“Puritan Progressive” Parents are Neither Puritans nor Progressives. Discuss.

Neither Puritans nor Progressives should be tarred with association with today’s hygiene obsessed yupsters parents

Mark Oppenheimer’s critique of hygiene-obsessed parents who are scared of immunization, processed food, non-organic anything and the alleged over-sugarization of children kicked off a long, engaging set of comments on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish about the “Puritanism of Progressive Parents”. It all makes for stimulating reading, but the basic framing is I believe unfair both to Puritans and Progressives.

Here’s Oppenheimer:

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.

The Puritans compete with the Victorians for being the chief whipping boys of lazy historical analyses like these, which source current moralistic views to long-dead people who in fact believed something quite different. The Puritans generally opposed Prohibition of alcohol, specifically because it would be an unfair denial of pleasure. Indeed, no less a Puritan figure than Increase Mather called alcohol a “good creature of God” (For those who want to know more about how different Christian sects view alcohol, let me put a plug in here for the scholarly work of my friend Rev. Dr. Chris Cook).

The other reason that the parents Oppenheimer quite appropriately derides should not be called Puritans is captured in the old saw that “The Puritans went to America for the freedom to practice their faith and to force other people to practice it too”. A Puritan would be delighted to meet a fellow member of the faithful, but that is not what I see in these parents. If they are vegetarian and meet another vegetarian, they are unhappy and commit to becoming a vegan. If they then meet another vegan, they become unhappy and commit to becoming an ovo-lactic vegan. They don’t want other people to share faith in a community of peers, they want to outrank their lessers within a hierarchy.

This is also why they are not truly liberal or progressive. They are not trying to save the world, they are trying to get an edge in life for themselves and for little Hayden and Sawyer too. Oppenheimer hits this point well, when he upends his own initial characterization of these parents as progressives:

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.

Rather than surrender the terms liberal or progressive so easily to the domain of lifestyle and shallow issues of personal identity, I suggest we let those terms retain their political meaning by not describing panicky, entitled, hierarchy-obsessed, materialistic strivers as “liberals”. Likewise, let’s not throw theology and history to the side and call them “Puritans” either. If we need a shorthand term for them, I suggest that someone with literary skill invent an entirely new one, as long it isn’t very polite.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

16 thoughts on ““Puritan Progressive” Parents are Neither Puritans nor Progressives. Discuss.”

  1. I can’t resist plugging H.L. Mencken’s wonderful description that “Puritanism is the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having fun.”

  2. By analogy with “tiger mother”, we probably want to name these parents after a solitary predator that is native to the US (like this behaviour) and widely seen as cute and furry rather than noble and dangerous. Unfortunately “mama grizzlies” is already taken.

      1. Weasel parents?

        What annoys me about the antivax thing in particular is the way that the parents rely on the rest of us to keep getting vaccinated. They’re freeloaders.

  3. The New England Puritans were also as much in favour of (conjugal) sex as Orthodox Jews. According to religious historian Stephen Prothero of Boston U:

    New England’s Puritans disciplined church members who refused to have sex with their wives, including one James Mattock, excommunicated from his church in Boston in 1640 because he “denied conjugal fellowship unto his wife” for two years.
    These passionate Pilgrims also allowed women to sue for divorce if their husbands were unable to satisfy them sexually.

  4. Yeah, yeah, the anti-fluoridation movement is stupid. But Oppenheimer’s column just seems to use that as a launching pad for yet another entry in the genre of “ha ha, stupid parents nowadays are ruining their kids”. It’s a genre that never grows old, apparently.

    And Keith in turn accepts Oppenheimer’s characterization of his (real? imaginary? exaggerated?) subjects, because Keith wants to interject a point about the ahistorical conception of Puritanism in modern discourse, or something like that. Along the way, he manages to stomp on the parents a few times himself, just to show that he’s not one of “them”, he’s a good guy who just wants to stick up for the Puritans.

    Maybe it’s just me, but this doesn’t seem like the RBC’s finest hour.

    1. “the parents Oppenheimer quite appropriately derides […] They don’t want other people to share faith in a community of peers, they want to outrank their lessers within a hierarchy. […] they are trying to get an edge in life for themselves and for little Hayden and Sawyer too.

      Where does that come from? You’re psychoanalyzing people you don’t know via somebody else’s story about meeting them at a birthday party.

      If we’re going to speculate about why Hypothetical Nervous Mom was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, the reason likely has more to do with the fact that Mom has spent the past five years being bombarded with unsolicited advice from strangers, half of whom are upbraiding her for contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic and the other half of whom are scowling at her for spoiling her daughter with sweets when she ought to be spanked and sent to bed with a bowl of gruel.

      It’s true that Hypothetical Nervous Mom may also want to give her daughter “an edge in life” but my impression is that this has been true of parents since time immemorial, for reasons that ought to be obvious. Where Keith gets his certainty that HNM doesn’t have any socially redeeming qualities that might make up for this relatively forgivable failing I’m not sure. In my experience toddler birthday parties are not the best setting for illuminating a person’s attitudes about social justice, particularly when the birthday party in question is being interpreted second-hand via an interlocutor who seems rather hostile towards the people in question.

    2. (real? imaginary? exaggerated?) subjects
      Have you ever lived in Park Slope? You wouldn’t need to ask.

  5. Calling them “Puritans” might be doing a disservice to the Mather boys, et al., but the issue is still purity. Maybe lower-case “puritans” is more accurate. These puritans worry that external impurities might invade the body. As Gen. Ripper explained to Col. Mandrake regarding fluoridation, “A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual.” (FWIW, I had a blog post about today’s anti-fluoridationists here.) The puritan obsession with maintaining absolute and rigid boundaries can apply not just to the body but to thought as well. So puritans spend much energy looking for rooting out doctrinal impurities.
    The new puritans would deny being anti-pleasure (“Mmm — these carob-and-wheat-grass cupcakes are just heavenly”), but to outsiders, it doesn’t look like much fun.

  6. I recently purchased a small bag of potato chips at a deli and noticed on the back the advertisement that they were “gluten-free”. One would think!

  7. Eli, read the ingredients on Pringles.
    What this was was a smart marketer who realized that they could put a tag on their package pointing out already existing qualities. It’s only abusive when it get abusive (I’ve seen a label on jelly beans – ‘Fat Free!’).

  8. “It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!” –George Orwell, 1936

  9. I commented at the cross-post at the Washington Monthly, but I’ll repeat here:

    The acclaimed novelist Marilynne Robinson, someone with literary skill, uses the old English word “prig.” See her essay on just this subject, “Puritans and Prigs.”

  10. Most of the young progressives I knew in graduate school did, in fact, pursue liberalism as a kind of one-upmanship. Any discussion of contemporary issues seemed to devolve into a competition to espouse the most radically left-wing view in the room, as a means of seizing the moral high ground. This probably had more to do with immaturity than progressivism per se, but I don’t think the competitive instinct so aptly identified above is as foreign to progressivism as the author suggests.

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