I’d made clear at one point the intense dislike I’ve acquired for the play “Fiddler on the Roof”. Mostly because it takes the trouble to show how important tradition is to Tevye and the community, yet at the end tears them all down, without really replacing them. A point can be made that many of the traditions would not survive the the journey to the new world, but that is actually irrelevant. They didn’t have to be. Something that fit the same purposes could have been brought in that fit the new world about them, instead of them all being torn down while feeding us Communist propaganda. The story could have been about how they faced weddings, progroms, and everything else without *just *tearing down the traditions, and fooling people into accepting the changes.
It hadn’t occurred to me to look at this in the light of Chesterton’s fence before, though.
Chesterton’s fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. The quotation is from Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, in the chapter entitled “The Drift from Domesticity”: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Yes, this also echoes Chesterton’s fence, but the insight here is not just “why is it here”, but why it’s important to ask that question. because traditions come from somewhere, and that somewhere is an aggregate set of decisions that, in whatever circumstances pertained, worked, more often than not. You don’t have to understand the theory of why. Suddenly, looking at this explanation of tradition I bridged not only the fence, but tied it to traditions and things outside of law.
I’d stated recently that one knows one is approaching a truth when different people, seeking the truth via different paths, all begin to lead in the same direction. In relation to Fiddler on the roof, the traditions are cleared away much in the spirit of Chesterton’s reformer. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” The writers of the play, much like many liberals I’ve met, don’t think the traditions and values we hold have any use, they don’t see, perhaps cannot see, or understand it, and so think it’s just dross to be cleared away. Campbell in this case shows us why this is simply foolish blindness. This also echoes Haidt’s work on moral axes, how liberals use fewer of them, and how conservatives can predict a liberal’s reaction, but not vice versa.