Tradition’s Comedies of Error

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.

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.