Traditional Hospitality

I like to watch the historical videos by James John Townsend. He is easygoing and always informative. The channel’s focus is on early America. Many of the videos are about food, but he also talks about how people lived. Some of my favorites are when he references the accounts described in travel journals.

In one video I just watched (the first below), Townsend talks about backwoods hospitality. It was expected that travelers would be welcome at almost any house or cabin, for food and shelter. An extra setting might be placed at the dinner table, just in case someone stopped by. Visits were common, whether from strangers or neighbors, friends, and family. Townsend mentions that a large part of their lives was filled with socializing. And it didn’t matter how poor the household. Almost anyone would be made to feel welcome, sometimes including local or traveling Native Americans.

Some of this custom may even have been learned or modeled after the lifestyle of Native Americans who were in the habit of coming and going as they pleased. There was often an open door policy on the frontier, a detail I’ve come across in reading history books. Even as villages formed, this friendly attitude was maintained. It was expected that what happened in your home was of relevance to the entire community. This nosiness could even be rather imposing, sometimes to the point of being oppressive. Neighbors might come right in, if they thought you were having affair. A bit too ‘friendly’ at times.

The idea of a home as a place of utmost privacy is a rather recent invention, as are locks on doors (when I was a kid, my family never locked the door except when we went on vacations). What is interesting is that some of the commenters point out that their own grandparents used to maintain similar practices of hospitality. For example, keeping a candle in the window was a way of signalling that visitors were welcome. Something similar was done with lamps to signal refuge for Jews escaping the Nazis. Likewise, candles and lamps were used as a signal on the Underground Railroad. In some parts of the world, especially in rural areas, welcoming strangers and those in need remains a living tradition.

That exemplifies how much the modern world has changed in industrialized societies. The kind of hospitality that would have existed for millennia, would have been the norm under most circumstances, that has faded from living memory for most of us Westerners. Something has been lost, a sense of community and common humanity, of interdependence and basic kindness, and we don’t usually even think about what has been lost, if we ever notice it’s missing.

This isn’t to romanticize the past, as Townsend also points out that the frontier was a dangerous place where not everyone was friendly. Still, it was a far friendlier place than the world we live in today. People had to be open and welcome in relation to others because survival depended upon it. Isolation wasn’t a choice. Yet the daily lived experience of community doesn’t exist for many people at this point, much less the attitude of hospitality toward strangers. We go about our lives as if we don’t really need anyone else.

I’ve known family members complain when others in the family stopped by unannounced. On the other hand, my mother remembers her family getting in the car on a weekly basis to make random visits to friends and family, and they were always welcome, often with a massive meal being prepared on the spot with no advanced notice. That was probably a carryover from my mother’s family having lived in what was the frontier not many generations before.

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US Conservatism: Through the Looking Glass

I was just thinking about how fiscal conservatism isn’t necessarily all that conservative… depending, as always, on how you define the term.

Social conservatism is conservative because it attempts to conserve traditional culture and attempts to conserve the authority and influence of the institutions that support it. This is where American conservatism goes off the tracks. Our country wasn’t founded on conservative values, but was founded on revolution. The Founding Fathers weren’t conserving traditions. They fought against the traditional style of government and in it’s place instated an entirely new form of government. Essentially, America’s ‘tradition’ was originally in opposition to European tradition, but later on Americans came to identify with their European roots… in defining “Real America” as contrasted to the cultures of African-Americans, Latinos, and non-European immigrants.

This is sense of rootedeness in European tradition is odd considering that US conservatives think of themselves as somehow being the torchbearers of the tradition they inherited from Europe. But Europe is more traditional than the US almost by definition… but, to US conservatives, Europe is the opposite of their notion of tradition. Americans so much loved tradition that we even created entirely new traditions of Christianity. I find it ironic for Mormon Beck to be the defender of tradition.

This issue of confused ideologies came up with the recent IRS building attack by Joe Stack. In his suicide note, he criticized the government in typical fiscal conservative fashion. The confusing part was that he made statements that could be interpreted as praising communism over capitalism. This is strange as US conservatives love to disparage Europe for its socialism. Ignoring Stack’s unclear ideology, some have connected these particular statements to Henry Fairlie who was a European conservative… a very different species. Fairlie moved to the US and was critical of the Republican party because it didn’t seem conservative to him at all. As he saw it, without a stable government, there can be no stable society, no stable culture, no stable tradition.

Idealizing capitalism in place of government didn’t seem like a good answer to Fairlie. Without a strong government to enforce strong regulation, there is nothing traditional about uncontrolled capitalism. In all traditional societies, the market is controlled by government whether national or local. Capitalism itself isn’t even a traditional value. The Catholic church which is the very archetype of Western Tradition has often been critical of capitalism. In the past, religion was allied or even conjoined with government in order to control all facets of society including the markets. This is what US conservatives like to call socialism or communism.

US capitalism is a very unstable system with booms and busts. The markets change quickly and the system encourages risky behavior. The US government, on the other hand, was designed to be very conservative. The power of the govt is divided and change happens very slowly. The US government is more conservative than US capitalism and yet conservatives criticize the former while idealizing the latter. If you look at the history of US capitalism, it has been the single greatest force in destroying traditional communities. Why are conservatives considered fiscally conservative when they support a big military and undermine all programs that directly help US citizens (public schools, assistance programs, etc)? Liberals are considered fiscally liberal, but if you look at the Pew data liberals are the demographic that is the most concerned about balancing the budget.

In the US, the penultimate defenders of “fiscal conservatism” are the libertarians. This just adds to the confusion. Libertarianism was also inherited from Europe where originally it was part and parcel of the workers movement. Even in the US, the early workers movement was against the government that was aligned with the corporations (corporatism) all the while promoting what are now considered socialist ideals of workers rights. Over this past century, though, the protest against government has switched from progressivism to regressivism and the libertarian movement has switched from anti-capitalism to pro-capitalism. Even so, libertarianism and progressivism have never been entirely separated. Any time a truly populist protest movement arises, libertarians and progressives become almost indistinguishable… for example, the Peace movement protesting the Iraq War.

I suppose the connection between libertarian and progressive sentiments had been strained since at least the Civil War. But the separation didn’t become obvious until Republicans took up the Southern Strategy. By using this strategy, conservatives played off of the Southern fear and resentment toward the Federal government. As progressives were finally getting the government to enforce laws that defended the common man, this irritated the class conscious Southern Aristocrats.

I’ve discussed some of this before such as the role the KKK played in the development of conservative ideology. It’s strange how conservatism became what it is today. Glenn Beck has gone so far as even to attack the Christian tradition of social justice. Social conservatism without social justice? Fiscal conservatism without regulation on capitalism? It’s like we’ve fallen through the looking glass.