January 11, 2011 2:52PM

New Cato Unbound: Culture, Tradition, and the Modern World

Conservatives often talk about the modern world in terms of decline. Old traditions fall victim to market dynamism, integration, and globalization, and our society is the poorer for it. Newer isn’t better — it’s more superficial, less rooted, and less secure.

Those who make this type of argument are frequently tempted toward the creation of group rights or privileged statuses for traditional identities, behaviors, or social norms. Oddly, the left has at times agreed on just this critique, and on just these sorts of privileges in response. The authentic past, the authentic identity must be preserved, even at the cost of classical liberal ideas of rights. Marxist critiques of capitalist culture have long made just this point. As Marx himself famously said, industrialism means that “all that is solid melts into air.” To many, stopping it from doing so seems possibly a good idea.

In this month’s lead essay, political theorist Russell Arben Fox sounds a cautionary note. Traditions have always evolved, he argues; there is no pristine, fully authentic past out there to be found. In a sense, for a tradition to be authentic at all is for it to be flexible and subject to change. The way to honor the past, he suggests, is to be conscious of it, yes, but also of the world in which we live, today. Both straightforward traditionalism and the Marxist-inspired critique of it commit the same error. They both seem to believe that the truest, most unvarnished past is out there, waiting to be found, somewhere. (Somewhen?)

Is he right? Obviously, we are dealing with questions that involve culture as much as politics. To help sort them out, we have invited journalist and blogger Eve Tushnet, historian John Fea, and doctoral candidate in government James Poulos, known for his extensive freelance journalism and blogging, notably at Postmodern Conservative and Ricochet.com.