There’s a tremendous gap between making an argument for tradition and inviting someone into a living tradition. In his Compact essay, “Why Conservatism Failed,” Jon Askonas argues that conservatives have retreated prematurely to the world of ideas and abandoned the fight to change the material reality that nurtures or strangles our roots.

In Askonas’s view, we are fighting not against coherent political programs, but the chaos of technological shifts — the Pill that ushered in a world where fertility was a luxury consumer good; the fertilizers that meant farmers could standardize their soil, instead of observing and adapting to it; the screens we slip into our pocket, which quietly ask us, “Would you rather have a little bit of everything all of the time, instead of what’s in front of you?”

Traditions are tutorials in practical wisdom. At their best, they are desire paths, wearing a clear trail to follow through the landscape, shaped by the experiences of many prior walkers. But, when the world around us changes too rapidly, Askonas writes, and “new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards.”

So, how to push back? One alternative is offered by Alan Jacobs, who takes his rallying cry from a line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”

We scatter sand over ice to walk with greater stability. We introduce obstacles to our daily lives to slow our skid down the greased rails of our technological culture. It can begin with a few firm “No”s. In our neighborhood, a group of families have all taken the “Postman’s Pledge” (named for Neil Postman), that they will not allow their kids to have smartphones or social media. The grownups pledge to limit electronics in their lives as well.

But all these “No”s aren’t meant to simply sweep the room bare. The “no” to phones is for the sake of an active “Yes” to cultivating attention, presence, and friendship. That’s why it’s a shared pledge, not just a personal commitment. In Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family, he makes a similar recommendation. His family has banished the TV from the living room, but they also made sure the room was full of musical instruments and art supplies. It’s not enough to remove bad things, one must set out good things.

The trouble for conservatives is that there is often little to conserve. It’s easier to raise money by pointing out the errors of our present age, and pledging to stand athwart them yelling stop (or, at least, sardonically quote-retweeting them on twitter). The work of living an alternative is less public and less incendiary.

It can also, unless we are careful, be lonely. In my handbook on community-building, Building the Benedict Option, I wrote that choosing God often means turning away from some parts of the world:

We are called to run headlong toward God, which means that when we appear to be running away from anything else, it’s because that thing is not also moving toward God. Some things we flee from are intrinsic evils, but others are lesser goods that we aren’t called to reject so much as to restore to the right balance in our lives.

But that pruning has to be followed by an invitation. First, to God, to fill the spaces we’ve cluttered up with lesser things. And second, to our neighbors, so that what we’ve received can spill over into their lives. I suggest that readers ask themselves, “What do I do in private that I could do in public?” and move rosary walks, play readings, and music lessons to public spaces, where someone might have the chance to ask if they can join in.

The nature of a tradition is that it is too large to be contained in only one person’s life. We need to find ways to say yes to projects and duties of stewardship that are too large to be sustained alone and too important to abandon. A tree, a child, a school all are promises for the long term, that require successors to keep them. But a project can also be too large to be carried alone by requiring intense effort for a short season: a barn raising, a park cleanup, a few months care in hospice.

Askonas notes that technological advance frays the ties to our future and our past by limiting our opportunities to learn from each other. “While the best humans may always outperform computers,” he writes, “[automated] technologies knock out the bottom rungs of skilled practice that allow for the development of mastery in the first place.” If you can get a “good enough” answer or product from the internet, you won’t ask a neighbor to explain something to you or show you how to make or fix it yourself.

That’s the kind of chosen difficulty I need to seek out. I want to spend more time struggling a little as an amateur, with help from people who are a little further up the ladder, and with whom I have a continuing relationship. That way, I have the chance not just to be an amateur — a lover — of my task, but of the neighbor who taught me how to approach it.

The work can be frustratingly slow and small. However, if we want to build (or restore) things that will grow and last beyond us, we have to content ourselves with seeing only the foundation, not the final cathedral.

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Posted by Leah Libresco Sargeant

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.

3 Comments

  1. Trump rose to power in 2016 in part because both the Democratic and Republican establishments could not admit their failures. Perhaps, just perhaps, we continue to see change come too quickly because traditionalists have the same problem.

    Conservatives really never answered the basic concerns of Critical Theory and Post Modernism because they never owned up to their failures, and even their immoralities, of many of their traditions and traditional views. And so while Critical Theory and Post Modernism began to overthrow our traditions and traditional views, Conservatives had no credible answer for what should fill in the void. Also, while Critical Theory and Post Modernism were great at providing analyses of what was wrong, some of their own substitutions for traditions and traditional values were very much wanting.

    BTW, I am very much opposed to any form of the Benedict Option. The basic theme of the Benedict Option says that unless we have a measure of control over society, we will withdraw and retreat until we can build ourselves up again to regain that control. Besides that the Benedict Option carries with it the we will take our games home with us if we lose attitude, the condition of who is in control over society to either participate in or withdraw shows that having a measure of control over society is our main goal.

    Now the approach to technology taken above has its merits. As a leftist friend and fellow activist said to me, we often measure progress by how far away from nature we go. I’m not sure if I would use the same tactics, but the over reliance on technology to converse with others hurts our abilities to relate to others and ourselves. Here, one would do well to consult the work of Sherry Turkle, a sociologist from MIT, on that subject.

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  2. The irony here is that elites—whom Askonas and his fellow travelers would deride as society’s chief villains—do a much better job of maintaining traditional practices in the face of technological change than the “real Americans” for whom Askonas sees himself as a spokesman. By my observation, people in blue-voting communities who are much more likely to make the kinds of sacrifices necessary to create and maintain a social architecture that sustains traditionalist practices in the face of technological change. I see very few red-voting communities making such sacrifices.

    It’s funny that you mention the BO. The term was popularized by Rod Dreher. But Dreher didn’t appear to practice much of what he preached. Instead of confining himself to the daily obligations of fatherhood and husbandry, he spent much of his time jet-setting around Europe apart from his family. Instead of practicing a form of Christianity with some historic legacy in Louisiana, he becomes Russian Orthodox. Much of Dreher’s life reflects a rejection of what is given in favor of novelty.

    My concern with much of this neo-traditionalism is that its concern with tradition is less of a concern about maintaining social practices and more of a concern about establishing certain social hierarchies based on race, sex, gender-role conformity, and the like. Consider, after all, Daniel Davidson’s companion piece to the Askonas piece, in which Davidson promotes a revolution to establish a strong centralized nationalist government that would enforce “tradition” through authoritarian force. There’s nothing particularly traditionalist about that.

    In the end, it strikes me that much of the complains about a loss of tradition are merely disguised complaints about the loss of unmerited privilege that straight white Christian men enjoyed in our society for no other reason than that they were straight white Christian men.

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