Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Invention of Tradition

A curious title of a book I picked up a few days ago.  It caught my eye as I was trolling for my next read in the usual places.  When I saw that it was edited by Eric Hobsbawm, I bit the hook.

How can a tradition be invented?  The word implies continuity - something we do today that has its roots in the past.  It's supposed to be an unbroken chain from our ancestors to us and our job is simply to cherish it and pass it along to the next generation.

Saying that a tradition is invented is to call into question its authenticity.  It's no longer something we receive as a gift from our forefathers, but an artificial construct shaped and sold to us gullible moderns in order to further a social or political agenda.

That is exactly what Hobsbawm and company are saying:  that many traditions we hold dear were deliberately created for a particular purpose.  And that purpose was not at all about honoring the past;  it was about shaping the present.

Old countries that gradually became nation-states reached back into their pasts to find rituals that could be manipulated to give an illusion of continuity.  David Cannadine's essay about the British monarchy between 1820 and 1977 shows how the coronation ceremonies of the monarchs changed over time in response to modern realities.  When the political power of the monarchy was still formidable, a coronation was a more or less private event attended by the ruling classes:  the aristocracy, the church and the royal family.  It was their tradition, not that of the common people.   At that time (with one exception under George IV) there was no interest in making this ceremony a grand public occasion.

Cannadine talks about the sheer incompetence of the clergy in the performance of  ritual and the low quality of the music.  "For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco."  Drunk coffin-bearers, fights, gate-crashing and general ineptness made these ceremonies something far less than solemn and dignified.  Following much self-flagellation, the consensus at the time was that the British people had no talent whatsoever for pomp.

Tell that to the millions of people who watched the glorious, glittering and flawlessly-executed wedding of Di and Charles in 1981.  Today the ceremonies around the British royal family are a kind of gold standard for public pageantry.  What happened?  Cannadine argues that as the real power of the monarchy waned, and political and social instability rose, "the deliberate ceremonial presentation of an impotent but venerated monarch as a unifying symbol of permanence and national continuity became both possible and necessary."

What we see today on television bears no resemblance to what the same ceremony would have looked liked in the early years of the nineteenth century.  And if we went farther back than that who knows what we might find?  Yes, there is continuity here in the sense that the methodology for anointing a new monarch has been around forever, but the ceremonies broadcast for the viewing pleasure of the masses are a fairly recent innovation, not a tradition.

Compare this use of tradition with that of new nation-states:  ones that are young and don't have much of a collective past to draw on or those that want to distance themselves from a past they don't like.  It's not just countries like The United States, Australia or Canada, but also France and Scotland.  Bastille Day is an invented tradition that began in 1880, almost 100 years after the actual event.  The custom of wearing the kilt (philibeg) was, according to Hugh Trevor -Roper, the invention of an Englishman in the early 18th century.

Part of making Americans (or Canadian and Italians) was coming up with unifying symbols and rituals that everyone could participate in and rally around.  They were all invented at one time or another. Think of the power of Thanksgiving in the U.S.  In 2014 46 million U.S. citizens filled the airports and the highways to go home and have a meal with their families. (Just think of the carbon footprint.)   The day did not even become a national holiday until 1941, but the tradition is taught in schools and is presented as a recreation of a seminal event that occurred in the 17th century, years before the United States came into existence as a country .  (And somehow I really doubt that the Pilgrims  made green pea and pink marshmallow salad the way my grandmother did.)

Why is cherry-picking the past so powerful?   Because whatever our claims to being modern and enlightened, we are susceptible to an emotional appeal to the past.  Conservatives, take heart!  There is still reverence for the old ways.  They are hardly alone in perceiving anachronisms as virtuous - just try taking away some of the rituals and symbols that are part of the civil religion of secular nation-states and listen to the collective howl.

Even people with very new ideas point to the past for legitimacy.  We have a tradition of  [insert idea here] in this country.  People use this argument in support of such diverse concepts as multiculturalism, religious tolerance, bi-lingualism, mono-lingualism, and secularism.  A solid strategy in support of such causes but also a dangerous one because there are simply too many unsavory ideas that others can point to and say that these too have been the custom of the country since time immemorial.

The thing that holds people together in a country is definitely not "the rational calculation of their individual members." That said, do we work with the irrational or against it?  I agree that there are "great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom."  One of those forces is that we are hardwired to want continuity to counter uncertainty.  I would go so far as to say that in so many ways we are better when we feel part of something larger than ourselves.  We need rituals, symbols, customs and traditions and when we don't have them in our lives, we make them up.  It's not a bad thing, it's a human thing.  Or so I think.

What I am more skeptical of, after finishing this fine volume of essays by nit-picking academics, are efforts to manipulate the past in order to further an agenda which may serve an interest but not necessarily a positive collective one.

So when an American politician starts using the "Founding Fathers" as an appeal for some cause that he espouses, that's a sign that we should be extra careful about what he really wants from us.  This holds true everywhere powerful symbols from the past are being evoked.  They may have a more recent pedigree than we think.   And we can perfectly well continue to genuflect in their direction while asking sharp questions of those who would use and misuse them.

2 comments:

Sauve said...

Interesting read. Well, for me anyway. I love history! Studying the past often leads down paths that I never knew of or thought I would venture upon. Traditions, morality, ethics, culture, and so much more are neatly tucked into history. We have Thanksgiving here but it is a bit less significant than in the USA for more than one reason. The first being that probably nobody is off for Thursday here and we always invite guests. My adult children won't come, of course. Trying to find a turkey in November is like trying to find a needle in the haystack here in France. All of that being true gives me the freedom to have Thanksgiving any day I want, but I limit myself to November. It also allows me to serve anything I want.

But back to your post Victoria. I would like borrow your quote, please: "So when an American politician starts using the "Founding Fathers" as an appeal for some cause that he espouses, that's a sign that we should be extra careful about what he really wants from us. This holds true everywhere powerful symbols from the past are being evoked. They may have a more recent pedigree than we think. And we can perfectly well continue to genuflect in their direction while asking sharp questions of those who would use and misuse them." May I?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Sauve, Of course. Thank you for asking - made my morning.

I love history too. You never what you''l find (if the historian has done his or her job well).

We've had that very same problem. Since it isn't a day off no way we can celebrate it. Best can do is the weekend.