It was Bertrand Russell, in a 1928 essay, who captured a central truth about the enduring power of the Puritan ethic in American life.
"The career of Puritanism has been curious," he wrote. "It held brief power in England in the seventeenth century, but so disgusted the mass of ordinary citizens that they have never again allowed it to control the Government. The Puritans, persecuted in England, colonized New England, and subsequently the Middle West. The American Civil War was a continuation of the English Civil War, the Southern States having been mainly colonized by opponents of the Puritans. But unlike the English Civil War, it led to a permanent victory of the Puritan Party. The result is that the greatest Power in the world is controlled by men who inherit the outlook of Cromwell's Ironsides."
Russell’s account is perhaps unduly bleak, and we can surely all be grateful that, whatever else they may have inflicted on us, the Puritans’ successors won the civil war. A fairer assessment might be that the successors to the Roundheads have enjoyed intermittent periods of ascendancy throughout American history. In a new look at the cultural and political landscape of modern America, Noah Rothman, a sharp conservative commentator and associate editor of Commentary magazine, documents how once again we are in their grip.
We are familiar by now with the rapidly multiplying strictures our progressive overlords seek to impose to ensure a pleasure-free life for the rest of us. Rothman comprehensively enumerates the major moral obligations we are supposed to pursue and the sins that stand in their way. Saving the planet requires abstention from meat, plane travel, and having children. Promoting racial justice means no wrong words lest they be construed as microaggressions. The risk of offending some oppressed minority means no comedy. Sexual equality demands avoidance of any hint of romantically hopeful advances. The myriad terrible injuries that might befall the fragile requires us to abstain from contact sports. And of course the last two pandemic years especially have introduced us all to a new priesthood of establishment experts and their acolytes dreaming up whole new ways to stop us enjoying ourselves.
We live in a world in which cycling is sexist, jogging is racist, and a plate of egg dumplings is a form of malignant cultural appropriation. Whatever you’re doing, just stop it. As H.L. Mencken famously defined it, Puritanism is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Rothman does a good job of explaining why it is that the latest generation of fun-sponging moralists are on the left side of the political divide. Until recently, he notes, the urge to purge us of pleasures—guilty or otherwise—was associated mainly with conservatives. In the licentious world birthed by the sexual revolution and the liberal advances of the civil rights movement, it was the left that was libertine; the right censorious. Old squares fretted about the country’s loss of moral direction and sought to rein in all kinds of cultural expression on the ground of obscenity, moral depravity, and the societal harm they saw in it.
As Rothman notes, the modern progressive elites that dominate our news and entertainment media, our universities, and increasingly our corporate C-suites and human resources departments make those conservative forbears look positively permissive by comparison.
Their censoriousness, he says, is a natural outgrowth of the progressives’ fanatical belief in the perfectibility of society and their relentless insistence on requiring us all to achieve it.
"From the comedy you enjoy to the sports you watch to the sex you have (or increasingly don’t) a particular sort of left wing activist insists that these and many other private activities have a public dimension. … Anything that fails to serve this purpose is worse than worthless: it stands in the way of progress."
A pedant—or a purist—might question Rothman’s taxonomy. How "puritan" are these ubiquitous modern scolds really? The original Puritans, appalled at the supposedly debauched and popish nature of 16th century Protestantism, embraced as well as preached the austerity and the asceticism to which they have given their name. Say what you will about them, but they walked the walk as well as talked the talk. With our modern generation of self-appointed moral leaders, it seems the primary object of their mortification is not their own souls—but those of the rest of us. This is partly reflected in the individual hypocrisy practiced by many of them: flying off to Davos in their private jets to lecture the rest of us on the "climate emergency," dining maskless in fancy restaurants while imposing mask mandates and stay-at-home orders. But it’s also surely the case that these moral authoritarians think it’s less their own sins that need to be extirpated, and more the sins of the rest of us. There’s a moral superiority about these people that is surely more pharisaical than Puritan.
The book’s exhortatory subtitle is "Fighting Back against the Progressives’ War on Fun." But Rothman doesn't offer much in the way of a plan for a strategic pushback against the modern tyranny. The power of these latter-day Ironsides is well entrenched—their grip on the major cultural institutions is suffocating.
Rothman’s forecast of their eventual downfall is based more on hope—derived, it’s true, from past experience, than from any call to arms by the armies of oppressed hedonists. He seems to think the new puritanism will collapse much as past incarnations have—under the weight of its own inhumanity. As he says, the problem with puritanism through history has been that in the end, it defeats itself on its very own terms of reference. When you tell them that something is sinful, human beings, sinful by nature, tend to think, "Ooh good. I’ll have some of that."
The author can cite good examples of recently canceled books that have enjoyed wildfire commercial success precisely because of the publicity generated by their cancellation. Accusations of Dr Seuss’s supposed racism in the global frenzy that accompanied the Black Lives Matter movement turned out to be a significant posthumous sales booster for the author.
Perhaps Rothman is right then, and the inexorable logic of human nature will simply dismantle the new puritanical order. It was after all, from the moment that Adam was told not to eat that apple you just knew he was going to end up eating it. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun
by Noah Rothman
Broadside Books, 300 pp., $28.99
Gerard Baker is editor at large of the Wall Street Journal.