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Our Puritanical Progressives

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!