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Friday, October 21, 2016

Tradition Project Conference: Tradition in Law and Politics

I'm in New York today for a conference called Tradition in Law and Politics. It's the kick-off conference for the Tradition Project, an intellectual enterprise under the auspices of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John's Law School, which is directed by my friends Mark Movsesian and Marc DeGirolami. Although there are obvious strong links to the study of law and religion, both the conference and the project are broader in their concerns and topics. The sessions over the next couple of days will cover the definition of tradition, the American religious tradition, the American political tradition, the common law tradition, and the constitutional law tradition. 

This is a great and timely project and topic. One assumption on hearing about this conference might be that it's timely in a rear-guard sense, in that the regnant culture and moment are antipathetic toward tradition, and the rejection of tradition as a basis or reason for doing (or not doing) something is achieving important victories in, say, decisions on substantive due process and equality and arguments about religion. (My equipment here doesn't allow me to hyperlink very easily, but one might want to take a look at Neil Siegel's Balkinization post and piece on Justice Alito's role on the Supreme Court. Although I assume Siegel is unlikely to agree very often with Alito, there are commendably scholarly and sympathetic strains, in Siegel's linked piece, of interest in and acknowledgment of the kinds of people for whom Alito may be said to be writing.)

In a different register, however, at least some of the current bewailing of the state of our political culture also involves a form of traditionalism. This time it comes from a broader leadership class, caste, or establishment that includes both establishment conservatives and establishment liberals--including the same regnant liberals who may well reject tradition in many areas. Here, although they might not talk in terms of tradition, there is a strong ongoing lament for the radical loss or disruption of a settlement, or set of customs and practices, that enabled some degree of civil and productive political discourse, compromise, fellowship within the political class and beyond, and so on. Abstracting away from the rather egregious current figurehead for challenges to that tradition, recent populist movements here and elsewhere, on both left and right, and their sometimes destructive power, have both emphasized the value of our traditions and served as a reminder of the way that those traditions can be hollowed out, or left isolated by changes in the broader culture, or be rendered vulnerable by the failure to include and involve larger communities of people: people of color, members of the working class, denizens of regions suffering from economic and/or cultural dislocation, etc. In that sense, although there's no doubt that many readers of this post, or for that matter people here at the conference table, might associate a "Tradition Project" with mourners or rear-guard fighters on the traditionalist conservative side, and have little sympathy for such a project, there are broader reasons why such a project is timely, and those reasons ought to make more people, including many who would tend to label themselves as anti-traditionalist, more sympathetic to this project than they might be inclined to be at first blush.

Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of representatives in the room of, as a speaker put it, people who are "disposed to respect tradition," many of them religious, politically and culturally conservative, or both. As I've written above, there are at least two reasons the appeal of the project and the subject should not be limited to those people: 1) if the "traditionalists" are a minority voice today, that fact can itself be interesting and worthy of study; and 2) people who see themselves as non- or anti-traditionalist may discover, upon reflection or in response to emergencies and other exigencies, that they are more traditionalist than they think. I certainly hope the makeup of the room widens, and that one of the reasons for this is that a more catholic group of scholars knock on the door and express their interest in participating. The prerequisite, such as it is, is not that one be a traditionalist, but that one be someone who takes tradition seriously. 

As per usual, I find myself in the middle. I'm convinced that there is value in tradition itself and in tradition as a subject, and concerned about any approach to law, politics, or culture that sees it as irrelevant or negative or illegitimate as a source of practice or authority. To my mind, one of the potential long-term goals or values of this project should be to explore the ways in which soi-disant rationalist liberals or progressives, or indeed anyone of whatever political stripe who sees himself or herself as operating purely rationally or empirically, end up believing in and relying on tradition, and react hostilely to challenges to those traditions they hold dear--and the ways in which they suppress or deny their own traditionalism and their own reliance on tradition as an authority. But I am also in some sense a tradition skeptic, and think it's possible both to take tradition seriously and be somewhat sympathetic to it, and to be interested in finding ways of defying it, subverting it, or introducing viruses into it. All of thes activities, of course, have a tradition of their own and are part of tradition itself.  

In any event, great topic and great conference and I'm delighted to be here. I may have more to say, but there are other bloggers here and no doubt they'll have some reactions and posts of their own.


Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 21, 2016 at 10:33 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


Paul, I really enjoyed the event. If Prawfs readers are interested, there are several posts at "Mirror of Justice" by other participants. Here, e.g., is Marc DeGirolami's: http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2016/10/a-thought-for-michael-on-tradition-and-reason.html

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 27, 2016 9:55:01 AM

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