Our most overrated word

Monday December 3, 2012

Alden Graves

The answer as to what keeps the fiddler fiddling away from his precarious perch on a rooftop is the cue for one of the most rousing numbers in "Fiddler On the Roof." Tradition keeps him up there we are told. It’s a nice concept for a great song and you really are not supposed to apply a lot of logic to either folktales or to Broadway musicals.

But you have to wonder what tradition of any value is this odd bit of exhibitionism trying to perpetuate? The inhabitants of the small village of Anatevka don’t seem appreciably better off for it. As a matter of fact everyone has to pack up and leave at the end.

Of course, that doesn’t matter. It’s a tradition and that’s all that needs to be said as far as explanation or defense or any other aspect of it. Too bad that real life isn’t quite so simple.

The image of the man playing music on a roof evokes a sense of wonder in people who have very few reasons to be thrilled by anything in Tsarist Russia in 1905. The only person in any immediate danger is the fiddler himself, who seems so inspired by the altitude and the attention that, at least in the film version, he sounds just like Isaac Stern.

The Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock song celebrates the place that each member of the family must assume. Papa "has the right, as master of the house, to have the final word at home." Mama must raise the family and run the home, so Papa’s free to read the holy books."

The sons study and wonder who their brides will be. The daughters "mend and tend and fix" and prepare to "marry whoever Papa picks." I’m very glad that that last tradition hasn’t endured, not so much for my daughter’s sake as for mine. We hardly ever agree on a movie, much less a husband.

The word "tradition" has devolved from something inherently worthy to something incredibly whiny. President Obama’s victory instigated a full chorus (The Sore Losers Choir?) of moans from right wing pundits about how the ultimate victim of the election was going to be "Traditional America," or, as it is more commonly known on Wall Street, the status quo. The GOP has managed to maintain the fiction that everyone gets an equal shot at success in America until Ronald Reagan started waltzing the country down the deregulation path in the 1980s. The greed it spawned finally began to outsize the lie.

The Republican image of traditional America is anchored in the same kind of cotton candy fluff that had Donna Reed doing housework in ruffled aprons and high heels in her television show. The party has steadfastly remained loyal to Donna’s image, but more people are finally facing the cold, hard truth that we live in a Rosanne world.

Today "traditional" is an adjective that evokes a reverence in the right’s national discourse that was once strictly the province of "sacred" and "holy" -- when it is neither. Anything that infringes upon the tradition facade is perceived as being as much of a threat to the nation as a missile aimed at the Fox newsroom. Small matter that the word itself is very subjective and that what might be important in a traditional sense to some people has no meaning at all to someone else.

Nowhere is the yawning chasm between reality and tradition more apparent than it is in the hotly contested matter of marriage. I don’t believe that most Republican politicians lose anywhere near as much sleep over the prospect of same-sex marriage as they do over a testy phone call from one of the Koch brothers. The traditional marriage issue is simply a sure-fire way to wring votes out of the religious beliefs and biases of much of their base, who seem to be willing to put up with any outrage as long as it doesn’t snag on the barbed wire boundaries they have implanted in their minds to demarcate God’s forgiveness perimeters.

The truth is that the concept of traditional marriage was dealt a lethal blow a long time ago and the looming social acceptance of gay marriage had nothing to do with it. The traditional divorce rate in America now hovers around fifty percent, although the rate has improved slightly in recent years because many couples can’t afford to split up anymore. It used to be that people stayed married for the kids’ sake. Now they do it because they need the two incomes. Neither excuse qualifies as a facet of the idealized state of holy matrimony, but it is still the same sex-specter that bears the brunt of sanctimonious wrath, often from people who are themselves multiple offenders.

Some traditions, however, are worth cherishing. One of them is helping someone who is less fortunate than you might be. It was magnificently demonstrated recently by a New York City policeman named Larry DePrimo. Officer DePrimo came upon a homeless man sitting against a building on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, It was a frigid November night and the man had no shoes or socks on his feet. We have managed in our harried world to tune out sights like that; to forget the fact that the man sitting on the sidewalk was once a child and that perhaps he felt the same tremors of excitement that any child feels as the holidays approach. Life just didn’t work out very well for him.

Fortunately for humanity’s sake, DePrimo only saw a man who needed help badly. The policeman walked to a shoe store on 42nd Street where he purchased a pair of $75 insulated boots and warm socks for the poor man, who grinned from ear to ear when the officer put them onto his frozen feet.

Christ said "Whatever you do unto the least of my brethren, you do unto me." It sounds uncomfortably like a warning, but you still don’t see it etched into too many blocks of stone in Washington these days.

Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist and reviewer.


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