Earth Mother conservatives like to ponder tradition . . . and whether moderns who seek out tradition are pretenders and hypocrites precisely because they "sought out" tradition.
Pretenders? Maybe, maybe not.
Overthinking the matter? Definitely.
AM I a "pretender" because I "sought out" a tradition, in Catholicism, that my mother and my paternal grandfather abandoned . . . one in which I was not raised? To be true to my "tradition" and my original place -- to achieve authenticity -- must I abandon the faith, move back to Baton Rouge, take a job at the chemical plant and become a racist redneck?
Because all of those things, as certainly as I type this, are part of my "tradition." All those things are authentically part of my story, my narrative, my being. All those things have formed me -- either positively, or as a result of a visceral revulsion to them that grew in me as I matured and connected with a God who, at best, hovered on the periphery of the traditions of my upbringing.
Is it hypocritical that I have not held true to the redneckier traditions I was reared to regard as natural? Would it be more authentic of me, more respectful to the stability of tradition, hearth and home place, if I just cursed God, called the president a "nigger," stuck the barrel of a shotgun in my mouth and died?
Because, I gotta tell 'ya, my "tradition" was killing me, and dead is how I might have ended up if I hadn't at some point both consciously and unconsciously decided -- to quote a former LSU football coach's benediction to a referee -- "F*** that s***."
Sometimes, being a "natural man" can be highly overrated.
NOW, I'M NOT SAYING tradition is bad. Far from it. I chose to embrace the tradition of a faith that, two millennia ago, began as a proposition that both fulfilled a traditional belief system as it blew it all to hell. Or Heaven, as the case may be.
Jesus was not executed for being Grandma Moses. Or Wendell Berry. Or Pat Buchanan, for that matter.
Jesus Christ was the Ché Guevara of His day. The difference, however, was that He was God, as opposed to thinking He was God. The religious and political establishment of the time was not amused, as Calvary illustrates.
If Christ had been born a couple of thousand years later, the CIA, not the Romans, would have offed Him.
So . . . when I couldn't stand being what I was born to be anymore, was I being an inauthentic traditionalist or a bomb-throwing radical when I thought I might try to get serious about this Christ chap? I'm sorry . . . git serious about that ol' boy Jesus.
LIKEWISE, when I decided that living in Louisiana -- and dealing with the endemic fatalism, parochialism and corruption -- was starting to seriously drive me nuts, was I being a modernistic agent of disarray by moving away, marrying a Yankee and, with her, eventually settling for good in Omaha?
Or, was I being true to the sacred American tradition of setting out for new horizons and a better life?
Gets complicated, don't it?
That's something we need to keep in mind -- the complexity of it all -- when we're tempted to hearken back to a lost way of life. Recapture the magic, as it were, in hopes of curing what presently ails us.
No doubt, there is some truth behind our yearning for a simpler, and more intimately intimate, way of life. There is, no doubt, an equal amount of falsity and sentimentality behind it, too.
You want a big heaping helping of traditionalism and rootedness? Try Louisiana on for size.
The Gret Stet still is, in many respects, one of the most rooted, stable and tradition-bound places on the North American continent. When it comes to things like music, cuisine and tourism, traditionalism and rootedness have worked out well -- they are the stuff of a colorful and rich culture.
Too, it has worked out well for some families, and for having a sure sense of who -- and what -- you are.
BUT TRADITION can't be limited to just the good things. Racism is another longstanding tradition in my home state; for centuries it has been as natural as crawfishing in the Atchafalaya Basin.
It's a tradition that has left a trail of dead bodies and wasted lives through the generations. A history of segregated schools -- and, now, in this age of "desegregation," affluent, mostly white private schools and distressed, mostly black public schools.
Ignorance is another tradition. Louisianians didn't have a statewide vote in 1978 to decide that, from then on, their education system should suck. It wasn't a constitutional amendment that elevated "common sense" at the expense of "book learnin'." Or decreed that being educated was a supercilious affect for the foo-foo set.
That is a tradition reflected in ramshackle school buildings and failed school-tax levies. In abysmal test scores and pathetic high-school graduation rates. In full prisons and empty cupboards.
It also is a tradition that makes it possible to cut schools first when hard times deplete state coffers.
THERE ARE ALSO other sacred traditions going back generations. Like political corruption and cronyism. And civic "cheap grace" -- the unwavering belief that a functioning government (and society) can be willed into existence by merely saying you want it. And by having somebody else pay for it.
Finally, when one political messiah after another stumbles over his feet of clay, Louisiana always can fall back on another tradition dating back to the Old Country . . . fatalism. Nothing says Louisiana like complaining about "da crooks," offering a Gallic shrug, then finishing with "What'cha gonna do? Hahn?"
The key to this "tradition" thing is not worrying whether you're inauthentically putting on one tradition or another like a white boy in a dashiki. The key to this "tradition" thing is, "Does it work? Is it true? Is it good?"
No one can "put on" a tradition. One taps into a tradition. If it's true . . . if it's good . . . if you've been graced, it in time will become your tradition. And your family tradition.
The trouble with places like Louisiana isn't that they're steeped in tradition, just like the trouble with places like suburban McAmerica isn't that they're seemingly devoid of it.
The fault lies not in tradition, but in a fundamental inability to cull the bad traditions from the good. Because it's those bad ones that poison your soul and turn life's symphony orchestra into a caterwauling gaggle of vulgarians.
Louisiana, to use the example I know a little about, has no will -- and no stomach -- for mucking out the stable. For decades, I've held out hope that might change.
There comes a time, though, when you have to do a little culling and mucking of your own. When you stop investing in an emotional and cultural Ponzi scheme. When you rethink your concept of what home is.
Thomas Wolfe was right. And he wasn't even from Louisiana.
THE LAST STRAW for me came after I posted on that scandal at the New Iberia primate center. I made several obvious points of obvious relevance to my home state and the situation at hand . . . and wondered exactly how long I intended to keep repeating myself.
This is Louisiana. It could go on forever.
No, it won't. Maybe I'll find something interesting, now and again, to write about my home state. It will be rare, though. Tradition -- my tradition -- has its limits.