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The New Puritans

When did liberals become so uptight?

When I read last month that voters in Portland, Oregon, had defeated a bill that would have fluoridated their drinking water, I was reminded of my first experience with an anti-fluoridation wacko. Jeffrey lived three houses down from me when I was a child. He was in his forties, lived at home with his mother, and did not work. I suppose that today he would be diagnosed as a highly functioning autistic. He was bright but very awkward. He liked my father, because my father was an intellectual, a lawyer, and a fellow Jew, and was kind to him. But whenever Jeffrey would walk away from our house, after my father had refused to sign another one of his anti-fluoride petitions, my father would close the door and sigh and explain that Jeffrey was insane.

Jeffrey’s politics tended toward Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, the gold standard, and, on an especially bad day, Lyndon LaRouche. It was taken for granted in my house—and if any proof was needed, Jeffrey was—that only right-wingers were mad enough to oppose scientifically tested public-health measures. Only right-wingers would sacrifice children’s health to their own psycho-political neuroses. Besides, liberals fought important enemies, like war and poverty. Not fluoridation.

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.

I have no interest here in re-hashing arguments about what sugar, caffeine, or dirt can do to our children. I have never read the studies, and I have stopped reading articles about new studies, since somewhere between the birth of daughter #2 and daughter #3 I settled on a parenting philosophy that I hereby designate the Modified Aristotle: All things in moderation, except at birthday parties and when the kids are with their grandparents. When I was a child, birthday parties involved cake, ice cream, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza, or pizza-like substance; and trips to the grandparents’ house involved root-beer floats and late-night viewings of Benny Hill with my grandfather, who liked the T&A humor. I never washed my hands before I ate. And I turned out splendidly.

Every last one of these Puritan parents’ all-natural concerns could have some merit. But I am interested in a different question: Even if we assume that you can marginally increase your child’s health by doing this, that, and the Whole Foods other, at what point do the marginal benefits get canceled out by the stress of worrying all the time?

I am totally serious. We know from research—which I have read—that stress increases the risk of various ailments, including cardiovascular disease. And sociologists have shown that children thrive best when they live with two parents in a low-conflict marriage. So it follows that if concerns about our children’s health cause the children stress, or if they become a source of conflict between the parents, they may actually be counterproductive. Imagine a family in which a germ-phobic father constantly interrogates little Milo about washing his hands, and a more laissez-faire mother belittles the father for being such a worrywart. Is it ridiculous to suspect that Milo’s emotional and physical health may be imperiled more by the hand-washing conflict than by actual dirty hands?

If I were only worried about the contagious stress that permeates birthday parties, there would be an easy solution: skip birthday parties. As it is, half the invitations our children get for parties at bounce barns and bowling alleys go mysteriously missing; there’s no way we are going to give over every weekend to toddler birthdays. But it is not quite as simple as just avoiding the Puritans. They are, I believe, hurting more than just themselves and their children. They are also damaging our political culture.

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.

Of course, there are plenty of conservative parents who worry too much about what their children eat, and there are plenty of conservatives who are morally censorious, dislike fun, and like prohibiting things. But I expect better of liberals. 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. 

So my friends and I got to eat take-out from McDonald’s and dinner from Domino's, not every day, but maybe once a week. Why? Because our parents didn’t want to cook all the time. My mother and her friends did cook—and their husbands often didn’t—but they didn’t exalt cooking as some sort of progressive act. They didn’t pretend they could express a radical political sensibility by eating local. Their political stand was different: They cooked less, refusing to believe it was their job to stay home all day preparing a nutritious meal for their families. To order Domino’s and not worry about it was a feminist act. Many of the mothers didn’t work outside the home, but if ordering Domino’s freed them up to attend their monthly women’s group or grab a cup of tea at Friendly’s, that was fine. Making time for themselves was reason enough to serve their kids junk food for a night. Making time for themselves was also a political act.

Between the heyday of Progressive reform and our current Puritan moment, there was another possibility on the left: the hippie ethos of not worrying so much. Not a particularly refined political philosophy, I grant you. “Not worrying” could be a synonym for indifference, and I am not suggesting a return to the dropout cynicism that characterized so much of the Nixon-era counterculture. Furthermore, I am well aware that “laid-back parenting” can quickly devolve into oxymoron—recall the famous scene near the end of Joan Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” in which we meet a five-year-old tripping on acid: “The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me she is in High Kindergarten.” For a year, her mother has been plying her with acid and peyote.

I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons. First, thinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

But more important, 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.