Traditions 1: Lee Harris

In ”Much Depends Upon Dinner”, Cameron Stracher discusses the family dinner. Apparently studies prove its importance. For instance, one from Columbia shows

teens from families that almost never eat dinner together are 72% more likely to use illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol than the average teen and that those who eat dinner with their parents less than three times a week are four times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to smoke marijuana and twice as likely to drink as those who eat dinner with their parents at least six times a week.

This strikes me as soft science; obviously, a lot of related variables lead to such outcomes and dinners on the fly are more symptom than cause. But maybe not. Dinner is significant.

In the first chapter of his autobiographical Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington tells us:

I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God’s blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner. On the plantation in Virginia, and even later, meals were gotten by the children very much as dumb animals get theirs. It was a piece of bread here and a scrap of meat there. It was a cup of milk at one time and some potatoes at another. Sometimes a portion of our family would eat out of the skillet or pot, while some one else would eat from a tin plate held on the knees, and often using nothing but the hands with which to hold the food.

Slave owners set tasks for even a young child that made family dinners impossible in the slave quarters. To Washington, eating together meant eating “in a civilized manner”; that he saw it as important we see in his contrast of that ritual with food taken by “dumb animals.”

Dining together, the charm & weight of tradition bears down on us as children; we learn and grow. The family civilizes us, helps us transcend our brute nature, supports us as we fumble toward maturity.

A century & a half later, we live in the world of lined-up helmets David Brooks describes. The schedules of overcommitted teens break up those dinners as do those of undercommitted parents. Stracher notes “These days, fewer than one-third of all children sit down to eat dinner with both parents on any given night. The statistics are worse if both parents are working and the family is Caucasian (Latino families have the highest rate of sharing a meal).”

Our house was built in 1941. The dining room is square and formal, entered through a swinging door. Originally the kitchen was half the size it is now and a long wooden counter with cupboards above and below lined that entrance. It was easy to imagine the mother exiting the swinging door to preside over (with her husband) the ritual dinner, both exerting a civilizing force on those four sons, turning them into gentlemen. Then, as the sons cleared the table, she would return to the kitchen, bringing back dessert and coffee as the long after-dinner conversation began. (I imagine what went on in this house because I remember so well what went on in ours.)

We are of another era; the kitchen is bigger, my husband cooks more than I, and right now the dining room is full of papers and a book truck I got him for his birthday and current project. We generally eat in the kitchen. But we do eat together. And if we show less interest than that previous generation in turning our girls into ladies, we do worry about turning them into responsible adults.

What we feel more than know about those dinners is explored by Lee Harris in “The Future of Tradition,” in Policy Review. He analyzes the role of tradition which gives us the “visceral code”, which

is like the dna of the community: It tells us what behavior must be passed on through the social emotions of shame, honor, and pride. It demands that we behave; it molds us and makes us, just as our parents do, for their doing is always its doing. It is Hegel’s objective spirit, the collective mind, but understood in terms of automatic reactions hardwired into us, operating through adrenaline and rushes of blood to the face. It is what makes us feel who we are and react as we do — in short, it constitutes our being. We cannot ask whether the visceral code is useful to the community when it is in fact constitutive of the community: It is the foundation on which the community is built. It is a necessary precondition of achieving community at all, and hence it is improper to evaluate it in terms of its mere utility.

Civilization often depends not upon reason but upon automatic choices; we do not analyze whether a bar fight is a good idea, we avoid it because, instinctively, our culture has made intrinsic in us a sense that this is a bad idea. He uses the example of the mother teaching her son how to treat animals. She has learned through her own experience and her own mistakes that children can be too rough & too thoughtless. As she transcended that instinct she became hardwired to treat the animal kindly. She instinctively desires that such consideration become intrinsic in her son.

I am reminded of an essay in our old freshman text that discussed the levels of discipline. At the prison, most of my students saw the most externalized – punishment – the most useful. But I drew an example I knew they would respond to viscerally: suppose you had a young child, I asked, and you had a neighbor. Would you want him not to molest your child because he feared trial & punishment? Because the community would ostracize him? Or, rather, because he felt intense repugnance toward such an act and sympathy toward the child? Obviously, the more they thought, the more they desired the last – where repugnance was intrinsic, the cultural DNA was internalized. Punishment and shame can be avoided but we can’t hide from ourselves. An orderly happy civilization is not one ruled by fear but by inner controls based on respect and love and tradition. (And Harris’s argument that if this is considered and rejected we will be in a post-civilized society also rings true with another experience that semester; another student (not at the prison) asked but ah, what if it merely means you haven’t a taste for young children? That “rational” answer may be, well, “self-conscious” but it is not especially comforting to a parent who finds any sense that such an act would be judged in terms of personal taste worrisome.)

And so the tradition of the strong protecting the weak has come down to us as central to our tradition. The assumption of an open market (of goods, of ideas, of religions) is that people aren’t fools: leave us alone and we’ll sort it out, at least for ourselves. Optimism and the same humility that the open market implies (that we don’t have all the answers) underlies Harris’s argument. Through time our ancestors developed cultures, some more successful than others. We can compare and contrast the results. None are perfect. But our ancestors were also not fools. They have given us something worthy.

The importance of that family dinner underlies Harris’s metaphors of recipes and cooking. In our family, at least in the relation between my daughters and their grandmother, such cooking is an important form of transmission. My mother-in-law, now blind, still supervises her granddaughters in her kitchen, as they make biscuits, cookies and kolaches. My aunt, who died before my youngest was born, had sent a few years before her death a notebook to my siblings and me; in it she inserted carefully typed family recipes. My children now use them – and feel in touch with someone they barely remember. Why do they pass on those recipes, why do their ghosts remain in our kitchen? Because everywhere the making and eating of food is a communal, familial act. In those kitchens and at those tables we become members of the community.

In domestic traditions we also see the richness of the melting pot—which leads us to prune & grow our traditions. Housekeeping, too, blends these, as Cheryl Mendelson in her encyclopedic Home Comforts demonstrates. Amazon notes: “Mendelson, a homemaker, lawyer, and mother, learned about housekeeping from an early age from her grandmothers, one Appalachian, the other Italian. The two grandmothers taught her that although different ways of keeping house can be appropriate, there are generally smarter, faster, and more creative ways of housekeeping that make it less of a chore and more of an art.”

One of my husband’s friends talks of sending his sons back to the small community in which he and his first wife were raised. He describes those long summers with his parents as “imprinting” on his children the family’s values and culture. My mother-in-law is a remarkable woman who essentially raised my daughters when they were young. She said once she saw her purpose in life as teaching young children to become good adults. She emphasized dignity, honesty, simplicity, and modesty. When they were young, I thought that the greatest gift she was giving them was her passionate, even obsessive, attention; now I suspect it was self-control as well as self-respect and a respect for the heritage she embodied.

The way a child cares for his dog or a grandmother teaches a child to bake embody the profound. Harris notes

It is not merely that it is useful to produce honest men and women. In order to obtain certain collective social goods, a society must first create human actors who are capable of achieving them. You must first produce courageous men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of defending your society; you must first produce prudent men if you wish to achieve the collective social good of keeping your society on a stable course; you must first produce men who are willing to control their impulses in order to create the collective social good of an orderly society.

Traditions transform our flawed selves. Harris sees not arrogance but understanding of self and community:

It is important to be clear about the experiential source of this sense of ethical superiority. It arises not from a feeling of being born superior to others, but from a feeling of having become superior to what we ourselves once were. In the Christian tradition, this experience is called being born again; in the Jewish tradition, it is identified with the story of the Exodus, the transformation of former slaves into the Chosen People. In both cases, the outcome of the transformative experience is the same: a firm determination to be lifted from a stage of ethical experience that has now come to be seen as lower, and an aspiration to a stage of ethical experience that is higher.

Here he makes a point that readers of Pinker often meditate upon; ways in which our culture has tamed us permeate The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Harris finds this important:

We must retain a collective memory of what we were like before we had mastered the technique of transcending our lower nature. If we no longer know what it is that we have escaped from, we will be unable to appreciate the significance of the technique that permitted us to escape. Indeed, at the maximal point of societal forgetfulness, there is the danger that even the most critical transformative customs will no longer be grasped for what they are.

He describes the transcendence in religious terms but for what the Puritan might describe as our fallen nature he uses the more palatable id. To subdue it,

A civilization must have a proven track record of cultural permanence . . . A civilization must be passed, with its fundaments pretty much intact, from one generation to the next; and this is especially true when we are dealing with civilizations whose civilizing process requires a stern renunciation of the id in all of its manifestations — ungovernable impulses, unruly desires, a lack of consideration or feeling for the well-being of others, sexual promiscuity, prodigal expenditures on passing fads, and so on. In short, the loftier the ethical ideal of a civilization is, the harder it must work to preserve this ideal against the return of the id.

Harris’s essay reminds us of the warning signals from other pundits, probably none stronger than Theodore Dalrymple (in about every City Journal essay he writes, collected in Life at the Bottom : The Worldview That Makes the Underclass.). If Harris is telling us what good civilization can do, Dalrymple describes disintegration, aiming his anger & pen at those who tore down the ladders of culture, leaving his patients with no way out of lives short and brutish. Harris notes the long pedigree for the assumption the “village” raises and the problems inherent in that depersonalization.

There are, in truth, only so many ways to preserve the ethical baseline of a society, all of them radically less effective, and far more intrusive, than the method offered by the family. Plato offered one of them in his Republic: The elite guardians directly controlled the ethical molding of the children by reducing the populace to puppets in the hands of master manipulators.

But there is one advantage above all advantages that the family possesses: the long-term temporal framework within which it operates. The playmate, the buddy, the girlfriends, the colleagues, the guys — all see us as a given thing with an established set of attributes, and this is just as true when we meet them at six as at 60: We are what they see us as. But for our families we can never be reduced to being something fixed and permanent. To them we are not six feet tall; to them we turned out to be six feet tall, and who knows how much more we might grow in our mothers’ eyes — even if we are in our 50s and shrinking.

To a mother and father, a child is a project and the child’s personality a trajectory. This is not a consciously held value or principle, taught by a book: It is the natural cognitive mode of the parent who, in looking upon a child, sees its past, present, and future all at once, in a vision that is genuinely sub species aeternatis and not entirely unlike God’s vision of the universe, even if it is a bit more partial. Others teach us how to be; our family teaches us how to become.

I was struck by the power of his description, since it uses the same images and even words my husband and I often do in discussing our daughters. The balance between becoming a member of the community and an individual is difficult for all of us. We worry about it in our children. And we worry about how much we expect one child to be like another, to follow a pattern we understand but that may not be best for that child. If that can harm, so can absence of models. Harris notes

our insistence on creating self-esteem in an eight-year-old boy comes with a high price tag — by refusing to encourage the boy’s dissatisfaction with himself as he is, we are inadvertently taking from him the primary human motivation to change oneself for the better. By pumping him full of self-esteem, we rob him of the will to set himself transformative projects and goals. Totally at peace with what he is, he ceases to have any reason to become something more — and certainly no reason at all to become what he could be.

He is critical of abstract moralizing. We understand best what is embodied in action. Abstractions are revolutionary, they sweep away and simplify. They are grand but are less likely to see the importance of rolling out kolache dough. Harris acknowledges that traditions need to be enlivened by contact with other cultures, by assimilation, by accretions and by paring down. Some traditions are deleterious and best transcended. But cynics & sophists miss the point. Harris argues that it is the very lack of self-consciousness that makes this transgenerational communication so important. It is at those dinner tables and in those kitchens that we see how ethnicity is passed on. We understand the melting pot because we have sat down to holiday dinners and seen an array from various traditions. The difference between the extraordinary pies of my two grandmothers reflected their cultures. One grandmother’s were sweet, with sugar on the crusts. She made the rhubarb and gooseberry pies we loved so much, full of tart fruit and sweet juice. The product of the trek westward after the Civil War, coming from Kentucky and Virginia, she brought that tradition. My other grandmother, only speaking English when she entered grade school, cooked in the deep and rich German tradition; her pies were buttery and melted in our mouths. Her candies at Christmas were full of bourbon and butter. My children grow up with my tradition but also with Texas barbecue and poppy seed rolls. Our traditions grow & change, reaching across generations and tribes (unless we are the French I guess). And we remember fondly the basics – the runza, the taco, the chicken soup, the fried rice, the mashed potato, the dumplings.

Those are the everyday foods, the mundane foods. But we remember their tastes with warmth – they made of the every day meal a transcendent, loving experience. And so, too, did the people whom Harris argues are “shining examples” – the model not of perfection but of maturity, of goodness, of moral possibilities. But today we hesitate to praise – each child must become an individual. But we still look for examples. Understanding the role of these “shining examples,” in the middle of the last century Hollywood stars were leaned on rather heavily by their studios to project, if not to be, models. Local high school teachers were scrutinized for behavior that had nothing to do with teaching. This underlies much talk of the responsibility of sports figures & rock stars. Rationally, this seems nonsense—it isn’t part of the job description. We do not bring our children up to model themselves on saints or actresses or sports figures or politicians or even the A students in their classes. Still, viscerally, we know we lose something with the loss of myths and narratives of struggle & success. We may have gained a certain kind of truth, but we’ve lost another. But, the sturdy middle class argues, the real models are mothers and fathers, older sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. That is not sentimental, that is true.

Harris’s conclusion both charges his fellow gays to develop “shining examples” for others – examples not of a marriage that mimics tradition but rather, a separate “civilized” path worthy of emulation. His conclusion warns us of the consequences of throwing off tradition. And so, he comes to marriage and the traditional family.

Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.

This reminds us that Harris’s argument has political importance. Broadly optimistic, it is not so sanguine about grand plans. Ivan Klima, experienced with revolution’s triumph over tradition, notes an arrogant optimism in “On the Literature of Secular Faith”

To this day there is a vague, but practically unshakeable conviction in the popular mind that history really does move toward a higher, secular goal. It may have been wrongly defined improperly realized, incorrectly named, but it is still there. Not to recognize it, not to work towards it, is to deny progress (which, after all, exists; doesn’t the rapid development of science and technology prove this?) As long as this conviction remains, the danger remains that some new utopian vision, some new ideology, will arise, full of bloated promises, to lead humanity towards the new goal, regardless of cost. (143)

Political systems designed to destroy tradition have arisen. As with the nursery rhymes in 1984, we sense the importance of rituals, conventions, values, even though they are important in ways we only understand viscerally. And if that is the big view, the small view is still the family, sitting together and passing the food. Family jokes, passed down with family recipes, are part of those moments. The act of eating is important but it is always accompanied by speech. The day’s events are given substance and we are given support. There is quiet. And parables arise from that day’s events and family’s old tales. Anger, pride, consideration, love, respect for self & family & tradition – all are a part of dinner together. We balance our desire to be separate and to join. We learn what our culture restricts – but also the steadying hand and warm community we get in recompense. And we come to recognize, with pride in our relation to the past, that our ancestors weren’t fools – and we aren’t either.

(Thanks to A&L for Harris & Scotus for Stracher.)

1 thought on “Traditions 1: Lee Harris”

  1. This is a great post! My mother’s parents were born in Italy and I remember my grandmother would put a perfect Anglo-American Christmas dinner on the table, with turkey and potatoes and gravy and all the proper trimmings. But she would also put pasta and meatballs on the table “so it would seem like a real holiday”. Eventually I was talking about it with a friend of mine whose mother was Japanese-American, and he alughed and said that his grandmother did the same thing, except that she would put a platter of sushi out with the turkey, with the same comment.

    It’s also amusing how the social significance of food is dependent upon the cultural context. Sushi and cafe lattes are considered ultimate yuppie pretensions, but for my friend sushi was a down-home food, and for me I always remember my steelworker grandfather’s breakfast, which was a bowl of coffee and hot milk with a chunk of bread.

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