Imaginary Fascists and Anti-Traditionalists of Wax
Ms. Gottlieb’s parody rises to a shrill fermata here:
“The irony is that every tradition would be a vital tributary to this process if they could only be trusted not to go for each other’s throats – or come after the rest of us with a flaming sword. The mutation that turns the benign “This is right for me” into the malignant “This is right for you” can infect any religion, including scientific secularism. Its root is denied doubt — if everyone else doesn’t affirm that I’m right, I might be wrong! – and its fruit is the destruction of vital diversity. God forbid everyone should think alike! The fact that we have not just books or recordings, but living people keeping alive the practice of Amish barn-raising, Talmudic disputation, djembe drumming, and Tonglen meditation is an amazing treasure. It’s as important for culture as the preservation of original wild seed stocks is for agriculture – living seeds, not just the genomes of the extinct. If everyone in the world became a “global nomad,” the very heritage that “outsiders” draw on would be lost. But if no one did, our chance of a common future would be slaughtered on the altars of a thousand pasts.”
Ms. Gottlieb pits the classic “This is right for me” (good) versus “This is right for you” (wicked) without apparently considering a more pertinent question: What is right for us? Humans are (or at least appear to be) specially fitted and adapted with amazingly complex mechanisms to live successfully in community. Community, more than autonomy, more than power, plays a vital role in our humanity. So the dichotomy between the atomized autonomous individual and the sheer domination of one individual over another is utterly false. In communities, it is natural and necessary to develop group mores, hierarchies, and taboos. (Just ask chimps and gorillas.) Among humans, such social customs can and often do become quite sophisticated, and are passed down via tradition with varying degrees of “sanctity” and varying degrees of rational support. And however draconian such traditions were, are, or may become, they serve an essential, often delicate purpose for the prosperity and ultimate survival of the community: group identity, solidarity, ease of cooperation, division of labor and power, and ultimately good social order. Not everyone gets to be boss, and God help us if everyone did!
And Ms. Gottlieb understands all this, and finds beauty in all this, and strenuously wishes for all this to be preserved. But if you want Amish barn-raising to be preserved as anything more than a museum artifact, you need real Amish, actual people who think the Amish way of life is best, who accept (critically or not) that to be Amish is to be and do and believe certain things and not to be and not do and not believe the negation of those things. Similarly, if you want real Talmudic disuputation, you need people who care enough to become real Talmudic scholars. If djembe drumming is to persist as a fine and uncorrupted institution, then djembe drummers are going to have to draw a few lines: no bongos, no marimbas. If you want to pound on those, start your own dern club. If you strip the traditions of Tonglen meditation, the Amish, or djembe drummers of the power and natural right to define who they are in essence, even when that presents the natural risk of making some people feel bad, then you’ve crushed their tradition. And irrespective of any fawning (or patronizing) praise one might bestow on such traditions, you’ve failed to take them seriously, i.e., on their own terms. This is not a cake that you get to eat and have at the same time.
The tragic hero (or comedic, I’m not quite sure) in all this is Ms. Gottlieb’s noble Outsider. This is one who bravely chooses not to belong, refusing to submit to an authoritative definition (dogma… !*gasp*!) of what, e.g., djembe drumming is and what it is not. We are led to believe, you see, that this Global Nomad is necessary for our survival. He’s the one who’ll save us all from our own narrow intolerance and parochial interests. But the fact is that various cultures and traditions have gotten along fine for most of human history without the influence of such Global Nomads. Others upon seeing them for what they were: seditious traitors to a well-ordered community, variously jailed them, banished them, beheaded them, or sacrificed them to the gods. This invented hero sounds a bit too suspiciously like a postmodern anti-hero, one that we might romantically read into strained and implausible histories.
But what about Jesus? What about Socrates, and Joan of Arc, and Ghandi, and MLK? Didn’t they all sacrifice themselves, refusing to bow to prevailing orthodoxies? Sure they did, but contrary to what their modern handlers might wish for them to have done, none were permanent fence-sitters or “principled” undecideds. Nor did any fail to commit themselves fully to a particular, and ultimately transcendant, tradition. Rarely was it a popular tradition, sometimes it was a new one, but it was always particular, usually uncompromising, and most sternly uncompromising when it absolutely had to be. Ms. Gottlieb’s hero is in contrast a narcissistic adolescent, unprepared for adult commitments, unwilling to stand firm for anything save perhaps for self-loathing doubt, cowering in existential confusion before imagined threats from “science and globalization”, and not nearly bold enough to sacrifice himself for the good of the community who thinks him a traitor.
Also, we have to remember that the supposed inflexibility of tradition only shows up clearly in Ms. Gottlieb’s fancifully drawn cartoon of offensive yet unnamed traditions. Traditions, because they are usually fairly sophisticated, especially if they’re old and successful, are usually flexible, and exceptions can usually be made. A lesser evil can usually be chosen in place of a greater one. But it isn’t clear that she wants us to take note of this. Are we to make normative rules in view only of the exceptions? Almost everyone agrees that divorce is bad, but because it may sometimes be the lesser of two evils, should we, on this basis, therefore make it easy? Is it always the purely private affair of two atomized and autonomous individuals? What about the victimized spouse? What about children? What about the taxman? What about the community? Similarly abortion: almost everyone agrees that abortion is bad, but because many say it can occasionally be the lesser of two evils, ought then any abortion at any time for any reason be legal? Are there no costs to society, to say nothing of the ultimate cost to the unborn child? Is society’s only just recourse to lay aside every foundational supposition in favor of any and every actualizing whim of its members? Does everyone have an inalienable right to their own private story? Or might not every man be part of something bigger than his own actualizing self, something to which deference and allegiance might be owed?
“The moral threat is not consumerism or materialism. Such characterizations of the enemy we face as Christians are far too superficial and moralistic. The problem is not just that we have become consumers of our own lives, but that we can conceive of no alternative narrative since we lack any practices that could make such a narrative intelligible. Put differently, the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story. Such a story is called the story of freedom and is assumed to be irreversibly institutionalized economically as market capitalism and politically as democracy. That story and the institutions that embody it is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.” —Stanley Hauerwas
It is easy to rattle a saber about the bad ol’ fascists running ’round “imposing” their will on everybody else. But it is even easier to forget that few transactions are completely private, and that what we do (often even in our innermost being) almost always affects those around us. Unbridled autonomy and private actualization were in fact the very first sin. The community into which we were born has certain standards, certain traditions, some of which may be more or less draconian, some more or less flexible, some more or less rational, yet all of which make our community what it is in essence. Often such traditions, especially sexual taboos, arose over millions of years of mammalian and primatial evolution. We cast off those traditions readily or carelessly only at our own peril. Bob Dylan (paraphrasing Jesus Christ) said it best: “You gotta serve somebody!”