sacrifice, but still, on the level of school budgets, government payrolls, work schedules, and more, significant interpretation and adjustment is necessary. Taking the legacy, ideals, and impact of a single man, and using them to engage in an act of partisan construction, so as to force into the civic routine of the nation a set of traditions, however plebeian they may be, oriented around an important national memory of protest and struggle, was anything but an easy, individually obvious, static operation; it was, and still remains, a dynamic, collective, contentious act–as most any holiday should be. But the result is that a reference point for remembrance in now part of our calendar, and we–or at least, those in sympathy with the aim of that remembrance–are empowered thereby.

A harder one now: same-sex marriage. Here the arguments on both sides are much more fraught, but their form do not appear to me to be much different. Of course, in the debate over extending former legal recognition to the marriages of gays and lesbians, generally only one side uses arguments from tradition. But those who make these arguments follow a similar pattern. First, that an authoritative understanding of the purposes of marriage has emerged through the many diverse marriage practices which have been recognized throughout the history of Western civilization, one that was originally grounded upon a Judeo-Christian understanding sexual morality and the relations between the sexes, but which has also been shaped and interpreted in light of social and economic imperatives over centuries. Second, that this contested, constructed definition nonetheless reflects a naturally evident and socially useful distinction between males and females when living in society and/or engaged in procreation. Finally, that as this distinction has been codified into various traditional practices and assumptions, the recognition of the rights and aspirations of gay and lesbian individuals has presented them with a challenge: how much can the traditional rules that govern our civic life regarding marriage be changed to accommodate new understandings about sexual morality, especially since much past interpretation and elaboration of marriage traditions in connection with procreation and property have been already undone by changes in gender roles, notions of divorce, and so forth?

One “conservative” answer has been to describe marriage traditions as essentially eternal, absolute, and static; that the legal recognition of same-sex marriage would be a change so great as to render completely pointless all the moral meaning and guidance which they once provided to people attempting the flesh out the abstraction that the marriage relationship makes possible. Hence, same-sex marriage is simply incoherent. But that answer fails to recognize the interpretive, constructive, and subjective history of work involved in the authority behind any tradition; it is weak, because it leaves itself open to Hobsbawmian claim that since something isn’t eternal, it must not be too meaningful either. The harder, but necessary, argument for those whose religious beliefs lead them to oppose same-sex marriage, is to recognize that the meaning of a tradition cannot be contained solely in its repetitive, customary performance; it has to be revivified through constant acts of judgment that take into consideration the lives actually by its practitioners. There is no good reason to believe that traditions which take, and radically remake, our understanding of how one can make substantive the abstract, collective, even “illiberal” matters at the heart of marriage may not emerge, and do so in continuity with older understandings of those same traditions. Of course, that emergence will almost certainly be divisive, and will likely be contested; arguably, this very process has been underway in the United States for multiple decades now. And the end result is anything but guaranteed. But those who imagine traditions could be at all otherwise–from either point of view–are fooling themselves, I think.

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