Further Response to Tushnet: Who Talks About Tradition?

Eve 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, Kansas, 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 4,000 participants from all around the city (including my family and me). 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.” These are what 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 explain 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 realm), 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, itself 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 that 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 socioeconomic 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.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Traditionalism in a Changing World by Russell Arben Fox

    In this month’s lead essay, communitarian political theorist Russell Arben Fox considers the role of tradition in orienting, or perhaps even in fashioning, the individual. Tradition is under assault, we are told, by market forces, global integration, and the ubiquitous media. Marxist and postmodern thinkers have even suggested that under such conditions, all traditions must be somewhat inauthentic — the product of conscious fashioning, and, thus, not really a tradition at all. At times, traditionalists have called for group rights and group protections in an attempt to prevent commerce from eroding tradition, and thus, they hope, they can avoid the postmodern critique entirely.

    But traditions have always been subject to re-invention and re-interpretation, Fox argues. The supposedly new challenge of liberal commercial society is neither new nor even much of a challenge. Traditions are and always have been opportunities for creativity, appropriation, and self-conscious cultural critique. The political implications of traditionalism may be considerably fewer than traditionalists or their critics appreciate.

Response Essays

  • Beyond Liberalism by Eve Tushnet

    Eve Tushnet argues that liberalism has tended to strip away traditions in a very troubling fashion. “One of the most challenging cultural tasks we face now,” she writes “is to put flesh and costume back on traditions which have been stripped almost to the skeleton.” At the very least, she argues, traditions fill an important gap in the liberal project. Where liberalism values reason, material comfort, and autonomy, tradition helps us make sense of life’s more senseless and painful aspects. Tradition helps us to understand and, yes, to obey deserving authority. Given that it is human nature to experience frustration and constraint, tradition promises solace, connection to others, and even transcendence.

  • Tradition Needs Preservation by John Fea

    John Fea notes the peculiar place of tradition in American political culture. The United States was the first country self-consciously founded on Enlightenment principles. As such it called many traditions into question. Tom Paine urged his fellow citizens to “begin the world anew.” As a result, progress and tradition are constantly in tension in American political culture. To preserve national traditions from a “cultural holocaust,” Fea defends government funding for historical sites, museums, and other aspects of our heritage.

  • Tradition in the Age of Equality by James Poulos

    James Poulos argues that what’s eroding tradition today isn’t commercialism or secularization. It’s equality. The democratic ideal of equality is also in some senses a Christian ideal, too. But it often calls into question traditions that presuppose social hierarchy. Traditions emphasizing inequality or privilege have fared badly, while traditions emphasizing equality have flourished. Poulos draws on Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville to ask a very large question: Does the vital core of traditional Christian social thought survive? Or is God really dead in the age of equality? Traditional marriage is offered as an example.

The Conversation