About January 2011
Conservatives often talk about the modern world in terms of decline. Old traditions fall victim to market dynamism, integration, and globalization, and our society is the poorer for it. Newer isn’t better — it’s more superficial, less rooted, and less secure.
Those who make this type of argument are frequently tempted toward the creation of group rights or privileged statuses for traditional identities, behaviors, or social norms. Oddly, the left has at times agreed on just this critique, and on just these sorts of privileges in response. The authentic past, the authentic identity must be preserved, even at the cost of classical liberal ideas of rights. Marxist critiques of capitalist culture have long made just this point. As Marx himself famously said, industrialism means that “all that is solid melts into air.” To many, stopping it from doing so seems possibly a good idea.
In this month’s lead essay, political theorist Russell Arben Fox sounds a cautionary note. Traditions have always evolved, he argues; there is no pristine, fully authentic past out there to be found. The way to honor the past, he suggests, is to be conscious of it, yes, but also of the world in which we live, today. Traditionalism is an exercise in creative deployment, not just in today’s world, but always.
Is he right? Obviously, we are dealing with questions that involve culture as much as politics. To help sort them out, we have invited journalist and blogger Eve Tushnet, historian John Fea, and doctoral candidate in government James Poulos, also influential as the founder of the blog Postmodern Conservative.
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.
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.