Both Russell Arben Fox and James Poulos have mentioned my belief that traditions can accrue around institutions or vocations and thereby, in a sense, create those vocations and give them an authority they previously lacked. Meanwhile John Fea notes that communal, love-enhancing, and joyful traditions can be based in historical inaccuracy. So here’s why I reject the misunderstanding that traditions are only as valuable as their origins.
A tradition can begin in all kinds of ways: as a joke, as a commercial ploy, as a crime. And yet I still return to judging traditions based on the criteria I set out in my first post: “Is it beautiful or productive of beauty? Does it help us love—love one another when we don’t want to, or love a rightful authority? Does it mitigate, honor, or make sublime the suffering and constraint inherent in our natures?”
And humans are weird enough, and dedicated enough to what Harold Bloom calls “strong misreading,” that jokes and ads and crimes can eventually end up doing all of those things. At the pregnancy care center where I volunteer, when we give little girls Santa dresses for Christmas we are not saying anything about Coca-Cola. We just want little girls to look lovely and feel cherished.
As for journalism, one reason I find it so fascinating is that the roles, images, and traditions which accreted around it are intensely conflicting! On the one hand you have a noir tabloid editor, Edward G. Robinson in the sublime Five-Star Final, obsessively washing his hands as he spreads scandal: the editor as bad conscience. On the other hand you have All the President’s Men: Woodward and Bernstein scheming and charming their way to exposure of government corruption. Exposure as self-expressive vocation, in the latter case; exposure as self-lacerating cruelty, in the former. A friend of mine recently noted that he’d never thought about how awful it must be to have been one of the real people involved in the New York Post’s famous, and terrific, headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” That was some mother’s child. Journalism exploits both our love of cleanness and our love of dirt. Truth is at the core of its identity conflict, whether facts are insouciantly disregarded (“Journalism in Tennessee,” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) or studiously pored over (“Follow the money”). Journalism gained its authority—so much so that people now sometimes talk as if journalists are a special category, with more First Amendment rights than the rest of us!—from its glamour. And it gained its glamour from its radically conflicting imagery. How can we reconcile the image of journalism in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the one in Shattered Glass? We can’t, not really—and it’s both of these images which lend the Fourth Estate its enduring cultural power. So I don’t believe that “repeated performance” lends journalism its tradition-based authority, as Russell Arben Fox reasonably guesses; I do believe that repeated, conflicting, and fascinating awesomeness created that authority, thus the expressions of its traditions preceded the authority.