The New Puritanism? Woke Up and Go Back to Sleep!


Consider these two quotes. The first is from British author L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” The second comes from Rhode Islander Stephen Hopkins. When asked whether Colonists should consider a Declaration of Independence, he replied, “… in all my years I ain't never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about.”



Would that we took such sentiments to heart. We recently celebrated–if a day filled with rancor can use that verb–what is now called Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly Columbus Day and, in some places, Pulaski Day. My local paper saw a spate of op-eds for and against the new appellation. I think we should call it Heritage Day and honor everyone’s roots, but that’s not how things work anymore. 



Other calls to alter the past came on the heels of the holiday renaming controversy. As if poor Pawtucket, Rhode Island, needs more problems, a new statue to William Blackstone, the area’s first white settler, abstractly depicts him riding a bull and reading a book. The Narragansett Nation wants it to come down, as whites displaced and killed Native peoples. In Northampton, Massachusetts, a biennial art show was canceled because a person identifying as a Native American poet objected to one painting (of 60 works) he claims promotes genocide. If you look at the work, it’s hard to make that leap of logic, but the local arts commission deemed the outcry so dangerous that it cancelled the entire show. 





In a recent article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum, writes of the “New Puritanism,” which she blames for "trampling democratic discourse." She takes to task both Conservative and Liberal Puritans. I will ignore Puritans on the extreme right, as I find them irredeemable. I am, however, distressed with Liberal Puritans, though I share nearly all of their values. It saddens me when they behave exactly like the pejorative “Snowflakes” the hard right calls them. Is there any substantive difference between the censorship of Conservative or Liberal Puritans?  The latter often want no part of anything that upsets them or challenges their value systems, though both are prerequisites for true discourse. Overnight, dialectics have been replaced by orthodoxy posing as revealed truth and sanitized history linked to political ideology.


It is laudable to oppose racism, battle for equality, and support universal rights. If only the latter really meant universal. Have you noticed the situational ethics and cultural relativism involved in explaining away things such as women in burkas, black-on-black crime, or Palestinian rockets? Or how all things Christian, white, or Israeli are axiomatically soaked in privilege? It is assuredly true that systems of power come into play, but “universal” is an absolute. Violence and inequality are either justified or they’re not. If parsed, it’s not universal; it’s a double standard.


Alas, many Puritan Liberals seek to rewrite things that upset their worldview. Much of my career was based on “teaching the controversy.” I’ve always felt we must look in the face of history, discuss what was done, why it was done, and what it meant–to them, not us. It’s not necessary to applaud the beliefs or deeds of the past, just understand them. Note to Millennials: You did not discover that many white people have been racist; that’s why we study Indian Removal, slavery, xenophobia, and nativism. Were these things wrong? In a system of universal, immutable values, yes.


But let’s not confuse the ideal with the real, or conflate wrong-doing with pure evil. Open that can of worms and you can excise Martin Luther King Jr.  from history books; he was a serial womanizer. Should we not discuss Native Americans who warred on enemy tribes? Or Islam, which gave us the very word assassin? Should we ponder what generations 20, 50, or 100 years from now will make of current sacrosanct values?  You cannot white-wash history, but neither can you black-wash, brown-wash, red-wash, or yellow-wash it.


I recall two times Liberal Puritans accused me of “micro-aggression.” I was once called on the carpet for doing accents in class, to wit, a Scottish brogue. Should I mention that I am third-generation Scottish, grew up with Scottish relatives and neighbors, and was engaging in self-deprecating humor involving my own culture?  If you think this is ridiculous, another “Snowflake” said I was racist for using "the N-word.” Actually, I didn't; I made her read the actual word in a primary source document. That seemed appropriate in a course on the Civil War involving enslavers justifying human bondage. I’ve yet to read an enslaver that used the PC term “N-word.”


How about troubling monuments? There are legitimate reasons for relocating some. No African-American should have to walk past a statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest to enter a courthouse or voting booth. I've also never understood the Southern adulation of Robert E. Lee, whose picture I displayed alongside that of Benedict Arnold and asked if there was a difference between the two. (Spoiler: Arnold actually fought on the same side as the Founders before he changed sides.) But rather than tearing down statues, we should use them to teach controversy.


Puritan Liberals should never be so naïve as to believe their views will prevail. Is it conceivable that in the near future Puritan Conservatives will demand that Donald Trump's statues stand in front of courthouses? Is it conceivable they will seek to unseat Arthur Ashe and other African Americans as “offensive?” Look at what happened in Maine, where off-the-rails Governor Paul LePage removed a mural or Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet officer, from a place of prominence. Bad for business, said he of the Puritan Right.


Various points of view must be aired, or only those from the winning side du jour will prevail. The same is true of freedom of speech and academic freedom. To Liberal Puritans I offer advice they don’t wish to hear: “Woke” up and go back to sleep!

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