‘Why did This Tradition Get Started? I’ll Tell You Why — I Don’t Know’

David Rubino (Courtesy of the author)

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To the Editor:

Recently my wife and I introduced our daughters to the 1971 classic, “Fiddler on the Roof.”  They loved the movie, and still march around the house belting out the opener “Tradition” in Tevye’s booming baritone. Catchy tunes aside, the film gave us a lot to talk about.  We discussed antisemitism, the importance of culture and community, and of course, tradition.  Specifically we discussed how Tevye desperately wants to hold on to a host of ideals for the sake of “tradition,” but ultimately realizes that tradition alone has limited intrinsic value.

Which brings me to your March 5th article.  It is discouraging to hear that the Old Lyme Historic District Commission is calling upon the two political town committees to agree to refrain from providing temporary campaign lawn signs to residents of the district. Have they called upon local realtors to stop posting “for sale” signs? Parents of graduating seniors to refrain from class congratulations? LYSB to hold off on supplying “kindness matters” signage?  No, no, and no.  It is only temporary political signs that are the focus of the OLHDC’s ask. They hope, they say, that the parties will revive the alleged long-standing “tradition” of keeping the Historic District free of those persnickety reminders that we live in an actual democracy.   

This so-called “tradition” of no political signs in the Historic District is certainly news to me.  I saw a photo from the Old Lyme Historical Society showing a McKinley/Roosevelt sign on Lyme Street dating back to 1900. I have had a home here since 2016, and there have been signs on Lyme Street in every election since I arrived.  Even a current Google Street View search of Lyme Street shows no less than eight political lawn signs lining the road from the 2021 election – including one on the lawn of a former OLHDC member. If there ever was such a tradition, I would suggest that it petered out sometime before “Brexit” was making headlines.

Calling something a “tradition” with no support implies a history whether it exists or not. More importantly, it minimizes the more salient argument regarding whether such a tradition ever had merit. There is certainly no record of a “deal” or “agreement” anywhere in this town’s archives wherein the residents of the Historic District got together and voted to keep signs out. More likely, a select few people may have informally discussed how uncouth it is to talk about politics in public.

And therein lies the problem.

Taking the stance that advocating a political position is merely an academic exercise is, in and of itself, political.  It is saying that none of this political jockeying really matters; that there are far more important things than freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and substantive political beliefs – like neighborly relations, comity and clutter-free lawns. Demanding an apolitical community is demanding that others subscribe to a world view where political choices are merely matters of opinion and the real-life consequences of elections are immaterial.

Restricting political lawn signs sends a disheartening message to our community, suggesting that political engagement is something to be concealed or avoided rather than celebrated and embraced. Democracy is not a spectator sport—it requires active engagement, spirited debate, and the courage to stand up for one’s beliefs. Moreover, true comity, is born of understanding our neighbors’ views – not pretending they don’t exist.

If the OLHDC members haven’t watched “Fiddler on the Roof,” I suggest they do so. In the first few minutes of the film Tevye states,  “You may ask, why did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you why – I don’t know.” His folly is foreshadowed in those words. Put simply: some traditions – especially those with no clear origin, consensus, or rationale – just aren’t worth the cost.

David Rubino
Old Lyme, CT