Today, of course, while the right still dabbles eagerly in the anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination, and other anti-science pathologies, the left may be the even greater culprit. Certainly the anti-fluoride coalition in Portland depended more on self-identified liberal voters than on conservatives. But there are key differences in how liberals and conservatives come by their fears. On the right, these mental illnesses stem from fear of government. On the left, their origins are a bit harder to pin down, but as I see it, they stem from an old mix of righteousness and the fear of contamination—from what we might recognize as Puritanism.
Let me give another example of left-wing Puritanism in action, one less glaring than the Portland referendum but which will be recognizable to many of you. Last month, at a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.
Like any moral panic, nobody was immune to its contagion. Soon, I was fretting—but for different reasons. For all I knew, some of these kids weren’t immunized, and they were fed only unpasteurized milk. The other parents were worried about germs and microbes and genetically modified apricots—I was worried about the parents. I was surrounded by the new Puritans: self-righteous, aspiring toward a utopian perfectionism, therefore condemned to perpetual anxiety—and in their anxiety, a threat to me and my children.
Must be toughing being a group-thinking, easily stampeded drone.
The Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics. (Today, we try to ban large cups of soda.) The second is an interest in hygiene that could be quite salutary—as when reformers pushed clean water and other public-health measures—but could also fetishize symbolic, pernicious forms of sanitation and purity, as in Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics.
Of course, there are plenty of conservative parents who worry too much about what their children eat, and there are plenty of conservatives who are morally censorious, dislike fun, and like prohibiting things. But I expect better of liberals.
And that right there is where he’s making his mistake, seeing as how “liberalism” itself is all about sanctimony, smugness, and control over the lives of others. I also seriously doubt that there all that many conservatives who “worry too much about what their children eat” and “dislike fun,” just as I have to call bullshit on the assertion earlier in the piece that there are many, if any, conservatives who “dabble eagerly” in what he correctly describes as the “anti-vaccination pathology.”
I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons. First, thinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.
Hey, here’s a radical idea: instead of striving to “better” society, which always leads to destructive unintended consequences and ultimately, well, Detroit, how about giving bettering yourselves a try instead? A nice way to start might be doing some research into what the phrase “mind your own damned business” means, and to start applying it to your daily existence rather than trying to elevate meddling into some kind of higher philosophy.
But then, of course, you wouldn’t be “liberals” anymore.
But more important, realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix.
Well, with Obamacare you got your 30 hour workweek, anyway. But it’s more along the lines of being one of those unintended consequences I just mentioned.