Birthday Party Panic and The New Puritanism

Talk about a lob over the plate. The New Republic posted a piece last week […]

David Zahl / 7.25.13

Talk about a lob over the plate. The New Republic posted a piece last week by Mark Oppenheimer entitled “The New Puritans: When Did Liberals Become So Uptight?” in which the NY Times columnist laments the rise of progressive piety–and the attendant anxiety–that one finds in blue-state circles these days. It’s an especially cogent summary of what Portlandia lampoons so well, and Oppenheimer adopts the same affectionate lighten-up attitude. But like many of the skits on that show, the insights are much broader than they might initially appear–regardless of which political filter you find most accurate and/or comfortable, the article deserves a read:

whocoverLast 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 Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics. (Today, we try to ban large cups of soda.) The second is an interest in hygiene that could be quite salutary—as when reformers pushed clean water and other public-health measures—but could also fetishize symbolic, pernicious forms of sanitation and purity, as in Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics…


Living in what some might call a hotbed of such feeling, Oppenheimer’s observations hit close to home. That is, despite Mbird fave Jonathan Haidt’s data about Purity being predominantly a value of those on the right, and as much as I love (and prefer!) my town, contamination may not be as segregated a concern as those studies indicate, i.e. you find no lack of “law” and self-righteousness on all sides of the political equation. Which jives with Haidt’s ultimate point–and one of our main hobbyhorses as well–that righteousness is a human preoccupation that transcends ideology, that everyone is religious, everyone worships, and the notion that you can escape moral condemnation by leaving church or synagogue or commune is short-sighted, to say the least.

The danger here is the same that one finds in hyper-legalistic religious communities, namely, when our righteousness fixation is left unchecked by grace/charity and married to an inflated anthropology, the inner circle of correctness can only move in the narrowing direction, with those on the inside inevitably being the most self-deceived and dangerous. The muzzled cast-outs are either forced to recalibrate their moral criteria to fit their own views/experience or wallow in their despair and cynicism (or worse). At least when a heavenly third party is involved there’s somewhere to go when the bottom falls out… and when that heavenly third party’s “property is always to have mercy”, well, that’s just icing on the gluten-free cake.

When I was little, in the 1970s and early ’80s, my parents and their left-wing friends believed—I don’t know if they would have articulated it this way, but this is what I saw—that stressing out was for conservatives. You know who got all uptight? The man. People had stress because they worked too hard; they worked too hard because capitalism forced them to; ergo, one way to resist capitalism was to relax, to take it easy, to be laid back.

…realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix. Liberalism, as the political philosopher Corey Robin has recently argued, should be above all about freedom. The best reasons to want a labor union, or universal health care, or Social Security are to be free of worry, want, and privation, and to be out from under the hand of the boss. It makes no sense to re-enslave ourselves with fear, worry, and stress. That is not liberal but reactionary. Just because Big Brother is inside us doesn’t mean he’s not still Big Brother.

It’s rather ironic that the Puritans are being invoked here. It fits in terms of the moralism involved, but when it comes to their anti-establishment bent, our pilgrim forebears represent the opposite of what Oppenheimer is describing. Seriously. The dynamics at work in that three year-old’s birthday party are not wholly dissimilar to those in the division between church and state that the Puritans held so dear. That is, when Oppenheimer was growing up thirty years ago, the liberalism in which he was raised was simply not mainstream in the way it is now; he even characterizes it as an alternative to the prevailing attitudes of the time. And as the history of church-state relations bears out, when a particular ideology–religious or not–becomes culturally “triumphant”, the tendency seems to be that whatever seeds of grace or liberty it may have originally contained are codified into agents of re-enslavement and bludgeons against those who transgress the new norm (thus our abiding affinity for a good old-fashioned witch-hunt). This is simply the impersonal nature of power, or, you might say, the power of our fallen nature–and its universality makes it no less draconian.

Some would say that this hardening effect virtually guarantees that the cycle of reaction will continue, that there will be another ebb and flow of cultural imperatives before too long, probably within our own lifetimes. Which, as ever, may be reason for hope among those currently suffering the brunt of the pendulum’s swing (and cause for trepidation among their counterparts). But… it is not enough. If there is any true hope to be found, it must lie beyond these shores, apart from such fierce ideological attachments.

So here we are again, right back at the one who came ‘not to condemn but to save’, the one who was never a part of the establishment, who gave up power for the sake of the accused, the pariahs and, yes, even the witches. You know, the Man.

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5 responses to “Birthday Party Panic and The New Puritanism”

  1. Dan Allison says:

    Wow! This and a piece on NT Wright in the same week! I might start reading you daily again if this keeps up! Good work!

    • Dan Allison says:

      Actually I would add that the “liberal” (progressive or whatever) taste for scapegoats (Paula Deen & Orson Scott Card, to name only this summer’s most famous) is quite bloodthirsty and unquenchable. And to deviate in any way whatsoever puts you right in there with Fred Phelps. The intimidation is increasing daily, and I’ve no desire to join the Phelps’ side. What’s a free-thinker to do?

  2. Tamara says:

    I thought the quotes on this site from the article were illuminating and good, but then made the mistake of reading the whole thing, which starts with the example of anti-fluoridation and anti-immunization people. There’s a big difference between being uptight/purity culture/etc about something (my child can’t have sugar, this must be organic) and worried about something that is dangerous and being forced upon you (fluoride in the drinking water). So yeah, if I had kids I might be laid-back enough to let them play in the dirt and not wash their hands, but I wouldn’t knowingly give them things I think could harm them. Some of this uptight-ness might just be parents trying to protect their children.

    I’d definitely let my kids watch Portlandia. 🙂

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