Jonah Goldberg

Traditional rules of conduct emerge over time through a process of trial and error. To pick an extreme example, the Shakers banned sex and - surprise! - America is not overrun with Shakers today. Successful societies learn from their mistakes in time to make adjustments. Those adjustments become best practices that in turn become customs, and eventually, those customs become traditions. Those traditions are passed along from generation to generation, usually without us knowing all the reasons why they became traditions in the first place.

Obviously, some of these traditions are outdated and silly. Others are vital. Even leftists and libertarians who display ritualized contempt for tradition understand that we do some things today because we've learned from the mistakes of our forefathers. If everything is open to revision, then slavery is still a viable option. Fundamentally, this isn't a point about political conservatism so much as civilization itself. Cultures have roots - a point we're learning the hard way in Iraq, where there is no liberal democratic tradition and we are trying to create one from scratch.

Take Madonna (please). The aging pop star has been in the news lately because she wants to share her undoubtedly extensive parenting skills with a child from Malawi. In the 1980s, Madonna was a pioneer of slattern chic - a hip whorishness that championed doing whatever floated your boat so long as it expressed your authentic sexuality or some similar drivel. "Moralizers" claimed she was a bad role model. The usual suspects clucked at such Comstockery.

Then, in the '90s, Madonna grew weary of shaking her moneymaker for cash and reinvented herself as a dedicated mother, embarrassed by the excesses of her youth. This was an easy transition for a multimillionaire with an entourage so enormous she could brag that she never changed a diaper. But her change of heart did little good for the kids from the '80s who took her "papa don't preach" nonsense seriously. Madonna could afford to learn from her mistakes at the expense of those who couldn't. That she now agrees, to some extent, with the moralists is cold comfort to those who subscribed to slattern chic when young and learned too late that Madonna was a con artist.

In this season of giving thanks, we should thank God for our good fortune. But we also owe a deep debt of gratitude to the papas - and mamas - who preached from one generation to the next.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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