Ed Driscoll

Our Puritanical Progressives

For years, I’ve had a category on my blog called “The New Puritans,” with posts on the topic dating back to nearly its start.

But a group of articles making the rounds this weekend reminds us that the left’s puritanical streak isn’t all that new.  First up, in an essay titled, “Our Puritanical Progressives,” George Will flashes back to the days of the toughest Super-Villain Batman and Robin went up against in the 1950s, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. Today, many comic book fans likely think of Wertham as some sort of arch-conservative member of the biblical Moral Majority; Will reminds us that he was nothing of the sort:

In 1954, Fredric Wertham brought science — very loosely defined — to the subject of juvenile crime. Formerly chief resident in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, he was politically progressive: When he opened a clinic in Harlem, he named it for Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law who translated portions of “Das Kapital” into French, thereby facilitating the derangement of Parisian intellectuals.

Without ever interviewing the convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg, Wertham testified on her behalf concerning what he called her “prison psychoses.” Since 1948, he had been campaigning against comic books, and his 1954 book, “Seduction of the Innocent,” which was praised by the progressive sociologist C. Wright Mills, became a bestseller by postulating a causal connection between comic books and the desensitization of young criminals: “Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry.”

Wertham was especially alarmed about the one-third of comic books that were horror comics, but his disapproval was capacious: Superman, who gave short shrift to due process in his crime-fighting, was a crypto-fascist. As for Batman and Robin, the “homoerotic tendencies” were patent.

Even before Wertham’s book appeared, a committee of New York’s legislature considered government licensing of comic-book publishers. More than a dozen states passed laws restricting sales of comic books – laws similar to the California one pertaining to video games. Some civic groups staged comic-book bonfires.

Comic-book publishers fended off such pressures by adopting a severe code of conduct. Soon even Betty and Veronica, those less-than-wanton femme fatales of the “Archie” comics, had their supposedly provocative protuberances made less so by donning looser-fitting blouses.

In 1956, fear of comic books was suddenly eclipsed by fear of Elvis Presley, whose pelvis would not be the last cause of moral panic. Pre-Presley panics had concerned ragtime music, “penny dreadful” novels, jazz, “penny theatres,” radio and movies. By 1926, seven states and at least 100 municipalities had censors who pre-screened movies. In 1940, NBC radio banned more than 140 songs that were thought to encourage, among other evils, “disrespect for virginity.” NBC would broadcast only the instrumental version of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.” Post-Presley panics about threats to children have concerned television (broadcast, then cable), rap music and the Internet.

The following decades would also see plenty of Malthusian progressives, who also brought their own uniquely puritanical streak to the ideas they attempted to foist onto society, as Brendan O’Neill writes as Spiked:

Reading an op-ed in an American newspaper last month, which argued that gay marriage should be legalised because it will help reduce overpopulation (homosexuals don’t breed, you see), I knew I had heard a similar sentiment somewhere before.‘Given the social hardships of our era, the benefits of homosexual marriage could be immeasurable’, the op-ed said. ‘Even America, though its population pales in comparison to that of other nations, is considered overpopulated because the amount of energy each of its citizens expends in a lifetime is enormous. Obviously homosexuals cannot, within the confines of a monogamous relationship, conceive offspring.’ So, legalising gay marriage would ‘indirectly limit population growth’.

Gays celebrated because they don’t have children… homosexual relationships culturally affirmed on the basis that their childlessness could help solve a planetary crisis… gay monogamy bigged up because it doesn’t involve conceiving offspring. Where had I heard such ideas before? Why did this promotion of homosexual relationships as a possible solution to the alleged problem of fertile, fecund heteros cramming the world with too many ankle-nippers sound familiar?

Then it struck me. It’s the storyline of Anthony Burgess’s Malthusian comedy-cum-nightmare, The Wanting Seed. In that 1962 dystopian novel, which I devoured during a Burgess phase in my teens, Burgess imagines a future England in which overpopulation is rife. There’s a Ministry of Infertility that tries desperately to keep a check on the gibbering masses squeezed into skyscraper after skyscraper, and it does so by demonising heterosexuality – it’s too fertile, too full of ‘childbearing lust’ – and actively promoting homosexuality.

It’s a world where straights are discriminated against because there’s nothing more disgusting and destructive than potential fertility, than a ‘full womanly figure’ or a man with ‘paternity lust’; straights are passed over for jobs and promotion in favour of homos, giving rise to a situation where some straights go so far as to pretend they are gay, adopting the ‘public skin of dandified epicene’, as Burgess describes it, in a desperate bid to make it in the world. There’s even a Homosex Institute, which runs night classes that turn people gay, all with the aim of reducing the ‘aura of fertility’ that hangs about society like a rank smell, as one official says. ‘It’s Sapiens to be Homo’ is the slogan of Burgess’s imagined world.

Now, nearly 50 years after Burgess’s novel outraged literary critics (one said it was ‘too offensive to finish’) as well as campaigners for the decriminalisation of homosexual sex (who were disgusted that Burgess could write of a homosexual tyranny while it was still illegal in Britain for one man to have sex with another), some of the sentiments of that weird invented world, of that fertility-demonising futuristic nightmare, are leaking into mainstream public debate – to the extent that a writer can claim, without igniting controversy, that ‘the benefits of homosexual marriage could be immeasurable’ in terms of dealing with the ‘social hardships’ of overpopulation. No, heteros are not discriminated against in favour of gays; there’s no Homosex Institute. But there is a creeping cultural validation of homosexuality in Malthusian terms, where the gay lifestyle is held up by some thinkers and activists as morally superior because it is less likely to produce offspring than the heterosexual lifestyle, in which every sexual encounter involves recklessly pointing a loaded gun of sperm at a willing and waiting target.

And this is not an isolated incident; Burgess is not the only imaginer of mad Malthusian worlds whose ideas have come to some kind of fruition. Such is the Malthusian tenor of our times, so deep-seated is the New Malthusian prejudice against fertility (the f-word of our era), and so widespread is the eco-view of human beings as little more than the hooverers-up of scarce resources, that bit by bit, unwittingly and unnoticed, some of the wackier authoritarian ideas of twentieth-century Malthus-infused literature are finding expression in our real world today.

But of course — note how well that passage dovetails into the Freakonomics argument on abortion that gave the amnesiac left the vapors a few years ago.

Obama and Pelosi were justifiably punished at the polls at the start of the month for ignoring the economy, and instead focusing on expanding an already leviathan government and punishing consumers via ObamaCare. But does Obama really want the economy to grow?  If so, why would he name John Holdren as his Dr. Strangelove-esque science “czar”? Holdren wrote in the early 1970s that one of his many bizarre obsessions was economic “de-development:”

“A massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States,” Holdren wrote along with Paul and Anne H. Ehrlich in the “recommendations” concluding their 1973 book Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions.

“De-development means bringing our economic system (especially patterns of consumption) into line with the realities of ecology and the global resource situation,” Holdren and the Ehrlichs wrote.

“Resources must be diverted from frivolous and wasteful uses in overdeveloped countries to filling the genuine needs of underdeveloped countries,” Holdren and his co-authors wrote. “This effort must be largely political, especially with regard to our overexploitation of world resources, but the campaign should be strongly supplemented by legal and boycott action against polluters and others whose activities damage the environment. The need for de-development presents our economists with a major challenge. They must design a stable, low-consumption economy in which there is a much more equitable distribution of wealth than in the present one. Redistribution of wealth both within and among nations is absolutely essential, if a decent life is to be provided for every human being.”

Are we not men? We are Devo! Or at least Holdren is. Or was. He’s not saying if he still holds these wacky beliefs, which we can take as a tacit assumption that he probably still does:

John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said “have a nice day” and otherwise declined to comment on Tuesday when asked about a statement he made that worldwide redistribution of wealth is “absolutely essential” in order to provide all human beings with a decent life.

But then, the sort of Malthusian environmentalism that we know Holdren still clings to has long had a Puritanical streak of its own, creating, by the early 1970s, a new breed of “Progressives Against Progress,” as Fred Siegel put it recently in City Journal:

In 1972, Sir John Maddox, editor of the British journal Nature, noted that though it had once been usual to see maniacs wearing sandwich boards that proclaimed the imminent end of the Earth, they had been replaced by a growing number of frenzied activists and politicized scientists making precisely the same claim. In the years since then, liberalism has seen recurring waves of such end-of-days hysteria. These waves have shared not only a common pattern but often the same cast of characters. Strangely, the promised despoliations are most likely to be presented as imminent when Republicans are in the White House. In each case, liberals have argued that the threat of catastrophe can be averted only through drastic actions in which the ordinary political mechanisms of democracy are suspended and power is turned over to a body of experts and supermen.

These days though, the more honest on the enviro-left are admitting that, as with Oceania in 1984, theirs is purely a power grab for its own sake, as German economist and IPCC official Ottmar Edenhofer said in the quote I linked to yesterday:

[O]ne must say clearly that we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth by climate policy. Obviously, the owners of coal and oil will not be enthusiastic about this. One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. This has almost nothing to do with environmental policy anymore, with problems such as deforestation or the ozone hole.

But what of the Big Man himself? Back in September, when Obama made what was reported as his fourth public visit to a church since taking office, I quipped, “There are No Atheists in Midterms.” And how, after his shellacking this month:

Praying and reading the Bible are part of his everyday life, President Obama said in a wide-ranging interview broadcast Friday.

Speaking with Barbara Walters, Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama also described how they involve their daughters in daily prayer.

“Michelle and I have not only benefited from our prayer life, but I think the girls have too,” the president told Walters. “We say grace before we eat dinner every night. We take turns.”

Rev. Wright could not be reached for comment. But Glenn Reynolds could, and links to an article he wrote in 2004 for England’s otherwise far left Guardian. After quoting the late Michael Kelly on the religious fervor of Hillary Clinton’s politics (a topic Jonah Goldberg would later explore in Liberal Fascism), Glenn writes:

And, actually, the roots of this do-goodism are ultimately in New England Puritanism, which had many characteristics associated with today’s left. Among them were a hostility to wealth — illustrated by sumptuary laws — a belief that the welfare of the community trumped the rights of individuals (Hillary combined both these aspects in her famous recent statement: “We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good”). Puritans favoured dense settlement in towns over spread-out farmers – they were, in a sense, the first opponents of “sprawl”.

Even the most stereotypical aspect of the Puritans is not as out of place as you might think. Puritans were, of course, notoriously hostile to sex, but the modern left has threads of those sentiments, too – witness the anti-sex screeds of Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin. In fact, Puritans, who were actually quite enthusiastic about marital sex, may actually have been less Puritanical in this regard than some modern feminists.

Not all leftwingers in the US are as frankly religious as Hillary Clinton, and many don’t even realise that the ideas that they champion have deep religious roots. But even for these people, being leftwing has itself become a sort of religion, with those who disagree viewed as sinister, almost demonic forces, rather than simply as individuals holding different views.

The language of righteousness and sin, if not that of redemption and grace, remains a hallmark of the purportedly secular left, though I find it no more attractive than the language of the religious right.

I don’t fit into the religious right or the religious left. But, in America, you don’t get to choose a major political party that does not have some sort of religious strain to it.

And it strikes me that one reason why politics in the US have become so much more bitter over the past couple of decades is that two rather different threads of religiosity have come to dominate the two major parties in distinct fashion, where each party had previously incorporated major components of both. This has turned political battles into quasi-religious ones.

Which brings us to the conclusion of Will’s op-ed this weekend:

Progressivism is a faith-based program. The progressives’ agenda for improving everyone else varies but invariably involves the cult of expertise – an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform. Progressivism’s itch to perfect people by perfecting the social environment can produce an interesting phenomenon – the Pecksniffian progressive.

Wikipedia defines Pecksniffian as “unctuously hypocritical; sanctimonious” and “Affecting benevolence or high moral principles,” but then, to borrow from the Professor’s favorite riff, they told me that if I voted for John McCain and Sarah Palin, we’d have a sternly puritanical administration in the White House — and they were right!