Years ago at a wedding reception, we assembled guests were given small herbs to take home and transplant, as some sort of metaphor for the newlyweds’ blossoming future. Trying to make conversation with the tablemates I would likely never see again, I commented that I probably should abstain from this ritual, given my brown thumb.
“Oh no,” a concerned woman in her 50s sternly told me. “That’s not something we say anymore. We say ‘purple thumb’ instead.”
The marriage in question has since withered, as presumably have most of the plants given away that day. Yet this exchange remains vivid in my mind, in particular the gravity my lecturer showed in chastising me for an act of verbal bigotry only cognizable to those with the most finely attuned sense for it.
This sensibility has gone from a niche fetish among a certain set at the vanguard of what was then called political correctness to a widely held enthusiasm among American progressives. And it is this mindset that Noah Rothman details and skewers in “The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun,” which will be published by Broadside on July 5. While the phenomenon Rothman describes (and many of the stories he recounts) will be familiar to partisans or observers of our culture war, his is perhaps the first book to place the illiberal progressive zeitgeist within the broader sweep of American social history and to offer prescriptions to expedite its demise.
Progressives, Not Liberals
Too many writers and pundits, especially on the right, use the words “progressive” and “liberal” more or less interchangeably to describe the strain of new-orthodox thinking that Rothman documents. This is a grievous mistake that Rothman himself avoids, to his great credit.
The divide between left-liberals and progressives is enormous in terms of intellectual influence, social impact and method; Rothman trains his fire on the latter group, or rather on a particular “humorless and totalitarian” “New Puritan” sect contained therein. While Rothman doesn’t specify what percentage of Americans fits this profile (one recent estimate puts it in the single digits), it’s clear that the group is a tiny minority within American politics, albeit one that has cowed many of its potential critics into silence.
In Rothman’s convincing framing, this intellectual trend is much greater than a mere matter of “secular faith.” Rather, he argues, “what we are seeing is the rehabilitation of an all-encompassing code of social conduct that transcends politics and religious practice.” This is the New Puritanism in a nutshell.
While often confused with Victorians in the popular imagination, American Puritans believed in “utopianism and [a] messianic mission” that was not just a religious expression; rather, “the constellation of ideas to which the faithful were beholden was not solely theological.” The Puritans who set up shop in the New World in the 17th century were intent on creating what Puritan leader John Winthrop famously called (alluding to the Sermon on the Mount) a “city upon a hill.” Theirs was a movement of what today is called “moral clarity,” which required the credible threat of significant punishment to deter deviance not just in religious practice but in all aspects of life.
Today, the liberal left, classical liberals, centrists, libertarians and conservatives recoil with horror at the moralizing of the small number of progressives who zealously prosecute a war against all aspects of our society that don’t toe their ever-evolving moral lines. Rothman argues that such impulses have a long pedigree in American history—and such movements tend to sow the seeds of their own undoing.
Criticizing the Method, Not the Mission
If it’s not already clear, Rothman doesn’t use “Puritan” as an insult. Indeed, he praises the virtues of a project that “brought into existence our experiment in self-government, the abolition of slavery, and a social contract that ensures society’s most vulnerable are not dependent upon charity alone in their darkest hours.” Rothman is similarly charitable when discussing the ends of the New Puritans; he notes that “the modern progressive project is, in the abstract, devoted to promoting goals and ideals to which few would object.” The problems lie in the specifics of those goals—and the means which the New Puritans use to enact them.
Rothman acutely critiques these means, especially the totalizing approach wherein nothing is outside the purview of the self-appointed cultural arbiters, and the goal is not just to change public policy and political life but to fundamentally refashion society. As with their prerevolutionary brethren, the New Puritans perhaps have noble or at least defensible impulses, but their totalizing approach is antithetical to the liberal constitutional and epistemic traditions of the United States.
Analysis of this approach—wherein everything is political and nothing is outside the New Puritan project—is the meat of Rothman’s book. It is divided into chapters on the Puritan virtues and their modern applications: Piety (arts and literature), Prudence (food), Austerity (sports and fashion), Fear of God (hobbies and holidays), Temperance (alcohol and sex) and Order (parenting and family life). Note that these subjects are not about politics, rightly understood. Rather, they’re subjects that exist a priori politics and go to the heart of the human experience.
Moreover, as the book’s subtitle indicates, many of these subjects are the loci of a great deal of fun—even whimsy!—which makes them targets of the New Puritans. In their view, at a minimum, these pursuits fail to advance the goals of the new society they seek to build, and in some cases run against the demands of that society altogether. While politics has no doubt been in the background of all these topics since time immemorial, the New Puritans have put politics front and center so that things as seemingly benign as fly fishing or burritos are imbued with world-historic, symbolic import.
A Society Without Dissent
A key problem with the New Puritanism—like the Puritanism of old—is that its totalizing impetus is incompatible with a pluralistic, liberal society, which demands that we separate public life from private life and people from ideas. Further, a pluralistic society means that domains of knowledge and practice such as food, the arts, literature, music, pastimes and private lives exist for their own sake and not as handmaidens of a political agenda—or in the case of the New Puritans, something that is much larger than mere politics. Puritanism brooks no dissent; liberalism is meaningless without it.
Seeing, for instance, visual arts or comedy strictly through the lens of total politics is the way to madness at best, totalitarianism at worst. Plus, a life where beauty and transcendence (not to mention humor) can’t exist for their own sake is a joyless existence. But, as Rothman writes, “if the evils the progressive project seeks to extirpate are ubiquitous, there can be no boundary separating public and private life.”
Rothman’s nuanced analysis allows him to avoid the pitfalls that would trap a less gifted or more polemical writer. From the outset, he notes that the enforcement of intellectual and cultural homogeneity has long been the province of the American right and that joyful dissenters were found primarily on the left. Rothman is careful to distinguish the New Left that came from the 1960s, which at least in matters of social affairs proclaimed a live-and-let-live attitude, from the intellectual precursors of today’s progressives. The latter include, for instance, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine McKinnon, whose adventures in left-wing illiberalism were addressed contemporaneously by Jonathan Rauch’s “Kindly Inquisitors.”
Nor does Rothman fall into the conservative trap of decrying all changes in social mores or attempts to reckon with, for instance, racial disparities in American society. To the contrary, he applauds efforts like those of Turner Classic Movies’ “Reframed Classics” series to show unedited films of historical and artistic importance but place them in context, for instance through panel discussions appearing after the film.
“If there is a right way to navigate the panic that has overtaken the entertainment industry,” Rothman writes with acerbic wit, “surely this is it. Only the most zealous cultural auditors could take issue with this approach. Unfortunately, our national discourse is arbitrated by zealous cultural auditors.”
It’s worth noting that these cultural auditors, in addition to being self-appointed, by and large create very little. Rather, they train their fire on the people who are creating and building in the U.S. economy and society: small business owners, professional associations, journalists, artists, entertainers, teachers, researchers, nonprofit organizations, parents and beyond. Those who are building and maintaining fundamental cultural and economic institutions are judged and jeered from the sidelines. Creating or building a firm, a publication, a body of work or a restaurant takes talent, hard work and perseverance; firing off a few tweets tearing down someone else’s creation does not. Society would do just fine without these arbiters of the bien pensant; it would collapse without the targets of the New Puritans’ ire.
Escaping New Puritanism
So what is to be done? Rothman argues that, as the New Puritans demand “the sacrifice of spontaneity, risk, frivolity, and carefree joy,” the best response is to live a joyful life and mock those who insist otherwise. He points out that a backlash against the excesses of New Puritanism is already brewing, one that mirrors Puritanism’s past. High Puritanism was eventually undone, Rothman writes, by flourishing commercial society, immigration of non-Puritans, religious toleration and a newfound revulsion at the excesses of the Puritan project, most notably the slaughter of the Salem witch trials. In other words, the hallmarks of a liberal pluralist society won out.
Similarly, the Comstock laws of the 19th century were undone when “‘Banned in Boston’ evolved from a warning against the consumption of impure thought to a powerful advertisement for it”; today, Rothman argues, “Banned from Facebook” has a similar cachet. Indeed, he wishes this fate for himself: “It is this author’s fondest hope that someone will try to cancel this book. Its critics will have drawn blood. Its fans will have all their worst suspicions confirmed about their enemies. And its writer will be well compensated. Everyone wins.” Rothman is being sardonic, but one would be hard pressed to come up with a pithier description of the New Puritan grievance-industrial complex.
The New Puritans have also overplayed the idea famously articulated by Andrew Breitbart that “politics is downstream of culture.” Regardless of the merits of this claim, the ability of a cultural revolution to instantiate itself in our politics is limited by American political tradition and constitutional order (as stretched and stressed as those have been in this century). “Political activism, fully apprehended, is not a transcendental experience,” Rothman notes. “The work of politics in the United States is never going to be emancipatory.” Cultural Jacobinism simply does not map onto the American political order—by design, and for good reason. Big political changes take a long time; the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs, for instance, was the result of two generations of intellectual and political work by the anti-abortion movement.
Today, bookshelves sag under the weight of tomes written by critics of anti-pluralistic, illiberal political movements gaining traction on the right, as well as by historians of the dour and judgmental strands of thought that ran through much of the 20th century’s social conservative movement. By exploring and analyzing the new threats to liberalism from the totalitarian corners of extreme progressivism, Rothman does a great service for readers trying to make sense of a movement that feels foreign to those of us who grew up steeped in late 20th-century American liberalism. It turns out that illiberal ideas about perfecting society through a totalizing politics and intellectual monoculture have a uniquely American genesis.
Beyond the book’s arguments, Rothman’s witty prose and excellent storytelling make “The Rise of the New Puritans” a joy to read. And what better way to take on the New Puritans than by critiquing the yoke they wish to fasten to all of us—and have some fun in the process?