In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman asks a question that has been repeated by many contemporary Americans: "Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?" When egalitarians rule the cultural roost, veneration is to be eliminated like nuclear energy, and candor—interpreted as not revealing personal wants—is the one trait that can excuse all personal faults. "Tell it like it is"—a cliché whose time has fortunately passed—is recalled as a criticism of most conventional ceremonies from the 1960s to the present.

While I would argue this distaste for veneration is now more extreme than it was in earlier periods, it is nonetheless an American tradition that goes back to the nineteenth-century transcendentalists, who associated tributes with deceit, circumlocution, and external appearances. A ritual deceremonialization often took the form of opposing authority, institutions, tradition, and...


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