Why it's foolish to turn your back on tradition

Posted: Nov 24, 2006 12:01 AM
Why it's foolish to turn your back on tradition

In his brilliant essay "The Great Relearning," Tom Wolfe recounts a "curious footnote to the hippie movement." In 1968, at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, doctors found themselves treating diseases "no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names." These maladies had such names as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the rot.

These afflictions materialized because those hippie pilgrims believed the Man had nothing to teach them, so they turned their backs on "bourgeois" morality, a category of knowledge that included this thing called "hygiene." So they enjoyed communal toothbrushes, communal sheets, communal sex, communal bathwater and communal, like, whatever. Living like Rousseau's noble savages brought back the twitch, the thrush and the rot because it was a grand lie that savagery was ever noble in the first place, and because a lot of that stuff your grandmother taught you about everything from washing your hands to not sleeping around actually had practical relevance.

Wolfe's essay has practical relevance, too. The recent elections are being interpreted - accurately or not - as a repudiation of religious conservatism. Obviously, this topic can't be settled here - or anywhere. But as it's Thanksgiving, there's a basic point worth making: Tradition matters. It matters whether you believe in God or whether you agree with that esteemed theologian Elton John, who recently called for a ban on religion because religion, according to Sir Elton, is bad for gay people.

I respect theological arguments for morality. But unless someone already believes in God, saying "because God says so" has as much authority as saying "don't do that because my umbrella stand says not to." The fact is that traditional morality has practical authority independent of whether God exists and whether we know His will.

Those hippies got the itch and twitch because they rejected what their parents taught them. They believed that we could act as if this was Year Zero and the world could be reinvented and reimagined from scratch. It's inconceivable that their parents knew what the exact consequences of rejecting traditional morality would be, but they knew on a dogmatic level that it was a bad idea.

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.