Response to Fea: Preserving Communities and Traditions

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!) toward 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, we should be wary of a ritualistic acknowledgment or action from which all active remembering has been drained away and replaced with a static genuflection towards the past. This attitude denies the democratic input of the people actually living within traditions and will likely cause people to flee them as boring or demeaning, rather than finding them a source of enrichment.

Do Americans have a particular problem with making that distinction? Perhaps. Fea’s comments suggest such, and by so doing I think they answer his question to me: “Why [is] Fox…so bothered by Eric Hobsbawm and the ‘invention of tradition’ argument[?] Does it really matter whether traditions are products of modernity?” It matters, I think, particularly in a country so smitten with the idea of itself as something new, something exceptional. The (false) belief that traditions are “merely” modern (re)constructions makes it easy for Americans (and really, most moderns as well) to assume that traditions are dead things that only appear to guide us or offer us meaning; an artificial life has been arbitrarily pumped into them by self-interested parties. (As, for example, how some have argued that “Christmas” was essentially invented by a collusion between greedy shopkeepers and a nervous clergy. But they misunderstand the interpretive work their evidence represents.[1]) It is important to challenge Hobsbawm’s idea, with its presumption of a non-subjective, non-interpretive past. Only by so doing can people reflect with respect on 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 private property and profit-minded 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 that 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. Some traditions (Christmas not least among them) have, despite the many frustrating downsides of commercialism, creatively adapted to and grown through the forces of the market. But this does not deny the point which Fea wisely makes: that attempts to turn to the market and purely private economic transactions will be 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 that tiny outposts of memory—like Fea’s own delightful and moving story about the “Chestertown Tea Party”—will suffer even more. Hence it is regional and local sources of traditional knowledge and practices which are most threatened today, and the ones that those inclined towards honoring traditions ought to vigorously seek to establish more deeply, formally, and solvently, in the civic order.


[1] See Stephen Nissbaum, The Battle for Christmas (Vintage, 1997).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.