Monday, January 31, 2011

Concluding Response to Fea and Others: "Tradition" vs. "Traditionalism"

Here is my wrap-up for the month at Cato Unbound...


Fea suggests that the turn in which Tushnet and I have made in our final exchange—in which I basically agreed with her in that the argument over same-sex marriage is the only major public policy dispute in America today where “tradition” is regularly invoked, though dissented in a few particulars—is missing the larger picture. Fea and I are in agreement that, on the local level (whether it be in his own example of Chesterton, Maryland, or my own of Wichita, Kansas), the rhetoric of “tradition” still regularly carries some real persuasive authority, but he implies that I go to far in agreeing with Tushnet about “hot blooded” issues. He proposes that the frequent references to America as a “Christian nation,” or those who argue (for religious or other reasons) that Christmas should returned to its “original” commerce-free meanings, or the Tea Party’s obsession with the U.S. Constitution itself, all constitute very serious examples of “tradition” being used in our public life.

As all of the participants in this month’s discussion have noted, “tradition” is an ambiguous word, one which can be used in a variety of ways with a variety of specific or general referents. And that variety can be confusing, a confusion which leads those of us interested in arguing about it all to work from philosophy to politics and back again. Given that, I wouldn’t want to carve into stone any of the distinctions I (or any of my fine respondents) have made this month. But for purposes of moving the discussion forward, I think I could turn back to Fea’s original response, where he distinguished between “tradition” and “traditionalism,” quoting Jaroslav Pelikan’s insightful distinction that whereas the former involves an active, “conversational” remembering, the latter “supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” I think that the cases Fea mentions might be better labeled “traditionalism,” rather than tradition; whereas in the case of the marriage debate, I think that, while an unreflective traditionalism does play a role, there is a much more engaged and interpretive dispute over tradition itself taking place.

In my first response to Fea, I compared Pelikan’s distinction to one made by Christopher Lasch, between “memory” and “custom.” I actually prefer this way of making distinctions in this context, because I find “traditionalism” a useful word. But in any case, the point is that there is one way of using the rhetoric of tradition that seriously struggles with its meaning, that respects that times have changed and that the particulars of the tradition itself have changed as they have been subjectively experienced by different persons over the years….and then there is another way of using the rhetoric of tradition, which is essentially a fetishism: a conviction that the authority of a tradition is dependent upon its remaining static and homogeneous. I really feel that this latter vision, while certainly being encompassed as part of the broad language of “tradition” in general, is what is primarily at work in the example’s Fea gives.

Certainly this must be the case in the Constitution-worship implied by some of the more outlandish Tea Party claims we have heard over the past couple of years. The notion that the Constitution provides us with some obvious small-government and/or decentralist tradition, and that reading the text of the Constitution word for word in the House of Representatives is part of some sort of genuflection that will enable sincere constitutionalists to recover it, is simply bizarre. It isn’t, in any obvious sense, wrong--of course the political, legal, economic, and social ramifications of the U.S. Constitution have given support to keeping government small, fiscally restrained, and administratively decentralized, if one chooses to read it that way. But that is exactly the point: the subjective and interpretive experience of the Constitution’s words, in all of the above policy arenas and more, are evolving and have a constructive (but never necessarily arbitrary!) aspect; the result of more than 220 years of such is that the Constitution has been more often than not given support to the complete opposite: to a vision of democratic government which is expansive and centralized. (A Tea Partier truly engaged in the tradition of Constitutional interpretation would, as many of my co-bloggers at Front Porch Republic do, recognize that the achievement of her preferred aims may require a rejection of the Constitution in favor of the Articles of Confederation instead!)

Marriage, however, for the reasons I laid out in my second response to Eve Tushnet, is not subject, I think, to quite the same kind of fetishization. Those who find themselves torn over the issue of same-sex marriage (and of course there are many who are not, either because their religion teaches them that any public recognition of homosexuality is an abomination, or because their experiences have convinced them that marriage is nothing more than a self-interested contract of no intrinsic meaning) are caught up in a continuing argument over the reach of democratization, equalization, and mobilization in our lives. We want to move, and we want to move under our own authority, and yet heterosexual marriage, at least, seems to sometimes subject us to entanglements which require other sources besides our own personal preferences to work out. Hence, the memory of traditional marriage, and whether it may be adapted to continue to guide and vivify meanings for a host of once unrecognized relationships, continues to influence the argument productively, which I think is mostly not the case with the Tea Partiers and the Constitution.

My university, a small, nondenominational Christian, liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, is slowly beginning to recognize that it must figure out, as the world changes, if it wishes to be one of the great many universities which include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policies, or it wishes to continue to be one of the increasingly few hold-outs. As this argument builds, different faculty, for innumerable different reasons, will find themselves on different sides, as their own subjective understanding of what “Friends University” means, interacts with others, and with all the other pressures which the living in the world of higher education, and Kansas, and the United States of America, involve today. I do not know how the argument will end. But I do not believe that, however it ends, the “Friends tradition” will live or die with one decision. Moral principles may, but traditions (whatever their moral power) are not the same as such; traditions are the lived evidence of our remembering and making use of those principles. There are no traditions without arguments. Which is why it has been so appropriate, and so enjoyable, to have been part of this argument on Cato Unbound this month. My thanks to all who have read and been part of the conversation!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

150 Years of Beginnings in Kansas

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Kansas entered the United States as the 34th state. Though the violence of Bleeding Kansas had basically come to an end with the triumph of anti-slavery forces and the writing of the Kansas Territory's fourth and final constitution, the Wyandotte Constitution, in 1859, it wasn't until Kansas was formally admitted to the Union (something that only became possible because pro-slavery senators from southern states were vacating their seats as their states seceded, allowing the bill recognizing that constitution as legitimate to pass) that the whole bloody beginning of Kansas truly came to an end. And then, of course, the Civil War officially began a little more than two months later. What a way to start.

There's much debate and not a little controversy over John Steuart Curry's famous mural of John Brown, and his vision of Kansas as a place when began in the midst of violence and strife. Curry was somewhat ambivalent about his status as a "Regionalist" and a "Kansas artist," and those who sponsored Curry as a muralist for the Capitol building didn't care for his employ of violent imagery to express the extremes and strife which Kansas seemed to carry with it right from the start. But the power of his artwork has endured all the same, and now continues to encapsulate the idea that this state is often one of sudden, perplexing, even violent contradictions. At the very least, Curry's work recreates what the rest of the country, as the Civil War began, no doubt thought about Kansas: as a battle ground, or better as a testing ground, out from which the most desperate measures of the struggle over slavery emerged, beginning with John Brown himself.

Kansas has its peaceful, humble, quiet side, of course; in fact, given the state's plain topography and long distances, such quietude is far more frequent than the reverse. We're a state of sunflowers and prairie grasses, of wheat and sorghum and cattle, of Laura Ingall Wilder's Little House on the Prairie and the cowboy song "Home on the Range". We love it here, and others do too. But then, sometimes tornadoes blow though, whether literal or metaphorical. Such storms--such violent contradictions, such passionate clashes--can and do happen everywhere, of course. But it can perhaps be said with some particular historical truth that you need to be especially attentive to them here. We started out that way, and we haven't seemed to have entirely shaken free of that beginning yet.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Vacation"

So, we're in Hawai'i. Will that stop Friday Morning Videos? Not on your life. And what could be a more appropriate tune for where I stand this morning than this?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Further Response to Tushnet: Who Talks About Tradition?

Eve Tushnet has a couple of additional interesting comments on the Cato Unbound; my reflections on the first of them are here, and below.


Tushnet asks a truly fascinating question in one of her latest responses: "Why is marriage the only area of contemporary politics in which tradition is used explicitly as a justification?" The question is fascinating even though the assumption that lies behind it--namely, that outside the current argument over same-sex and traditional marriage, no one is making use of tradition in public debates--isn't, in fact, true, as she herself qualifies towards the the end of that same post. John Fea gave an example of the members of the community of Chesterton organizing to preserve the tradition of a local tea party commemoration there, and I could add two or three examples from Wichita, KS, where I live, as well.

For example, our local College Hill neighborhood has for years put together an enormous Halloween carnival. "Trick or Treat Street" draws over 4000 participants from all around the city (including my family and I). The local police used to provide traffic direction, but as the event grew in size, Wichita Police (which, like every government body these days, has had to look to cut costs) said they couldn't afford to pay all the overtime for the needed officers. The call went up around the neighborhood, and a fund was set up to cover the costs. Some grumbled, not wanting to pay, but they ultimately quieted their complaints. What argument shut them up. "Tradition!"

This example, like Fea's, speaks to a point he made: that it is the "local stories that give meaning to everyday life in small places" which we must be most worried about. Still, Tushnet is surely correct that if we restrict ourselves to thinking about "hot-blooded" policy debates (as she put it), the paucity of references to tradition is striking. For instance, why have invocations of "tradition" not played a role in the argument over abortion, with all the rituals and practices of couples meeting, conceiving a child, and welcoming that baby into the world? And we needed limit ourselves to the right side of our usual political spectrum: why haven't liberal egalitarians and leftists defended unions, the "living wage," and for the matter Social Security, as essential tools and structures that enabled families to sustain themselves on a single income and develop a secure way of living over the decades?

My instinct would be to turn to Polous's explanation of tradition's decline, but with an important twist. Yes, the notion of equality has rendered "authority" a complicated topic at best, when it hasn't dismissed it entirely. But that wouldn't provide us with an explanation as to why, in regards to marriage, the rhetoric of tradition (and its authority) is still persuasive to many. Critics of traditional marriage, or even just those unpersuaded by criticisms of same-sex marriage, not infrequently suppose that that rhetoric is a sham, a way to hide a general homophobia. But this isn't the case, or at least isn't always, I think. Perhaps the words "traditional marriage" still have some force in public debates because marriage is the one social institution that has not been fully equalized--or better, "mobilized."

My reference here is to Michael Walzer's classic essay "The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism." He talks about how difficult it is to articulate a communitarian position in the face of what he labels the "Four Mobilities" of modernity: geographic (we move around, chasing jobs, through a mostly homogenized and legally vouchsafed public realms), social (we feel little obligation to the economic or cultural world of our parents or peers, and in fact find the ability to advance along or create one's own path as something to be admired), marital (the divorce revolution, made possible in part by the sexual revolution which preceded it, it having been made possible by the Pill), and political (the consequences of democracy and technology have opened up all sorts of vistas of information, making it easy for us to change our minds and allegiances). I would suggest that geographic mobility is now essentially open to all (assuming the resources enabling one to participate in our national and international meritocracies); the same for social, and for political. But for marital mobility...that is not experienced equally. It mostly is, but not entirely. And the reason is obvious: we do not have a state which takes full responsibility for raising children (much less their conception and gestation--shades of Brave New World!), and that means the union of heterosexuals can, potentially, have...entanglements. We know this; we cannot wish it away, and despite all the trends and postures taken by some, most of the human race will probably continue to not want to wish it away. Hence, far more than questions about family planning and childbirth (as regards abortion), or about job security and stability (as regards economic well-being), perhaps the authority of tradition continues to pull on many Americans, while tradition in other contexts is something we've moved away from, however regretfully.

Of course, my examples above show that we haven't all moved away from the rhetoric of tradition entirely; we're quite likely to be moved by it, or even to become contributors to it ourselves, when we're dealing with something small, something local, something face-to-face. But when asked to weigh in on "hot-blooded" issues, things are harder. In regards to abortion, we think about our own daughters, and the mobility we hope for them; the rhetoric of tradition seems weak, and we turn to other arguments (assuming we even do). In regards to trade and outsourcing and wages, we may squawk and complain, but more often than not our inner libertarian, looking to keep our economic mobility equal to everyone else's, comes to the fore, and the appeal of socio-economic traditions of the past doesn't touch us. But the potentially entangling responsibilities of marriage perhaps touch us still. Given how thoroughly the sexual and technological (and economic) revolutions I mentioned above have force people to adapt themselves to entirely different cultures of marriage, it's an open question how much longer the many years of heterosexual fine-tuning in regards to marriage will continue to carry any traditional authority. Certainly many churches and other organizations are working to prevent that from happening, but they may be fighting the losing battle.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Response to Poulos: On the Authority of Tradition

...and here is my reply to both of Poulos's responses (so far!).


Poulos's wonderfully rich response (and his second one too!) in some ways might be taken as having anticipated and directly contrasted my previous reply of John Fea, with my talk about the "democratic input of the people" and the "civic order"; he suggests that what truly threatens traditions is the sense of authority-denying equality which has been to a degree an inevitable consequence of the creation of a civic order which respects the democratic individual. His use of both Tocqueville and Nietzsche in exploring this idea only raises the stakes even higher: if equality, and the resulting doubting of authority, is the true cause of traditions decline in the modern world, then perhaps the roots of this problem is as old as Christianity itself.

Poulos's question is thus a challenging one: that perhaps "tradition," far from being an interpretive and participatory creation, one which arises via the active subjectivity and involvement of all who are touched by and enlisted into a particular, significant belief or practice, is actually fundamentally aristocratic, bespeaking an authority which is to be responded to...and which has been on the defensive ever since the message of the radical equality of all human beings began its liberating, and confusing, work. Poulos's comments about marriage fit this perspective quite well; it isn't difficult to read the gradual evolutions and adaptations of the ideal of heterosexual monogamy over the centuries as a long retreat, with the authoritative ideal itself always casting about for one justification or another, as the aristocratic ethos which it once presumed weakened before the slow rise of gender and economic egalitarianism.

This is an abstract and theoretical argument, but it has immediately relevant applications, as Andrew Sullivan's engagement with Poulos's concluding thoughts about the future of marriage in America makes clear. If Poulos is right, and the real issue is the question of authority (a question, really, about who or what, if anything, a democratically inclined people will fully accept as sovereign) then the compromise he gestures at--"the alternative may be a tacit agreement to keep two sets of cultural books, so to speak, with official and unofficial spheres of life largely replacing the customary public and private"--might be the only way to keep the aristocratic principle arguably contained within "traditional marriage" alive. Save marriage-as-an-acceptance-of-authority by separating marriage from the increasingly authority-absent civic order! It's a compelling compromise (and libertarians will love it). But I would prefer to see if formalizable, meaningful traditions might not emerge as the legal, social, and religious particulars of marriage continue to be hashed out through the breadth of our democracy, without any side calling for a full retreat or complete victory as yet. That sounds almost hopeful, I realize, and I suppose it is. If I am, it is because I'm not sure I can agree with Poulos's account of tradition's authority necessarily involving such an aristocratic acceptance.

Poulos, is his second response, notes my dissent from one of Tushnet's points:

I would quibble with her idea that a practice or institution might accrete traditions and 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.

and he concludes:

Eve proposes that community can have an immanent foundation; Russell rejects this.

Now perhaps there is simply some confusion here in how certain philosophical or theological terms are being use, but I'm not sure how Poulos comes to this conclusion. He may well be understanding me correctly, but if so, I'm not certain that could be discerned from my disagreement with Tushnet above. She suggested that certain practices, through their repeated performance, might themselves become authoritative simply through a process of accretion. I find this unlikely. Now, if Poulos is taking Tushnet to mean that a community of practice (her specific example was journalists going about their work) have within them a source of teleological or moral meaning which will be immanent to the performance of the work involved, then yes, I do reject that idea. (Though I do not think that is what Tushnet was talking about; I read her as stating that some institutionalized practices precede any authority entirely, and gain authority simply through repeated performance, and I disagree with that for the same reason I agree with her about brushing your teeth: just because you may always brush your teeth in a certain way doesn't make it a "tradition," because there's nothing social or authoritative involved, binding you or anyone else together.)

What is the relationship between authority, community, and tradition? I hold that, at some point through the history of a particular belief or practice, some one or some thing emerges or stands revealed in connection with it which those who hold to the belief or practice subjectively experience a sense of authority for. This could be at the origin of the belief or practice: Moses coming down from Sinai, speaking in the name of God. It could be a revelation that comes almost accidentally, a piece at a time. But whatever the case, there is not, I think, some foundational moment where authority become immanent to all subsequent performance of the designated beliefs and practices; the authority comes through and in its subjective recognition by those who come together as a community around it. That is the interpretive, revelatory work of traditions: a situating of the self in regards to something which comes along with a community of belief or practice. This subjective realization may take the form of acknowledging an aristocratic ideal being so communicated, but it is not as though that sense of authority was immanent to the tradition the very first time it was ever enacted.

I do not mean to reduce all traditions to a identical intellectual and experiential process; there is surely an immense historical variety in how these processes play out. The Puritan communities of 17th-century Massachusetts and the classical Confucian communities of Han dynasty China, for example, were both, in their own ways, profoundly traditional, with the traditions which bound those communities together being held as highly authoritative, but the experience of that tradition and authority was quite different. For Puritans, it was a process of recognizing the spiritual authority of congregational leaders, through accepting a covenant of grace which the Puritans held set them apart from other Christians. This was a highly unequal context--Puritan town meetings were not modern democracies--yet it still depended upon a uniform, participatory acceptance of that authority by all in the community. For Confucians, it was a process of adhering to a set of ritual instructions and performances, ones believed to have been handed down from the ancient Zhou. There was also a great of inequality in these communities--and yet, again, the actual binding authority of the rites was identified with the moralistic relationships and connections which the enacting the diverse roles and responsibilities specified by the rites (father, husband, teacher, servant, wife, son, minister, friend, etc.) instantiated. (I discuss these differences and similarities at length in my Philosophy East and West article here.)

Traditions should be preserved. Do we need to worry about preserving the authority of traditions, and perhaps separating them out from a democratic, anti-authoritarian civic order in order to do so? While I find Poulos's speculations about the authority of traditions challenging, I am not persuaded that the loss of an aristocratic, inegalitarian ethos (which hasn't been, it should be noted, a total loss) renders them incapable of doing their shaping, modeling, and binding work. The experience of authority through communities and traditions is not so dependent as he implies, I think, upon getting and keeping the foundations right.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Response to Fea: Preserving Communities and Traditions

To continue my responses to the ongoing business at Cato Unbound, here is my reply to John Fea's response...


I appreciate very much the thoughtful response presented by John Fea to my essay. As a historian, Fea is rightly concerned primarily with the civic traditions "that help to define our lives together." Given this focus, I fully agree with his distinction between "tradition"--the conscious, adaptive work of preserving and shaping the particular knowledge and practices of the past--and "traditionalism."

Of course, I use the latter term somewhat differently than he does, as I think we need a word to capture the disposition some feel (would that it more did!) towards identifying and honoring traditions; certainly that is the case with our family, and our affection for bringing holidays into our yearly calendar. (Coming up soon: Candlemas/Groundhog Day!) But the point still holds, whether we speak of traditionalism or, as I put it in my lead essay, Christopher Lasch's "custom": either way, it is ritualistic acknowledgment or action from which all active remembering has been dismissed, replaced with a static genuflection towards the past. Such an attitude denies the democratic input of the people actually living those traditions, and will likely render them things many people will choose to flee from as boring or demeaning, rather than as a source of enrichment.

Do Americans have a particular problem with making that distinction? Perhaps. Fea's comments suggest such, and by so doing answer his question to me: "why [is] bothered by Eric Hobsbawm and the “invention of tradition” argument...[d]oes it really matter whether traditions are products of modernity?" It matters because--particular in a country so smitten with the idea of itself as something new, something exceptional--the belief that traditions are "merely" modern (re)constructions makes it easy for Americans (and real, most moderns as well) to assume they are dead things, only have the appearance of providing guidance and meaning because an artificial life arbitrarily pumped into them by self-interested parties. (As how some have argued, misunderstanding the interpretive work their evidence represents, that "Christmas" was invented by a collusion between greedy shopkeepers and a nervous clergy; see Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas for more along these lines.) It is important to challenge this idea, with its presumption of a non-subjective, non-interpretive past; only by so doing can people reflect with respect upon their own constant reliance upon and adjustment of the traditions they make use of.

Fea is also rightly worried, I think, about the civic spaces and remnants that ground and give specificity to our traditions--parks, museums, monuments, holidays, parades, heritage education, and all the rest. In a world of property and commerce, he asks whether "we will really want to trust the treasured traditions, stories, and markers of our collective or group identities to a capitalist market?" My own anti-capitalist inclinations tempt me to reply with a resounding "No!," but I think a more tentative "no" is perhaps more helpful. The information sharing which markets make possible is not to be discounted; more than a few historical sites and civic rituals have been helped to flourish by seeking private sponsors and commercial investment. But such attempts to turn to the market and purely private donations will be, as Fea rightly notes, extremely hard on "the local stories that give meaning to everyday life in small places"--the lure to leverage one's financial commitment towards those traditions likely to give greater "return" (whether financial profit, mass media exposure, or just numbers of those involved) will be too great for most to resist. The result will be tiny outposts of memory--like Fea's own delightful and moving story about the "Chestertown Tea Party"--likely dying away. Regional and local sources of traditional knowledge and practices, therefore, are the ones most threatened today, and the ones that those inclined to honoring tradition ought to most vigorously seek to establish more deeply, formally, and solvently, in the civic order.

The Day the Poet Came to Town

Fifty years ago today (or at least, that's the best guess that most musical scholars and the subject's own reminiscences can come up with), on January 24, 1961, Bob Dylan--who'd left his given name Robert Zimmerman behind at college in Minnesota--arrived in New York City. That very day, he started hitting the folk clubs in Greenwich Village; the photo above may well have come from a set he performed later that very day at the Café Wha?, with Fred Neil and Karen Dalton, who were once pillars of the early 60s New York folk scene. Maybe the 60s had already begun with the Beatles discovering their own potential in Hamburg, or with the election of the self-consciously youthful John F. Kennedy to the presidency. But Bob Dylan's arrival in New York City deserves as much of a shot at the "start of the 60s" title as either of these, or any others for that matter as well.

I'm writing this from Hawai'i, and on the flight over I finished this book by Sean Wilentz. It's wonderfully informative, often fascinating, idiosyncratic, deeply historical, and thoroughly opinionated; with the possible exception of that last one, those terms describe Dylan quite well as well. (Not that Dylan himself is without opinions; only that as an artist, rather than a crusader or a critic, he's approached opinions as things better explored and then discarded, rather than long held to.) Wilentz jumps around Dylan's career, spending a great deal of time on both certain widely acknowledged landmarks (like the recording of Blonde on Blonde in 1966) and some mostly unknown little moments (such as his composition, recording, and abandonment of the classic song, "Blind Willie McTell"). Wilentz persuasively (most of the time, anyway) connects Dylan's ideas and imagery to random American moments ranging throughout the whole of the 20th century, and beyond: the "music for the masses" folk movement inspired by the Popular Front left of the 30s and 40s; the Beat poetry and attitude of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg of the 50s and 60s; the hymnody of the rural white South, and much more. He also skips over a whole lot--Dylan's Christian phase gets relatively little attention, and neither does his time with The Band. (And he calls Dylan's association with The Traveling Wilburys a basically a joke and a lark, while I can't help but think it was anything but.)

Still, in the midst all of those reflections and reminiscences (Wilentz himself, whose childhood was spent near Greenwich Village in the early 60s, appears both as a teen-ager and an adult more than once as part of Dylan's story), the books underscores one overarching point: namely, that Dylan's protean quality as a poet, as a singer-songwriter, as a "minstrel" and performer, encapsulated and opened up a crucial transformation taking place during the those years, exactly a half-century ago. The raw material, the ideological resources and artistic and musical fundamentals, the capacity to both make something new and to quickly tear it down, abounded in the rich, ambitious America of 1961. Take a smart, insanely talented, deeply self-critical shapeshifter from Minnesota, let him listen to both early rock and roll and postwar jazz and pop (Dylan confessed his early love for both Little Richards and Bing Crosby, both Ricky Nelson and Frank Sinatra), then shatter his world with Woody Guthrie and the power of folk music and the blues, and let him go. Let him go to to New York, and begin 50 years of becoming a symbol and a savior and a traitor to one way of seeing the world, one way of politics or art or belief, after another. His early sarcastic insistence that he's really just a "song and dance man" can't really be believed, any more than we can call the 60s "just another decade"...and yet, isn't it the truth as well? It just happened, like anything happens, as Dylan himself put it.

I'm not nearly as knowledgeable in Dylan's oeuvre as I'd like to be--but then, who is? There's just too much of it. And I got into Dylan too late anyway; I didn't really start listening to him until about 10 years ago, and that mainly because good friends kept calling me out on my ignorance. If I was asked today, what slice of all the sometimes harshly accurate, sometimes dreamily romantic, poetry that Dylan has given America over the past 50 years do I like best...well, I just couldn't say. "Political World"? "Desolation Row"? "Just Like a Woman"? "Tangled Up in Blue"? "With God on Our Side"? May I'll just stick one of the most American of his compositions, "My Back Pages": the story of once being certain, and then becoming confused--and paradoxically, getting younger all the while. (Besides, I love this all-star performance of the song.)

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "She Bop"

Well, given last week's video, I figured it was only fair to give this over-the-top gem it's due as well.

The dude on the motorcycle at 1:14 totally looks like Kenneth Parcell from 30 Rock.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Un Crocodile!

This is making the rounds today, and not for the first time in the history of the internet either. But who cares? We can never be reminded enough that, whatever the faults or limitations their political or economic situation, the children which the French produce are far superior to our own. (H/T: BoingBoing.)

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.

The Torch and the 60s, Fifty Years On

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

We might as well accept it: we're in for a long run of fiftieth anniversaries in the months and years to come. With our media, our culture, our economy, and our politics so thoroughly stamped by the Baby Boomer experience, it could hardly be otherwise; "the Sixties" looms large in all of us, whether we admit to it or not. And as far dating the beginning of the Sixties is concerned, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration as president, with his stirring--yet, I think, also strangely distant--address, is a better anniversary than most.

The news has been filled this week with commemorations--including some from some of my favorite bloggers and writers--of the life and work of Sargent Shriver, who died on Tuesday at the age of 95. A Kennedy brother-in-law who founded the Peace Corps, and went on to a life of enormous accomplishment in government and public service--including constructing much of President Johnson's War on Poverty in the years after Kennedy's assassination--he never won political office himself. He ended up as the vice-presidential candidate on the chaotic 1972 Democratic ticket with George McGovern, and they were crushed by Nixon. That was a terrible loss, not just because of everything that happened in the Nixon White House afterward, but also particularly for Christian socialists like myself: what would have become of our national political debates, I wonder, if we'd had a couple of unconventional, deeply religious Democrats like McGovern and Shriver in the White House when Roe v. Wade was decided? But perhaps that's the wrong way to think about things: after all, by the early 70s the revolutions in how we think about government, and how we think about ourselves--revolutions which JFK, whether he intended it or not, was central to the beginnings of--were more than a decade underway.

I've never had particularly strong feelings, one way or another, about President John F. Kennedy. His short presidency has always been, for me anyway, far too much a phenomenon best known through myth, and far too obviously serving as a kind of synecdoche for an entire era, for me to develop anything so pedestrian as an "opinion" about it. Can one have an opinion about a moment in time? About his predecessor, Eisenhower, and his successor, Johnson, I can talk about the significance of their policies, their perspectives, their leadership style and their political impact. But with, not really, I can't, not with any confidence anyway. He's too large, and therefore too indistinct, for any of that. Through looking at the life and career of Martin Luther King, for example, I can particularly situate and judge JFK and his actions in regards to certain trends and movements and transformations, but only momentarily; as soon as I turn the page, he's gone, ghosted away into a world of symbols, into "the Sixties" and all that such a reference means. Much of it, of course, from the bureaucratic idealism of the Peace Corp and the War on Poverty (a progressive, governmental idealism which Shriver's career exemplified), to the democratic and moral fervor of the civil rights movement and the early years of the Students for a Democratic Society, is admirable, whatever its complications and limitations. But the larger spill-over of that idealism, the heady, yet culturally undirected and in some ways self-centered legacy of Kennedy's concluding words--"that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own"--arguably gave a giant green light to an encompassing individualism, one which undermined the very collective language which his speech is most famous for.

There are worse fates for a president, to be sure, than to be reduced (or enlarged?) by history into a commodity, a symbol, a sign: a sign of youth, change, progress, and innovation, and eventually of lost causes, Baby Boomer corruption and obliviousness, sexual and social irresponsibility, and dreamy might-have-beens. We've been living with this contradictory legacy of 1960s (economic security giving rise to rebellious experimentation, radical challenges being sublimated into the socio-economic status quo, visions of progress revealing themselves to be pragmatic adjustments to almost seemingly predetermined results, lather, rinse, repeat) ever since. He was the youngest man ever elected president, and the one (despite the occasionally successful efforts of both Clinton and Obama) most obviously associated with a specific generational mindset. And the people of that generation knew that, at the time, as it was happening: as Norman Mailer put it in a long profile of JFK's journey to the White House in the November 1960 issue of Esquire, in electing Kennedy president America was "enlist[ing] the romantic dream of itself...vot[ing] for the image in the mirror of its unconscious." Forget all the other ideological accouterments of Kennedy's brief administration that on their own provide more than enough grist for myth-making and idealization (the celebration of the intellect and the arts, the manly and--for some--attractively irresponsible militarism and virility, the revived and revised expression of the familiar republican language of self-sacrifice and civic duty--"ask not what your country can do for you" and all that). His youth alone, his age alone, the sense of independence and liberation which is very appearance and words carried alone, did much of the trick.

And so, metaphorically, he lit a torch...and, of course, the torch continues to literally burn on his grave. Arguably, that thing we call the Sixties had really started the year before, when a group of ambitious young men forged themselves into what eventually became the dominant engine of the emerging world-wide youth-oriented pop culture and market economy. Just as arguably, a key ingredient of that culture--a critical and educated sharpness, combined with a self-indulgent, self-referential, self-mocking pretentiousness--was only just getting started (check back next Monday for more on that). And, of course, Kennedy's own brother Robert would emerge, towards the end of the 1960s, as perhaps the purest distillation of the confusing and contradictory images and legacy which his slain brother ended up laboring under. But John F. Kennedy himself was the essential ingredient, the catalyst that jump-started the simmering pot of America's postwar economy and public opinion and somehow built a bridge which took us from the Cold War to everything that came after. With the death Shriver, some would argue that we have finally, tragically, left that era--that bridge--behind us. I'm doubtful of that. That we've left the bridge Kennedy behind us is indisputable; no sane politician today could approach government work and the idea of citizen service with anything like the confidence which JFK exhibited fifty years ago (unfortunately, I say). But still, we can see the ruins of it in the rearview mirror. It's a huge, burning landmark, and I suspect we aren't likely to entirely leave its shadow for a long time to come.

(And no, in case you're wondering, I don't have anything to say about the canceled big-budget Kennedy miniseries...except that the image in the Youtube clip of Tom Wilkinson as patriarch Joseph Kennedy, Sr., draped with an American flag, kind of makes me giggle.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Friday Morning Videos: "Relax (Don't Do It)"

I can't remember, much less find on the internet, any video quite as weird, offensive, and/or disturbing as last year's creepy masterpiece by XTC. But there is this:

Yes, this is the video banned by MTV and the BBC. Not sure why, since looking at it today, it seems to be a story of a bunch of roadies for a stage show of Caligula getting drunk and skanky. And then forcing some guy to fight a tiger. I don't know; maybe it's the fake Roman senator's thong underwear that did it. Anyway, here's the version most of you are more likely to remember.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Defend Billy Joel; Receive Your Punishment

I made the mistake of parading my admitted MOR colors on FB last night, speaking up for Mr. William Joel. My friend Dave Jenkins, a good man who tolerates the terminally unhip, sent me this as an object lesson:

Click at your own risk. Those teeth of his will bite.

When He's On, He's Truly On

Between him and his speechwriters, it was plain yesterday that the communicator we saw and heard in 2007 and 2008 is still around:

If President Obama was angry about right-wing rhetoric on Saturday--and he probably was--he and/or those close to him were smart enough (unlike me) to keep it under wraps, do some thinking and praying, and come out with a better, wiser view. Especially this:

[A]t a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future. But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

As the Guardian newspaper reported, Obama "spoke less like a politician than a pastor or priest comforting a grieving community. The focus on those who had saved lives was an attempt to offer hope amid the sadness." Some don't like that; they look down upon or distrust political leaders trafficking in civil religion, in morality, in attempts to articulate something broader and deeper, to connect their fellow citizens to a religious and ethical narrative which they can identify with. And they especially don't like it when such attempts become institutionalized, ritualized. Well, I kind of like it. I like--and I know that in many ways this arguably runs against some of my own democratic beliefs--knowing that someone can still cut through the noise, and be "the adult in the room." I've no desire to ever be president, and I've no desire to ever stop commenting on and criticizing them, when I feel like doing so. But I do hope to be a little bit better at being an adult, and I'm grateful for every positive example of such I get.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Holy Cow

Just found this online. Man. Anyone have any idea when this might have happened?

And, am I right in thinking that's Tom Hughes, sitting between George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola on the right?

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.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

On Pretexts and Apologies

Yesterday, in reaction to the breaking news about the murderous rampage aimed at Congresswoman Giffords in Arizona, I was in an angry, reactive mode. That led me to make connections--even accusations, or something close to such--that were not, I would insist, necessarily unreasonable...but which were also irresponsibly quick, direct, and harsh. In doing that, I was wrong. In writing what I did, I became part of exactly what I was truly responding to: not the horrible news out of Tuscon (to which there was only one decent reaction, namely one of mourning and sorrow), but more largely the environment within which this shooting happened to occur. I am torn and frustrated by what I see as the viciousness and foolishness which I hear on the airwaves and read over the internet; I want to dismiss it, but when I hear people calling for "revolution," I start to wonder if they aren't serious, and it makes me wonder if it isn't irresponsible not to get angry and respond in kind. And unless I'm equally serious in what I claim to know, then I should be a lot less quick to come to that conclusion.

Anyway, the fact is I used a tragic event as a pretext to let a lot of my fears and worries run wild. Those fears and worries, I maintain, may not be unjustified; however, using the attempted murder of a congresswoman--an attempt which resulted in the death of six other people--as an excuse to get hysterical about them is. All of which, I suppose, just goes to show why I'm a lowly blogger, while James Fallows gets paid the big bucks:

Shootings of political figures are by definition "political." That's how the target came to public notice; it is why we say "assassination" rather than plain murder. But it is striking how rarely the "politics" of an assassination (or attempt) match up cleanly with the main issues for which a public figure has stood....

[T]he train of logic is:
1) anything that can be called an "assassination" is inherently political;
2) very often the "politics" are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than "normal" political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events....[T]he anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow "responsible" for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)....

We don't know why the Tucson killer did what he did....But we know that it has been a time of extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery....It is legitimate to discuss whether there is a connection between that tone and actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be. At a minimum, it will be harder for anyone to talk -- on rallies, on cable TV, in ads -- about "eliminating" opponents, or to bring rifles to political meetings, or to say "don't retreat, reload."

If it really is the case that one of the consequences of this ugly, evil incident is that people calm down a little bit, that political vitriol may moderate some, then I suppose that would count as a silver lining. There may be some evidence that this will in fact be a consequence; yesterday, a leader of one Arizona Tea Party commented that "When we talk about Barack Obama, we've got to be clear, it's not personal. When we say he's destroying this country we are not saying he's doing it out malicious intent and a desire to cripple us. He has good intentions and he's wrong. I worry when that gets lost."

I wasn't part of that possible moderation yesterday, and I apologize for that. I don't apologize for my worries and fears--I'm pretty sure I can defend them in an argument--but neither would I would expect anyone worried and fearful about the things I consider valuable and worth fighting for to apologize for their views. I know people--good, devout, smart people, some of whom I consider to be real friends--who probably felt themselves caught up in my pretexts and accusations yesterday, and that makes my words all the more in the wrong.

Let me finish by quoting something that another friend, Matt Stannard, who is frankly a lot better at this public communications stuff than I, put on Facebook yesterday:

All ad homs aside: 1. Today was a sad, tragic day. 2. This type of violence happens all the time in many parts of the world; we should oppose it no matter where it occurs. 3. I appreciate that so many friends on all sides have been hanging out here arguing with/against me. To me, a good argument is like a good hug. I really love all of you. Let's all work on making the world more just and peaceful any way we can.