But not so fast, says Mark Oppenheimer, in a recent article in the New Republic. Oppenheimer argues that many liberals have been overtaken by a neurotic fear of contamination, making them the "new Puritans."
Oppenheimer's analysis was prompted by Portland's recent refusal to allow for the fluoridation of their water, a vote driven by liberal fears of contamination, a fear that Oppenheimer is increasingly seeing on the left:
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.Oppenheimer goes on to give some other examples of these puritanical fears of contamination from a child's birthday party he attended:
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.I don't know about you, but I've also observed this sort of contamination panic among my liberal friends. And the most profound point that Oppenheimer makes, in my opinion, is how this new liberal puritanism has been increasingly co-opting what used to be the core of progressive, liberal politics. Rather than, say, strengthening the labor/union movement to stand up for and protect a vanishing middle class liberal puritans are worried to the point of obsession about things like sugar and anti-bacterial soap:
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.
[T]hinking 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...I couldn't agree more. Too many liberals "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." This is just one of the reasons why I'm increasingly disillusioned with liberalism in its current American manifestations.
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.
I'm with Oppenheimer on this. Let's spend more time talking about, say, how to reinvigorate the labor movement and less time stressing about if my children eat Coco Puffs.
...Read Mark Oppenheimer's full article (he has some great stuff in there, for example how eating fast food is a form of feminist politics): The New Puritans: When Did Liberals Get So Uptight?