Virginia, my home state, has celebrated Lee-Jackson Day every January since 1904. State and city offices close; Confederate flags unfurl. After 110 years, this seems unlikely to change. In fact, in 1983, when Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, became a federal holiday, Virginia appended the Civil Rights leader to its traditional Heroes of the Confederacy observance.
I kid you not: the third Monday in January was officially Lee-Jackson-King Day. State and city offices closed; Confederate flags unfurled.
From Virginia I went to Dartmouth College, official motto: Vox Clamantis in Deserto (“The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness”). Unofficial motto: “Lest the Old Traditions Fail.” Dartmouth’s illustrious history included excluding women, elaborately hazing fraternity pledges, and nicknaming its sports teams “the Indians.”
My own home team was the Jews, whose time-honored customs include snipping off the foreskin of newborn males.
The argument in defense of much of the above-mentioned behavior was (and is) “tradition.” But of course just because someone did it before you doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing to do. Tradition is not an excuse in itself. It has as much moral weight as “well, they did it.”
A tradition is just something that’s been passed on to you, like a chain letter. And like the senders of chain letters, institutions and cultures threaten dire consequences if you don’t pass their traditions along and promise good fortune if you do. (If I don’t circumcise my child, he can never really be Jewish! If I puke my way into this frat, my “brothers” will one day get me a job!)
I hate chain letters. If you’re wondering who broke your recipe chain, it was I. It was I who failed to forward that email telling ten women in my life how important they are. I used to feel torn about it, as if I were letting people down when I tossed the letter out. The older I get the more I want whatever comes from me either to come from me or to be something I would be perfectly proud to have thought of.
That’s the thing about tradition: if it’s coming through you, it’s coming from you. Even if you’re just going along unwillingly or uncertainly, as I did when we had Noah circumcised, it’s still coming from you. You can pretend you are merely the conduit —or even the victim—but you are actually the one perpetuating it.
Of course, that’s no big deal when you are perpetuating the eating of nachos to celebrate the end of school or the wearing of white at a wedding. When the tradition is frivolous. But when the tradition you pass along is harmful or suspect or offensive, you should be able to defend it with reasoning beyond “well, they did it.” You should be able to defend it as if you had just thought of it. “You know what we should do with our baby’s penis?” . . . “Hey, I’ve got an awesome name for our team: The Redskins. Huh, guys? Isn’t that great?”
If you can’t defend a behavior as your own, you shouldn’t behave that way. The institution that insists you do will not wither as a result of your refusal—or maybe it will, and should. More likely, it will suffer the dire consequence of . . . evolving.
In 2000, Virginia unshackled MLK Day from the day commemorating Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee (which is now the Friday before). In Lexington, where both Confederate leaders are buried, there is still a parade, a ball, and plenty of Confederate flags on Lee-Jackson Day. But, since a court decision in 2011, no Confederate flags have flown from city poles. And this June, Washington and Lee University moved the Confederate flags from Lee Chapel—where the college has many of its official events—to the Museum below ground. The Sons of Confederate Veterans organized protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm.
Dartmouth College began admitting women in 1972 (there were protest rallies, but the college seems to be standing firm). By the time I got there in the late 80s, the Indian symbol was officially banned, but still visible. Now, as with the Confederate flag, you can still display it, but its stated meaning has been overshadowed by its subtext: “I’m OK with your thinking I’m an asshole.” That’s progress, in my book.
And believe it or not, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a fraternity whose disgusting pledge hazing traditions were detailed in a 2012 exposé in Rolling Stone, changed its policies this past March. According to the Supreme Council, there are officially no more SAE pledges—no underlings, in other words, who can be forced by their “brothers” to chug milk and vinegar until they throw up.
We’re still working on the Redskins. But I’m happy to report that some Jews are making progress on the foreskin front. Israel’s High Court just ruled that the Rabbinical Court couldn’t force a mother (who is opposed to circumcision, divorcing a father who favors it) to circumcise her infant. Dire consequences may befall her yet. But good fortune has already come to her son: he has a strong mother to defend him against the vagaries of tradition. Her refusal to perpetuate behavior she doesn’t condone is the best thing she could possibly pass along.
 The school’s nickname is now The Big Green, which is supposed to represent its picturesque central yard, but I’m so hoping someone will eventually show up at football games dressed as a dollar bill (OK, you’re right: a one hundred-dollar bill).