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Bug-Eaters and Thought-Policers
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Bug-Eaters and Thought-Policers

How puritanical zeal—on both the left and the right—can turn into totalitarianism.


So, I just finished a podcast with Commentary’s Noah Rothman, author of the great new book The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun. Here’s an enjoyable excerpt which covers, among other things, a great peeve of mine: the crusade to get me to eat bugs. 

As Noah lays out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating bugs. Lots of people around the world do it. Personally, I think lobsters are just giant bugs—which is why I prefer not to have the whole critters on my plate. The main problem with the effort to get everyone to eat bugs is not that it’s wrong, it’s that people want you to do it for political or ideological reasons. It’s all about “saving the world” because traditional meat consumption is bad for the climate (see: cows, farts).

The giveaway, Noah notes, is that the people most passionate about the need to replace beef with beetles rarely put much thought into selling bugs as yummy. Taste is an afterthought at best. The whole point of making people eat bugs is to save the world and imbue in the bug-eaters a sense of righteous sacrifice. “For the New Puritans,” Noah writes, “a smug sense of self-satisfaction is the most delicious dish of all.”

But it’s not just the self-satisfaction, it’s also the domination. Getting other people to bend to your will is one of the great, sinful joys. When I was a kid, a favorite pastime of bullies was getting weaklings to ingest bugs, but also dog food, cat food, dirt, paper, yellow snow, Life cereal, and, of course, liquids that definitely weren’t Mello Yello.

For totalitarian and authoritarian movements, forced eating is a time-honored form of humiliation and degradation. And for plenty of revolutionary, utopian, technocratic, and puritanical movements, getting people to bend their diets to the needs of the cause or the state is commonplace. During the “war socialism” phase of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential tenure, Herbert Hoover served as the head of the Food Administration and imposed all sorts of rationing programs. Agents of the state would knock on doors exhorting people to observe various “Wheatless Wednesdays” or “Meatless Mondays.” “When in doubt,” they instructed citizens, “eat potatoes.” “Supper,” Hoover complained, “is one of the worst pieces of extravagance that we have in this country.”

Puritans and puritanism.

One of my minor disagreements with Noah is that I think he puts too much emphasis on the legacy of Puritanism in today’s “when in doubt eat bugs” mindset. I think the term “puritanical” is not merely fine, but correct. But I don’t think today’s puritanical zeal stems from our capital-P Puritan heritage as much as he does. I think it plays a role at the margins, but harkening back to the dudes on the oatmeal boxes is more useful as analogy than as intellectual dot-connecting.

That’s because exhortations to get with the program are baked into the cake with all totalitarian, holistic, salvific movements. I should clarify that when I say “totalitarian,” I don’t necessarily mean brutal, dictatorial regimes. Benito Mussolini, who coined the term, didn’t mean it with the Orwellian connotation it has justifiably taken on. He meant it more like “holistic,” “all-inclusive,” or “unified.” “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state”—also coined by Mussolini—was supposed to be a good thing: We’re all in it together! The “state” is just another word for the things we do together!

What began as “totalism” became “totalitarianism” when totalism was given free reign.

Hoover’s hatred of supper didn’t stem from a dictatorial desire to govern every aspect of everybody’s life, it stemmed from a progressive engineer’s obsession with subordinating every other consideration to winning the war. While we can debate whether World War I was a worthy justification for such a mindset, we can all recognize that sometimes such a mindset is justifiable. Imagine Will Smith’s character in Independence Day saying, “I’ll get to fighting the invaders in a little bit. I gotta wipe out the top score on Donkey Kong first.”

The whole point of the moral equivalent of war approach to politics is to get everyone to drop what they’re doing, stop pursuing their individual wants and desires, and get in line. The more totalitarian the movement, the less likely it is to stop at merely policing behavior. Policing thought becomes imperative.

All movements, faiths, and revolutionary -isms are highly susceptible to this kind of thinking, because our brains are predisposed to it. And the more totalitarian they are, the deeper into society and psychology the leaders want to go. I struggle to think of a non-liberal ideology or faith that hasn’t descended into this kind of radicalism at one point or another. Obviously, there’s a rich history of various Marxist regimes and movements declaring all sorts of habits, behaviors, statements, etc. as “counter-revolutionary” crimes. Whole scientific disciplines were crushed because they contradicted Soviet dogma. Pavlik Morosov was a Soviet saint-martyr because he allegedly turned in his own parents for subversive behavior when he was 13. “Bourgeoise” thinking alone was enough to get you sent to the Gulag or the firing squad.

But while I’d definitely argue that this sort of thing is inherent to Soviet ideology, it’s hardly unique to it. Various Islamist sects—the Taliban and ISIS come most readily to mind—have a puritanical zeal that would cause Cotton Mather to say, “Whoa, slow your roll.” Owning dogs, watching cartoons, etc. are, according to some puritanical Islamists, “un-Islamic.” Pre-Puritan Christianity has plenty of examples of puritanical excesses. Some early Protestants were as fond of smashing idols and burning paintings as the early Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia centuries later. And all of them did a great deal of smashing and burning of people too.

Mind the mind-policing.

Now, I’ve probably done a disservice to the reader and to my intended point. The new Puritans don’t do anything so evil. They may be bullies, but they are, for the most part, non-violent ones. Some of them might say that using the phrase “biological women”—or even allowing it to be published in the New York Times—is an example of “psycho hate” (whatever that is), but they’re not rounding people up over it. There are real harms—ruined careers, harassment, endemic rudeness and jackassery, etc.—that come with this latest iteration of ideological totalism. But they fall well short of what we understand to be the evils of totalitarianism.

But where the two overlap is the idea that everyone has to be on the same page, all oars pulling in the same direction, everyone thinking alike on the ever-expanding list of Thoughts That Matter. Dissent is heresy. Non-compliance is treason. It’s a kind of mobilization for the culture war. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem! You’ll be made to care about whatever we care about most.

One of the things I like about Noah’s argument is that he fully concedes that puritanical zeal is not a right-wing or left-wing thing; it’s a human thing that plays itself out in less-than-tidy ideological categories. For instance, as an intellectual and ideological matter, I think the progressives of early 20th century America were on the left, and I can make that case for hours if need be. But as a cultural matter, if you define the left by what the left means today (at least what it means to the left), the progressives of a century ago were right-wing: hyper-Christian, militaristically patriotic, often racist, relentlessly moralistic, passionately committed to the gender binary, etc. The old Moral Majority types of the 1980s were clearly on the right, but psychologically they resemble today’s left-wing Puritans in their moral panic over various forms of wrongthink.

If you try to follow who has the puritanical ball when it comes to sexual conduct, you’ll get whiplash. The sexual revolutionary feminists of the 1960s and 1970s were very licentious. By the 1980s and early 1990s, they became zealous in their opposition to sexual harassment and even pornography. But when Bill Clinton got caught in the snare of zero tolerance, they fumbled the ball and the right picked it up. Then, in response to Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, the ball changed possession again with the rise of #MeToo.

It’s the illiberalism, stupid.

Perhaps the best way to think about the menace of totalism is to look not at what the Puritans want to do­, but how they want to do it. In a liberal democracy, we’re all free to make arguments. That’s because democracy is a system for dealing with disagreement more than it is a system for finding agreement. Joe Biden’s pabulum about “unity” being the answer to all of our problems notwithstanding, this country is never really united over any policy. What it is supposed to be united over is how we settle on any given policy—democratically, in accordance with the rule of law and the Constitution.

The defining feature of totalism, in culture, politics, and even religion, is illiberalism.

Liberalism used to be a term that defined a mode of thinking more than a mode of government. Americans of the right and left used the term freely and proudly to describe themselves. It implied a certain openness to opposing viewpoints, a fairness in decision-making, and a hostility to various forms of prejudice and bigotry.

Illiberalism is most offensive and easiest to identify when it’s backed up by the power of the state. But there’s plenty of illiberalism outside of the government. As Charlie Cooke likes to point out, two of the institutions that are supposed to be most committed to liberalism, rightly understood, are major newspapers—especially the op-ed pages—and universities. The two things are not unrelated. Newspapers are dominated from below by young strivers from elite universities. They’ve learned that disagreement is impermissible dissent from orthodoxy. Using the wrong words, never mind making the wrong argument, is counter-revolutionary.

In The Rise of the New Puritans, Noah quotes Jonathan Haidt:

“A funny thing happens when you take young human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions,” university professor and author Jonathan Haidt said in a 2017 lecture. “You tell them that one side in each binary is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle. Many students find it thrilling; it floods them with a sense of meaning and purpose.”

But it’s not just universities and media outlets. And that’s the problem. A liberal society depends on a mix of institutions with differing degrees of liberalness. Newspapers and universities should be the most liberal because they’re supposed to explore new ideas and debate them. That’s not the mission of the Marines or Monsanto. The Catholic Church ceases to be the Catholic Church if every nominal member’s perspective is equally valid. Those institutions should still be bound by the law and open to people of different walks of life and even new ideas to some extent. But their missions are narrower, their lanes more defined.

The problem with today is that too few institutions are willing to stay in their lanes. As Noah documents, everything from fine dining to sportscasting is shot through with people who think they are traitors to the cause if they just do their jobs. Burritos—and burrito makers—are judged not by how good they taste, but whether or not they perpetuate cultural appropriation. Everyone needs a climate strategy. Everyone needs to put the right poster in the window and loudly celebrate that which must be celebrated and shout their condemnations of that which must be condemned. Just doing your job isn’t enough.

The new Puritans aren’t wrong about everything. Feminists, Marxists, evangelical Christians, Muslims, Jews, anti-racist activists, and climate activists all have good arguments to make (and bad ones). What they’re wrong about isn’t necessarily what they want, but how they behave in pursuit of what they want. This is the throughline for illiberals of the right and the left, whether it’s the literal mobs of January 6 or of any given night in Portland, Oregon, or the figurative mobs of Twitter and Facebook. In a liberal democracy bound by the rule of law, the only legitimate way to win on big questions is to argue your way to victory, not whip up the already converted into a frenzy. 

And the response to this point is the same for illiberals of all parties: “But what we want is really important! Your way makes it harder to win.”

And my response to that is, “So be it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I might eat bugs if you persuade me they’re a good meal. But you’ll never bully me into it.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.