Ten Years Gone

"Oregon Fluoridation: Proof that Liberals are the New Puritans," the New Republic notes in the metatag to this article by Mark Oppenheimer:

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.

The actual headline of Oppenheimer's article is "The New Puritans: When did liberals become so uptight?" In the event that the author isn't merely speaking rhetorically, but actually wants an answer to his query, perhaps the date that this Reason magazine article by Ronald Bailey on the left's growing Dr. Strangelove-esque obsession with fluoride was published might begin to narrow things down:

In 1992, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard reprised the Covert Action story in an article for the John Birch Society-affiliated magazine The New American. In that article Rothbard wondered, "It has always been a bit of a mystery to me why left-environmentalists, who shriek in horror at a bit of Alar on apples, who cry 'cancer' even more absurdly than the boy cried 'Wolf,' who hate every chemical additive known to man, still cast their benign approval upon fluoride, a highly toxic and probably carcinogenic substance."

Of course, the answer to this conundrum is that the left couldn't oppose fluoridation because it was originally promoted as a public health measure. However, as soon as it was reframed as a "capitalist ploy," left-wingers could respectably begin to campaign against it. Fear of fluoride was on.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Green Party candidate and left-wing icon Ralph Nader came out against fluoridation. Now groups like the Sierra Club claim that there are "valid concerns" about the "potential adverse impact of fluoridation on the environment, wildlife, and human health." Often-cited "adverse health impacts" of fluoridated water include bone cancer, depressed thyroid function, lowered IQ, weakened bones, and discolored teeth. As the perpetual unscientific environmentalist campaigns against trace amounts of synthetic chemicals show, the left is now the political tendency most desperately afraid of impurifying our precious bodily fluids.

In May 2000, the ideological environmentalist opposition to fluoridation got a further boost with the formation of the Fluoride Action Network (FAN). FAN founders include such alarmist luminaries as the late David Brower (former Sierra Club executive director and founder of Friends of the Earth), Teddy Goldsmith (founding editor of The Ecologist), Gar Smith (Earth Island Institute), and Terri Swearingen (Ohio anti-incineration activist).

That's from "'Impurifying our precious bodily fluids' -- Fear of fluoridation takes a left turn," which, as you might have guessed from the years listed in the above passage, was published in Reason in December of 2001, well over a decade ago.

More on the puritanical left, right after our profit-induced page break.