(Re)inventing tradition

Here’s an interesting piece of logic from Ezra Klein :

Things were different then, and because of that, they need to be different now.

The point is, society must adapt its established institutions to keep pace with other changes in the society.

I tend to agree with Klein’s logic, but I don’t think the proposition is inarguable. Maybe some institutions (or values, or principles, or mores) should remain constant, even while other elements of society are in flux.

Klein is commenting on what might be called a Founding Father fetish:

All the founder-worship is a bit bizarre. These guys kept slaves. They whored around. They loved France. They wore wigs. Some of them didn’t even believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. For all that, they wrote an uncommonly concise and effective constitution, but they were men, not gods. America was not a superpower. It did not have 50 states or 300 million people. There was no Internet or lobbying industry. Senators did not have Twitter accounts. Women could not vote. Facebook did not exist. As such, Sarah Palin could not have been foreseen.

That’s where Klein interjects, “Things were different then, and because of that, they need to be different now.” In particular, Klein questions the arrangements that produce a federal government that is relatively weak (vis-à-vis state governments).

Lots of people think things are fine just as they are. If the federal government is weak, it’s because because the Fathers, in their great wisdom, designed the system that way. Maybe we shouldn’t tinker with the arrangement, even if “things are different now.”

That’s how conservatives tend to think — not least, religious conservatives. Religious conservatives have their own version of the Founding Father fetish, except the Fathers are people like Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed.

In my own, idiosyncratic way, I am a follower of Jesus. Nonetheless, I tend to agree with Klein’s logic. “Things are different now” implies that even if we keep on doing the same things, we’ll get different results.

For example, if I wear a swastika on my sleeve in India, I am making a cosmological statement, and bystanders will approve. If I wear a swastika on my sleeve in Jerusalem, I am making a political statement — and bystanders will be infuriated.

Same swastika, different social context, different result.

Klein’s statement offers a point of entry to a topic I’ve been meaning to discuss on the blog.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm calls it, The Invention of Tradition. Note that this is an oxymoron:  an invention is something brand new, whereas traditions have ancient roots. How is it possible to invent something with ancient roots?

It is Hobsbawm’s thesis that traditions are invented all the time. I have a slightly different perspective, which I will designate, the (re)invention of tradition.

Laurie Houseman-Whitehawk, Circle of Life, 1995Laurie Houseman-Whitehawk, “Circle of Life,” 1995

In the West, traditional ways of life are in decline. They may have persisted for millennia:  aboriginal groups claim that their cultures stretch back to “time immemorial”. But modernity disrupted the flow of history, and left traditional values and folkways reeling in its wake. Modernity has undermined Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, just as it has undermined traditional aboriginal societies around the globe.

Certain aboriginal societies were so profoundly disrupted that they have lost the knowledge of their own traditions. Some of those societies are now going about the business of (re)inventing those traditions.

The alternative is to ruthlessly apply Klein’s dictum:  “Things were different then, and because of that, they need to be different now.” In other words, don’t (re)invent your traditions — let them fade mercifully into history.

It’s a topic which fascinates me. I think we should consider what those aboriginal communities are doing:  Is it the right response to modernity? Is it a response that could be applied to the great monotheistic faiths?

I intend to offer further thoughts on the (re)invention of tradition in a series of upcoming posts, as time permits.


Laurie Houseman-Whitehawk’s “Circle of Life” was exhibited in Beyond Tradition, at the Great Plains Art Museum, at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The exhibit celebrated “Native American artists active in the past 50 years whose work expresses innovations while affirming the continuity of past and present.”


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