Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Traditionalism in a Changing World (Bigger, Longer, Uncut Edition)

Cato Unbound, a web-journal run by the libertarian Cato Institute, contacted me at the beginning of December about writing an essay for them on traditionalism--specifically, defending it. My lead essay is up at their site; various responses--and my responses to them--will follow through the rest of the month. Check it out, follow along, comment on your own blogs if you're so inclined. And, if you're a real glutton for punishment, you can read the original, 4000-word version of the edited, 2800-word essay they published below.


We’ve just emerged from another cycle of what my father-in-law likes to refer to (jokingly, but not without affection) as “Hallothanksmas.” I doubt he’s the only person to use that label to capture the smearing together of the American holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas from early October through New Year’s Day; indeed, observing that our national marketplace appears to push the material elements and practices which are popularly associated with these holidays into an uncomfortably close proximity to each other is commonplace. Charlie Brown and the gang were complaining about this exact phenomenon close to 40 years ago, and the reality of this smearing has only become more obvious ever since.

I confess that I’m one of the complainers as well. I am one of those who hold that holidays traditions may, and often do, whether we realize it or not, play a role of some determinative, even normative importance in our lives–and thus, that there is value in being able conceive and respond to them distinctly. I defend that claim because I see traditions as deeply associated with many other things I take seriously: local engagement, cultural identity, historical memory, familial attachment, and other “communitarian” goods. All of those don't constitute a perfectly indivisible bundle, of course, but "traditionalism" is a thread which runs through and to a degree connects them together. Hence, speaking up for tradition in our economically globalized and hyper-mobile world may be essential to making a case for a whole worldview.

Those who look askance, for political or philosophical reasons (or both), upon this worldview, and specifically upon attempts to justify or build up traditional beliefs and all their material accouterments are hardly necessarily opponents of the holidays; I'm not trafficking in nonsensical "war on Christmas" accusations here. Instead, their disagreement usually appears to be with the moral claims of traditionalism in general--the idea that giving recognition and support to traditions can serve as both a personal and a public good, and consequently might be understood as having some sense of moral obligation tied to it. One of the most common ways in which such a claim is countered is to assert that what appears to adherents of various traditions as morally worthy is really only a subjective perception of such, constructed out of nostalgia, and a result of paying undo attention to isolated moments that can be prettified in our memories, rendering them (distantly) admirable. In this way, anyone who doesn’t live in a fully reactionary environment–and that would include anyone likely to encounter this essay online–finds themselves put on the spot: if their lives are in any way characterized by pluralism, by even a small degree of technological and social change and adaptation, then they must acknowledge that there is an element of choice and willful construction involved in how a traditional belief or practice comes to include (and exclude) whatever it does. And that, supposedly, undermines the theoretical force of the moral claim made on behalf of traditions, for how (so the argument runs) could a subjectively experienced and consciously elaborated-upon moment from out of the whole historical sweep of events be construed as truly serving normative personal or public ends? When there is no necessary reason to believe that the resulting practice or belief is anything but somewhat arbitrary? The critics of traditionalism frequently acknowledge that enjoying the consequences of such a construction may have real psychological or sociological benefits, but that, by this line of reasoning, would hardly seem to warrant the sort of deep discontent that traditionalists are assumed to feel at “Hallowthanksmas,” or some other disruption of their preferred holiday experiences.

A wonderful summation of this perspective was written by Scott McLemee several years ago, in an essay celebrating the Seinfeld-inspired “holiday” of Festivus. The fact that I just put "holiday" in quotations marks is, in a sense, 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 can't possibly be commemorated without any such observation becoming a comment on the constructed nature of all “holidays.” Festivus is, he wrote, the "postmodern 'invented tradition' par excellence”: the implication being, of course, that as all traditions are equally invented, narratives which presume some kind of moral authority associated with their maintenance, narratives which talk about changes to traditions in terms of decline and loss, deserve the sort of postmodern puncturing which Festivus provides. McLemee set up his reflections by way the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who played a large role in developing the "constructivist” reading of nationality; following Hobsbawm, McLemee’s asserts that the traditions we associate with holidays are primarily indicative of our historical position vis-a-vis them. Only when they are no longer binding, no longer economically necessary–in other words, only once the world had sufficiently modernized that we could actually partake of forms of life that our not-particularly-pluralistic village-dwelling ancestors couldn't have imagined--do any of these holidays actually suggest anything that could be consciously expressed as “traditional.” As McLemee put it:

Once upon a time--let's call this "the premodern era" and not get too picky about dates--people lived in what we now think of as "traditional societies." Imagine being in a village where few people are literate, everybody knows your name, and not many people leave. A place with tradition, and plenty of it, right? Well, yes and no. There are holidays and rituals and whatnot. As spring draws near, everybody thinks, "Time for the big party where we all eat and drink a lot and pretend for a few days not to notice each other humping like bunnies”....And yet people don't say, "We do X because it is our tradition." You do X because everybody else around here does it -- and as far as you know, they always have. Not doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable. But then, starting maybe 300 years ago, things got modern....Well before Queen Victoria planted her starchy skirt upon the throne, people were nostalgic for the old days. And so...they started inventing traditions from bits and pieces of the past. In the 19th century, for example, folks started singing "traditional Christmas carols" -- even though, for a couple of hundred years, they had celebrated the holiday with pretty much the same hymns they sang in church the rest of the year. In short, if you say, "We do X because it's traditional," that is actually a pretty good sign that you are modern. It means you have enjoyed (and/or endured) a certain amount of progress. What you are really saying, in effect, is, "We ought to do X, even though we sort of don't actually have to."

To be fair to McLemee, this really wasn’t so much an argument against traditionalism as it was a snark about it; as he concluded: “We gather with family at Christmas or Hanukkah in order to recapture the toasty warmth of community and family. And because, well, we have to.” But there is an assumption at work underneath the snark, an assumption which holds that the ability to meaningfully affirm things through “mere” traditional practices and materiality depends upon a "naivete" which has been destroyed by the self-consciousness of modernity. Talk of "tradition" therefore presumably means little more than aspiring to some kind of "second naivete," to use Paul Ricoeur’s phrase, one that will cover up our constructive role in establishing said rituals and observances in the first place. The point is that such aspirations are, essentially, both flawed and a little silly; perfectly acceptable in their limited place, perhaps, as situated resources that individuals inclined to nostalgia can make use of if they so choose, but fairly problematic if anyone starts using them in such a way that might actually involving the shaping of certain public options or certain personal desires.

While there are other varieties of the anti-traditionalist position, that is perhaps the most defensible one. It isn’t an outright rejection of the communitarian claims made on behalf of traditions, but it is a fundamental weakening of them, such as one may see in the work of scholars like Will Kymlicka or Kwame Anthony Appiah. Both of these writers present “roots” or “cultures” as repositories of stories, behaviors, schemes of judgment and valuation and such, all of which ought to be available for individuals to enter into or exit from as they may subjectively find any or all of them rewarding or beneficial to the lives they choose to lead. Far from leading them to disregard such communitarian concerns entirely, their arguments point towards the importance of taking positive action to support various traditional communities, beliefs, and practices, and that means providing for group-specific rights of various forms. That is certainly a more friendly position to traditionalism than the wholesale opposition one may find in some liberal and libertarian thinkers. But ultimately, they view traditions as a tool for individuals to use or disregard, not something constitutive of individuals, not something as fundamentally meaningful to an act of moral reasoning about what one might choose to use or disregard. The argument is, therefore, ultimately reductive, assuming that making choices will invariably involve at bottom a kind of self-regarding, individual calculation, and thereby pushing the issue in an explicitly economic direction. This is made clear in Appiah’s account of the collapse of Asante farming traditions, included in an essay he published several years ago:

When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his maternal clan...would work it with him....Nowadays, everything is different....Once, perhaps, you could have commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have the right to leave--perhaps to seek work at one of the new data-processing centers down south in the nation's capital--and, anyway, you may not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family is passing, and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as American family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them. But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense.

This is a powerful story–but also one that elides certain matters on its way towards transforming the question of tradition into one of “commanding” people to make tragic, but also obvious, choices over how they will respond to economic necessities. Of course people will–and do–make the choices they must in order to flourish. But what if the question of tradition, and the normative importance which may be arguably attached to it, isn’t primary about adhering to a given set of static, unchanging practices? What if the primary question pertaining to the value of tradition is how one conceives of practices, how one conceives of “flourishing,” and how one chooses amongst the former to achieve the latter, in the first place? This is a point strongly made by the philosopher Charles Taylor, who, in a debate with Will Kymlicka over the ability of scheme of individual rights to guarantee for the existence of cultural traditions, denied that the elaboration of the argument over tradition in such terms really does the job:

The liberal accords a culture value as the only common resources of its kind available for the group in question. It is the only available medium for its members to become aware of their options. If these same individuals could dispose of another medium, then the case for defending the culture would evaporate. For the people concerned, their way of life is a good worth preserving; indeed, it is something invaluable and irreplaceable, not just in the absence of an alternative, but even if alternatives are available. The difference comes out clearly in the issue of long-term survival. People who have lived in or near French Canada know the resonance of this goal of survivance...The goal that unborn people, say, my great-grandchildren, should speak Cree or French or Athabaskan, is not one that Kymlicka’s liberalism can endorse....The people of French-Canadian ancestry, now assimilated in New England, are doing just as well as any other segment of the U.S. population in leading their lives in the English-language medium they share with the present compatriots. But the loss from the point of view of survivance in clear. [Taylor, “Can Liberalism Be Communitarian?” Critical Review, Spring 1994, 259-260]

The point here is that traditions, perhaps particularly as instantiated in holidays, form a part of the “medium” (historical, linguistic, moral, and otherwise) through which our ability to interact with and make choices about the world, and the available beliefs and practices within it, operates. To reject the idea that traditions contribute to this collective background, and contribute importantly enough to potentially warrant some level of both personal and civic obligation to them, is to grant too much weight to the supposedly revolutionizing idea that this medium is a “constructed” one.

Perhaps those who argue against recognizing this deeper seriousness to traditions go wrong by misunderstanding something about history. Consider Hobsbawm’s argument again. To fully operate–that is, to allow those who note historical changes in certain valorized beliefs and practices to appeal to a contemporary audience, one familiar with the reality of pluralism, and point out the constructed nature of those beliefs and practices, and thus render them arbitrary and hence inappropriate vehicles for moral obligation–Hobsbawm had to assume that there was a historical (call it “pre-traditional”) moment where beliefs and practices endured in a defining way, without a consciousness of change and without interpretive responses to such. But that is a strange notion; it depends, in a sense, on a kind of historical materialist absolutism, wherein we assume that no real self-consciousness existed until the critical innovations and economic revolutions of “modernity” (meaning the 18th century, or thereabouts) brought it about. But actually, it is not at all as though holidays and traditions and the identification with such that occurred 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 a part of their own evolution, and celebration. And given this, 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 shouldn’t be assumed to be an “arbitrary” invention, much less a postmodern one. Our inventing itself may be better understood as 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.

To be sure, the increased pluralism of the (post)modern world makes us into interpreters and inventors of a significantly different sort than was likely the case in earlier centuries. But this difference is not necessarily a tradition-shattering realization of arbitrariness; rather, it is what Ricoeur was getting at with his idea of a “second naivete,” which I mentioned earlier. As he wrote in The Symbolism of Evil:

In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short, it is by interpreting that we can hear again. Thus it is in hermeneutics that the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. [Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Beacon Press, 1967), 351]

If modernity has meant anything, it has meant a change in our accounting of subjectivity; it has made possible a thinking about ourselves as apart from our received “medium” of evaluation. And so the old naivete, with its “immediacy,” won't do any longer. But the result isn’t necessarily a radical change in how we orient ourselves towards traditions; it is a difference in the environment within which we do it. It’s the difference between someone who has only ever been immersed in a single musical tradition making distinctions between good and bad musical expressions, and someone who has been introduced to a plurality of musical traditions, now having to make distinctions with an understanding that the evaluative criteria provided by their own tradition itself can also be evaluated. So now we have to "wager" on interpretation; we have to use it self-consciously and therefore critically. But a changed sense of our own subjectivity, the emergence of a “hermeneutic sensibility,” as it were, does not warrant an encapsulating of all traditional claims as “subjective” and therefore incapable of playing any kind of normative or constitutive role in how we live our lives, much less how we mark the calendar; to do so would require a much wider, much more radical claim about the nature of our consciousness than to merely discover that traditions are “arbitrarily” constructed. One might ask: when has interpretation ever not been involved in our orientation to the world, and when have the resulting orientations (as instantiated into “traditions”) ever been assumed to be somehow less than worthy of contributing to a foundation for action and belief, simply because of their interpretive and constructive elements within their history? (I recognize that one easy response to this might be: when we're talking about "religious" traditions, actions and beliefs that religious people hold to be "revealed" or canonical in whatever sense. I'm quite sympathetic to this response, being as I am religious believer, and one who accepts some account of modern revelation as well. But I don't think it escapes the dynamic which Ricoeur describes, and I don't think believers should want it to. Explaining why gets into some philosophy beyond the point of this post, so I'll just recommend those interested go read this when I wrote about the topic at length.)

Of course, many defenders of tradition are either unaware of or refuse to take seriously the numerous historical changes behind what they feel and do; their preference is to reify particular elements of a tradition into static performances or professions of belief, from which any deviation would be catastrophic. Charles Taylor struggled with this when he attempted to articulate a defense of traditionalist thinking while addressing controversies over cultural accommodation in Quebec (for my comments on the report submitted by Taylor and Gerard Bouchard, see here; Christopher Lasch also discussed this unfortunate tendency, criticizing much communitarian argument as trafficking in a lazy sociology, drenched in a nostalgia, a Gemeinschaftsschmerz, for exactly the kind of stable, traditional (and unreal) community which Hobsbawm’s argument implicitly relies upon. Lasch was by no means a complete defender of tradition, but his distinction between popular "memory" and sociological "custom" is an important one for this argument nonetheless. “Memory,” as he presents it, is that which active agents, working with and through (and, therefore, inevitably sometimes also against) their community contexts, enact and vivify (or revivify) through their collective choices; “customs,” on the other hand, are actions which assume that the “judgment, choice, and free will” which made memory valuable as a marker of worthy beliefs and practices originally is no longer necessary, and hence devolve “into patterns that repeat themselves in a predictable fashion” [The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (W.W. Norton, 1991), 133-134, 139-143]. Someone who is serious about tradition will not allow customary behaviors to get in the way of the responsible, interpretive action which “memory” represents.

Would such a serious person include my father-in-law, with his grumbling jokes about “Hallowthanksmas”? I wonder. Around Thanksgiving, one of my favorite books to read to our younger children is Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner. It 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 federal government to officially acknowledge (and thus hopefully resuscitate) Thanksgiving, a religious and cultural holiday which dated back to the early colonial days, but whose observance, by the mid-19th century, was slowing dying out from. She finally succeeded, and the book makes President Lincoln's declaration of a national Thanksgiving Day holiday out to be Sarah's greatest triumph. What should we make of that? One could, of course, dismiss Hale as a sentimental busybody. But maybe it would be better to say that 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 take anything away from the moral connections it makes possible for all Americans. In committing herself to a belief and practice, and interpretively responding to the reality of that those traditions as they existed in the decades leading up until the Civil War, she contributed to the maintenance of a normative factor in the lives of her fellow citizens, a factor that might well not have been there otherwise. This is not about whether you like Thanksgiving, or find it important to distinguish it from the dominant holidays immediately before and after it in our national calendar; this is about preserving a space for both a personal and civic recognition of what a tradition of giving thanks, however one chooses to interpret that, can mean. That’s not blindly following custom (though there may well be elements of such involved; there almost always are); that’s doing the kind of important thinking which holidays have always made possible, whether we were self-conscious about it or not.

Well, enough of that. Off to get the Chinese New Year decorations out of the box in the garage. Can’t be too early for that; it’s become so commercialized lately, don’t you know.


Anonymous said...

Does it matter to this argument that the pre-modern world was vibrant, dynamic, and changing and not static and timeless, cause I'm having a hard time getting past that piece of it to react to the rest of it.
-Western Dave

Russell Arben Fox said...

I agree with you, Dave, and your point just strengthens my own argument. In order to treat the moral claims of traditions as relative weak and disposable, the Hobsbawmian argument posits the "discovery" of tradition as a conscious act of subjective construction, which contrasts to an assumed un-self-reflective ordinariness of the pre-modern world. But I don't think interpretation and adaptation was ever absent from any historical moment; hence, there's so reason to find the fact that there was (and is, and always will be) an intentional, interpretive, "constructed" element to traditions somehow a blow against their hold on us.

j. blum said...

Since you're dealing with libertarians, how about this? Hayek said that knowledge is diffused among local actors and market participants and no centralizing power could possibly gather all that knowledge. Thus we need free markets to coordinate all this local and diffused information. Tradition is the extension of that idea into time. No actor or social participant can contain the diffused knowledge of centuries or conceive of himself the full range of possibilities that unfold beyond the limited perspective of the individual lifespan. Tradition frees us from the centralizing dictatorship of Now.