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.