Transcript: Noah Rothman
My interview with the author of The Rise of the New Puritans
The American journalist H. L. Mencken once said that “puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” This comment resonates now more than ever, with the emergence of a new sanctimonious, humourless movement that targets all of the things that make life most worth living, from sports and comedy to art and food and special occasions.
My guest on the podcast argues that history will likely not remember these “woke” zealots well — and that, at the heart of their movement, there is a deep distrust of humanity.
Noah Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary Magazine. He’s also the author of The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Noah, welcome to Lean Out.
NR: Thank you so much for having me.
TH: Wonderful to have you on. The book is entertaining, it is funny, and it really does such a wonderful job of illustrating how everything has become so politicized — from comedy, and sports, and video games, and car culture, to gardening, knitting, fashion, alcohol, apple pie, yogurt. It’s a bit staggering to see it all laid out in one place. To start, talk to me about the conversation with your wife that was the seed of this book.
NR: Sure. Probably around late fall of 2020 — early winter, late fall — I was absolutely miserable. And I imagine quite a lot of people were similarly vexed by the conditions that were dominant at the time, if you were a news consumer. The pandemic was still raging, and there was quite a lot of social upheaval around the pursuit of racial rapprochement. Every institution in America, and perhaps even Canada, was re-conceptualizing the American founding as something rather horrid. It was a sad time to be steeped in the news cycle and I wanted to get out of it, do something to restore my faith in my chosen profession.
I’m talking to my wife about what I would do if I had the opportunity — and I would talk to people in businesses and creative enterprises that I enjoy. People who make food for a living, show runners, comics, sports broadcasters, and the like. But no, no, no, no. Because all of it is political. There’s no getting away from politics. Politics has infected every aspect of society. Even perhaps especially those that are apolitical and have almost nothing to do with legislative affairs or electoral outcomes. And she says, “That’s the book.”
And eventually it was. It took a little bit to get a unifying, thematic element to it — which was the puritanical aspect of all this and how it relates to American puritanism as it evolved into American progressivism. But initially, the premise for the book was: Why is everything that’s supposed to be fun not anymore?
TH: That’s something thing that I definitely relate to. I want to tease a few of the threads of the new Puritan movement. But first, set this up for us. For listeners who don’t know a lot about this history, what is a brief snapshot of the beliefs of the older Puritans in America?
NR: Well, I suppose it would be helpful to approach this from a more modern lens. Because the Puritans, the “big P” Puritans, get a really bad rap in American culture. The Puritans that existed in the 1600s, and the 1700s, do not much resemble our stereotypes when we envision what Puritans of that period believe. What we really go back to are stereotypes about the moral policing efforts of the mid 19th century — mostly progressives. But not progressives in the way we mean it today, as in left of centre. Social reformers, essentially. And the comstockery that accompany that movement.
“Big P” Puritans, while they get a bad rap, did have some instrumental beliefs that are apparent today in the modern progressive movement. Chief among them, I suppose, is a hatred and a fear of idleness — that which is not actively promoting the social project at the time. At the time, puritanical values. Today, the modern progressive project. It is not just instrumentally useless, but actively detrimental to the cause and to the promotion of a more virtuous society.
So the Puritans, “big P” Puritans — much like their modern progenitors — cannot abide art that exists only for the sake of promoting itself, promoting beauty. That is not an instrumental contribution to the project of our time. Things that get a bit of dispensation, are, for example: portraiture, making statues, creating furniture. You know, the work of craftsmen. It gets a pass because it communicates to future generations that which the powers that be believe needs to be taught for posterity. To communicate modern conditions, to communicate modern values and virtues, that has a purpose. That has a use. And we see reflections of that in how modern progressive activists approach art today.
For example, big entertainment companies like Disney need to introduce plodding, didactic narratives that communicate to the audience the virtues that they believe need to be taught to them — whether or not that advances a plot. Even to the extent that it could lead you to drop out of the narrative, to stop suspending disbelief. Which is a crime, an artistic crime. But it’s necessary today to make sure that these rather frivolous diversions are an instrumental and productive contribution to the promotion of a virtuous society. The modern Puritans would absolutely see in the earliest Puritans the exact same imperative, although with different objectives in mind.
TH: This is where we see the instructions all the time of “do the work, do the work.” I want to go through a few striking examples from the book. I want to start with food. The implosion of the food world has been particularly mind-boggling to me, because that is often where I went for my own pleasure and diversion. You have an example from Toronto in the book. You write about the former Toronto Star editor, Evy Kwong, calling out this pop up-bone broth bar for cultural appropriation. This did cause the leisurewear store to cut ties with this micro-business — in the middle of a pandemic, I would add. How does this example illustrate the broader trends of what you’re writing about when it comes to food?
NR: Yeah, so this was one of a handful of examples in the beginning of this chapter, which is dedicated to prudence. Essentially all the chapters are organized by unimpeachable values. Because there is a valuable moral code informing what is otherwise — just to look at it as an anecdote — something absolutely manic. But in this particular episode, yeah, this athleisure store was selling Asian foods, super food, bone broth, wellness products, what have you. And Ms. Kwong called them out for cultural appropriation, for commodifying Asian culture, and cheapening it to some degree or another. Which is a very subjective exercise. But not entirely valueless. However, it’s very much akin to similar episodes.
For example, I talk about in the Portland, Oregon area, this burrito truck that was hounded out of existence. Not for being bad or appropriative, or careless with the food it was making, but for being good. The proprietors of this particular institution were feted by its reviewers. They had gone down to Mexico, got these recipes, came back. Nobody in Mexico had said they had stolen anything from them. But they were accused of that primarily because their race — they were white. And the thing that the locals loved had to be destroyed in the name of this particular belief system.
Likewise, a very popular restaurant in Chicago called Fat Rice. The proprietor of that institution was hounded out of his chosen career, in part because of this manic pursuit of racial rapprochement that arose in 2020. For some reason, this Asian fusion restaurant had been accused of blending cultures, mixing cultures. Taking from Black identities, for example. Even though the restaurant’s theme was based on food and cuisine from the Hong Kong area, from the Macau area.
All of this is informed by a particular worldview that believes your ability to deprive yourself of something good and satisfying — sort of elementally satisfying — is an indication of your commitment to the cause, of your zealotry. Of your capacity to contort yourself more viscerally, and in ways that communicate to the people around you your zealotry. And that’s very much a religious impulse. We see quite a lot of this. In this chapter on food, it’s how activists in this world, who are obsessed with cultural appropriation, whatever that may be — they expand the definition of what that constitutes to capture as many experiences that are satisfying, viscerally, as possible. And deemphasize the pleasure that you might take in them. For example, there’s a digression in this chapter about eating insects. Not because they taste good, but because you perceive yourself to be contributing to a social benefit, to the mitigation of climate change. In fact, taste, if you were to bring it into the equation, kind of makes this a rather trite experience. The transcendental experience you should be having here is your contribution to the promotion of a better society. And there’s a reason why this chapter on food also accompanies a chapter on comedy.
It’s because the ribald laugh that escapes your gut, the Epicurean meal that delivers this sense of satisfaction, the sigh you let escape your mouth after you’ve indulged in this experience — your body betrays you when you experience these satisfying moments. This is not an intellectual experience. The laugh, the satisfying meal, none of this is an intellectual exercise. In fact, it’s ungoverned by the intellect. And that’s very dangerous if you’re afraid of people’s instincts, of impulses — that everything needs to be governed, and tempered, and moderated by social forces that keep you in your place. That’s the sort of thing that the modern Puritan cannot abide. And so, I agree. And I thank you for that setup because it’s a very illustrative example of this particular worldview and how it manifests.
TH: I’m glad you brought up comedy. I was really interested to read that section. Comedy is another thing that I’ve covered a lot on this podcast. Why is the battle for comedy, in particular, so significant to progressive activists?
NR: I mean, it’s not a new observation, but there’s nothing more subversive than that which you are allowed to laugh at. I use the word “allowed” in a very deliberate fashion here. Because there is an effort underway to trivialize and stigmatize the frivolity of the punchline. You see quite a bit of this. There’s two aspects of this. The first, on the part of the more puritanically-inclined comedy consumer, is to emphasize the pain that somebody underwent in order for you to enjoy something as frivolous as a laugh. One particularly popular anti-comic among this cohort is Australia’s Hannah Gadsby, who is funny when she wants to be. But she doesn’t always want to be.
Sometimes she will pull back from her comedy act, and build the same tension that would otherwise lead to a punchline, that gives you the release of the laugh. But she won’t allow you the release. She’ll just build the tension and then just let you marinate in it. Or she’ll circle back to the punchline she said a couple of minutes ago, that you laughed at, and ask you why you laughed. “Was the pain I experienced back then really all that funny? What does that say about your sense of humour?”
This is what really enlivens the puritanically-inclined progressive activist. They appreciate the pain far more than the laugh. As just about every review that I cited in this book attests. They don’t enjoy the laugh; they enjoy the discomfort. Couple that with a significant condescension on the part of the puritanically-inclined progressive — towards audiences — who do not believe that you can be exposed to the casual humourizing of these painful experiences. Which is sort of a staple of dark humour.
One particular individual who I cite in order to justify this claim — illustrate this claim — is a guy named Seth Simons who wrote an essay in The New Republic, in which he traces the establishment of the alt-right, the inception of the alt-right. And draws a straight line between that inception date and the January 6th riots — and a form of humour that was popular in the early 2000s called cringe. It leverages unspeakable stuff for humour: racism, sexism, violence, what have you. Again, this is dark humour.
Simons isn’t afraid that the comics on stage lampooning these behaviours are going to go out and act them out. They’re not going to go down to the subway after they get off stage and assault someone. They don’t think that. But they think you might. They’re not sure about you. You are a little suspect.
So, this kind of condescension towards audiences, coupled with this fear of and hatred of comedy that isn’t instrumental — that isn’t advancing the progressive project — has given us a movement that is just genuinely hostile towards carefree, flip, frivolous entertainment. The laugh is something that’s very subversive and they’re afraid of what you might laugh at. And then what you might be willing to do because the power of these institutions can’t make you stop laughing.
TH: I want to also take a moment to talk about sex. Because the progressive ... and I should say, I come from progressive circles. But the progressive attitudes towards sex have been really puzzling to me. On the one hand, you have progressive activists wanting to smash all cultural norms for sexual conduct and have this complete sexual freedom for all. But on the other hand, someone putting an unwelcome hand on your knee is meant to be really upsetting — and this takes an almost Victorian view of this need to protect women. You really helped clear up this contradiction for me. I want to read this passage, “The thread that connects 17th century Puritanism, the strait-laced moralists of the 19th century, and the new Puritans of a 21st century, isn’t a strict ethical code governing proper sexual relations. It is a belief that carnal pleasures can’t just be enjoyable, they must serve a greater political purpose.” Can you unpack that?
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