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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] Fox...so 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.

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