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Opinion | A View From the Right on Progressives’ ‘Moral Crusade’

[MUSIC]

jane coaston

It’s “The Argument.” I’m Jane Coaston.

I’ve been wanting to argue with Noah Rothman since I got his new book in the mail. It’s called “The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun“. And spoiler, I disagree with a lot of the thesis. What he thinks of as new Puritans, others might call woke progressives. I, for the record, would not. But I think I know what he’s referring to. It’s a very specific type of progressive he’s taking aim at whom, he says, has a lot in common with historical Puritans. Some of the mindsets they have in common —

noah rothman

A utopianism.

jane coaston

In other words, realizing, hey, stuff hasn’t been so great for a lot of people in America. So let’s try to make it better.

noah rothman

A messianic mission.

jane coaston

Or the moral mobs that take down wrongdoers on Twitter.

noah rothman

An anxiety over banal pastimes.

jane coaston

Like finding the problems with football.

noah rothman

And generally, a frustration with an anxiety towards idleness, that which is idle which does not contribute to actively to the progressive project.

jane coaston

It’s not that he thinks the Puritans wanted bad things. He just thinks they went about it in a not fun, not helpful way. And he thinks the new Puritans, those scolds on the internet, are ruining fun in a very similar way now. But who’s fun? And who gets to decide? Noah has two skeptics to convince, myself and my colleague, Alex Kingsbury, editor at large for Times Opinion.

All right, we’re here. Let’s do this. So Noah, the thrust of your book is that progressivism is on quote, unquote, “a moral crusade” which is leading to more misery in society and less fun.

You are describing something that I feel as as if as a human phenomena, which is people who want to tell other people to stop doing things that they would like them to stop doing. So like, what is it about progressivism specifically? And how do you know that it’s progressives who have a war on fun and not just, like — Tipper Gore was not a “progressive,” quote, unquote? But the same people who wanted warning labels on record albums are still the same people that are mad about any various things that they’ve always been mad about.

noah rothman

All right, well, you would describe that particular campaign at the time as cultural conservatism, the idea that this was corrupting an influence on the youth, on the morals of the youth of the day. And that’s what this book describes, a mystery, is that that kind of inclination to believe that cultural products, seemingly innocent cultural fair, tabloid trash you read, the terrible music you listen to corrupts you and degrades society writ large. The left positioned itself in opposition to that by emphasizing self-gratification, self-fulfillment.

The left that emerged from the sexual revolution to dominate culture and eventually dominate politics defined itself in opposition to that sort of thing. And now, we’ve seen it — these kind of cultural crusades from the left in ways that I think would confound and confuse anybody who is of my age, grew up in that milieu in which it was the right that mistrusted your cultural products and the left that mistrusted those who mistrusted your cultural products. We no longer see that distinct boundary that you’ve defined.

alex kingsbury

I’m interested in how all this is described because, the way I think about the phenomenon is more an intersection of modernity with political ideas, right? So one of the things that led to the Puritans was the technology that allowed for the Protestant Reformation, right? Ideas get out there. Some people go crazy with ideas. Some people are more fanatical than others.

What strikes me — and Noah has a good thing about this in the book — is that technology, now, we’re public figures from the moment we wake up and the moment we go to bed when we’re online with the cell phone right there. So no matter what your profession is, you intersect with the public square in a way that people just didn’t before. And what we’re seeing, I think, is a lot of the result of that expansion of the public square.

noah rothman

Well, let’s talk briefly about sports as one example of the many industries that I describe and the puritanical traits that are at work adulterating them. So the literature on the puritanical hostility towards the very nascent inception of what looks a little bit to us like football, but wasn’t really football, but still is close enough that we would recognize it, we also recognize the arguments against it. It was profoundly violent. It encouraged jingoism. It encouraged frivolous consumer spending.

A lot of these are similar arguments to what we are seeing from the puritanically inclined left. It’s violence. It was a subject of profound consternation in the last decade. Indeed, the game has been reformed to a degree that didn’t sacrifice its charm but minimizes some of that gratuitous displays of athletic prowess and the violence in their pursuit.

But that is secondary, in many ways, to what the critics of collegiate football and professional football marshal today, in order to anathemetize the sport. It is not important. It distracts you from your studies, which is a far more important use of your time. It encourages toxic masculinity and violence against women, which is a scourge on society.

And ultimately, in the words of Noam Chomsky and his supporters, it distracts from the great work of our time, which is to organize in pursuit of progressive reforms. The similarities are, to me, too difficult to ignore. And yes, they did find a home on the American right, primarily on the American right. We are all the heirs to this political tradition, whether we like it a lot. It’s just progressives seem not to recognize it in themselves.

jane coaston

Noah, how much reach do you think that Noam Chomsky has on most people who watch sports?

noah rothman

Would you say he’s a fringe figure?

jane coaston

I would say that, for the people who watch sports who are probably not thinking about this, I would say that he is a fringe figure. And I think that he would probably say that he is a fringe figure as in, he’s Noam Chomsky. As you know, I got into writing by covering sports. And the arguments back and forth about what sports means in culture, that’s been going on forever. As you note, the Puritans rejected sports. But also, let’s keep in mind that early college football was, in fact, deadly. And so, I want to emphasize that some things we do have to say, there are problems here. And I get the attraction to not do that. The most popular political ideal is to be that we are cool and fun. We are punk rock. We’re standing against the establishment.

And I think it’s very effective politically to say that you are standing up against the establishment and being fun and cool. But I also think that there are things that are worth being a stick in the mud about. I think that the sexual morés of the late 1960s and early 1970s was bad. It was not good. How people in media and culture talked about sexual assault or Bill Clinton’s actions, to me, is, in a way, where I don’t want that. There are going to be moments in which someone is — a lot of people are entertained by something that many other people are going to say like, that’s not good, or fun, or cool. And they will always sound to those people like Puritans. But on some issues, they are correct. How do you think about that?

noah rothman

Well, correct, insofar as where our society is at any particular time. I’m sympathetic towards a lot of this, because a lot of it is a rediscovery of a conservative understanding of how societies should organize themselves. And my chapter on sex and booze, if that doesn’t sell books, I don’t know what will.

And in that chapter, I’m probably most sympathetic towards this idea, which is this rediscovery among — on the progressive left that when you have situations in which men and women are present in a social engagement and it is bathed in alcohol, bad things can happen. That’s not something that anybody really needed to discover in the year 2022. But it is being rediscovered in part, because a generation ago, there was a rebellion against that idea, against this staid, conformist idea that a puritanical ethic, responsible gender roles, and a certain distance from each other, and a propriety in public was discouraged no longer.

alex kingsbury

Noah, in your introduction to the book or in one of the first chapters, you talk about how this is a phenomenon that the left is sort of adapting in its own ways. And I’m wondering if you think it still exists on the right.

noah rothman

Oh, my gosh, yes.

alex kingsbury

And why is it also not problematic in that context, if it is so newly problematic among people on the left?

noah rothman

Well, it’s politically problematic. It is alienating, in particular, individuals who are predisposed to support the progressive idea, writ large. But it is sapping them of enthusiasm for their life’s work.

They are liberal. They vote Democrat. They don’t support Republicans. But they get up every morning not being able to make delicious food, go to work and talk about sports for a living. They have to do politics. They don’t want to do politics. So it’s alienating erstwhile allies, in one regard.

And one of the biggest pushbacks I get from people who are on the left and skeptical of this narrative is that, well, Republicans are cultural revanchists too. Yeah, they are. And if I wrote a book about the old Puritans, that would be a valuable insight. This is, I think, a far more interesting story, because it’s a newer story. It’s one that has yet to be told.

Republicans are still waging their culture wars. Some of the conventional culture wars that I grew up with, divorce, gay marriage, even abortion to a certain degree — although, less so in the immediate wake of Dobbs — had become muted in the Republican mind.

Even — people forget, Donald Trump, for example, came out in 2016 in favor of the North Carolina bathroom law that allowed transgender individuals to use whatever bathroom they wanted. It was this cultural role reversal that helped the conventional right, the moral majoritarian right walk away from those culture wars and into the very online environment that they now inhabit, where every culture war seems to exist for 30 seconds, only to be forgotten the second you get your hands around it.

But are Republicans cultural revanchists? Of course they are. That’s not new. What’s new are progressives are joining them in the fight.

jane coaston

I have a lot of thoughts here, because it seems to me that we are talking about how people are reacting to, what I would say as a Christian, is the nature of fallen man. And what I would say as an American is that people sometimes are trash.

And so, we see the — yeah, we’re talking about how people are responding to the murder of George Floyd, or the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, or these actual examples of human frailty. And it seems to me that, yes, those reactions, especially in a vacuum, seem excessive and overweening. And I also do not like being told what to do. That’s why I’m a libertarian.

But when you’re talking about a small family business that makes hummus where they had to fire their daughter for making racist and insanely anti-Semitic comments on Twitter, that was happening in the summer of 2020 in Minnesota after the murder of George Floyd. So much of this is about people reacting to the problems of human frailty, which we are now more witness to than ever before because of video. People are grasping for something. And I see this more of trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense.

noah rothman

Well, let me finish that story for you. That grocer you mentioned whose daughter he had to fire after a mob demanded it because she made racially insensitive comments —

jane coaston

She said that she was going to finish the job that Hitler started. It was not good.

noah rothman

Horrible comments, horrible comments but the comments of a child just on the verge of adulthood. Nevertheless, it wasn’t what happened to her that was the problem. It’s what happened to him.

He had his lease revoked. To be a little argumentative — although, this is the argument, so it’s the home for contention — there’s an element of condescension to a lot of this that presumes the executors of this moral campaign to be something better than the targets of their activism.

jane coaston

Alex, if Noah’s argument is that progressives want us to have less fun — and I remain deeply skeptical that conservatives want us to have more fun, which I —

noah rothman

I do.

jane coaston

I do not think so. I do not think that is true, especially because I think that there is no more powerful impulse in politics than to say that we won’t tell you what to do. But we will tell the people you dislike most what to do.

But there’s this idea that I’ve been thinking about for years, which is that conservatives have political power but want cultural power. And liberals have cultural power but don’t have political power. Now obviously, that is very simplistic.

But I am curious as to how you read the power behind the quote, unquote “new Puritans.” Where do they have power? Where don’t they have power? And what does any of this mean?

alex kingsbury

Yeah, I think, the people that Noah describes in the book, I wouldn’t really want to hang out with those people either. They sound horrible. And I think, if the bad things that he describes, the sum total of all of these various different incidents over all these different topics were in one person, that person might not be a lot of fun to hang around, maybe, kind of a buzzkill.

But on the other hand, I think that I just don’t see this in my normal life, that we’re living some sort of restricted Puritan existence. In so many ways, the United States is freer now than it has ever been. It’s more diverse. There are more people who have various sources and positions of power and influence, and on, and on, and on.

So I sort of take the point. But if I just look around at the average existence of 340 million Americans, I just — I think that this is such a fringe phenomenon that, while the individual instances are — it’s easy to take note of them. I don’t think it’s reflective of the broader American experience at this point.

But I will say one thing really quick, because I think one thing that Noah does get right in the book here — and because I highlighted it, I can read it exactly, “the advocates of this new value system” — that you’re talking about here — “discourage humility and tolerance in its practice.” And I think that is something that we do see some evidence of. I think there is a certain intolerance, particularly in the redemptive arc that is available to people who have transgressed some progressives.

Cancel culture is a bad phrase. But I think the path to redemption isn’t obviously clear, in a way that it would have been clear for the Puritans because they were a religious organization that wanted to save souls. And the path to redemption was there. And I think that some of what Noah keys in on is right. There is an intolerance. But I just don’t see it as broadly as he does.

[MUSIC]

jane coaston

I want to focus on an argument that you made about politics, which I think, actually, gets to the heart of your book which is that no person or profession can exist outside politics anymore. Can you explain what you mean?

noah rothman

It is generally that politics properly understood, legislative affairs, electoral outcomes has been muted in the pursuit of political goals that target institutions and activities that exist outside politics, are unresponsive to legislative affairs. And so, we have this misconception of what politics is, what politics is capable of. And that inculcates in people who are beholden to this idea a kind of fatalism, because they have convinced themselves of the utmost urgency of their view, the moral rectitude of their view.

And yet, we have these institutions that are wholly unresponsive to their demands, which creates one of two psychological conditions in you. One, you resolve to just bow out of the system because it’s just depressing you. And the second is to radicalize. And what we’re left with are the most radical, the most zealous, the most convinced of their rectitude. And those are the people who are dictating the terms of our national conversation.

jane coaston

So I think I’ve said that I agree in some ways, because I firmly believe that there is no political platform that can solve the problem of people being irritating to you. I’m reminded of former Director of National Intelligence under Trump, Richard Grenell, tweeted a while back a picture of a gingerbread person. Not a gingerbread man or a gingerbread woman, just tweeted that it was a gingerbread person. And added, stop voting for Democrats.

And I found that so funny, because just the idea that, under a Republican president, every bakery would have to clearly delineate the gender of every single baked good.

I think that your argument implies that people’s lives used to be apolitical. And then they became political. And I don’t think that’s the case.

For example, for my marriage — which is a delight — to exist in the state of Ohio, a lot of people had to go to court for 25 years. And so, what I’m asking is that people existing in politics and the politicization of everything, as you see it, is that a widening of the politicization of everything? Or is it that more people are experiencing politicization who weren’t before because of a broadening of who’s included in the conversation?

I’m sure that, for many people, they’re like, no, I never used to think about gay marriage. And I’m like, yeah because it wasn’t a thing. I’m just curious how you see that.

noah rothman

But gay people — Jane, I’m accepting of gay people. So one point that I’ve tried to make throughout this conversation in the book is there is a significant distinction to be made between the proper conduct of politics and the venues where politics belongs and the conduct of politics in cultural venues that are unresponsive to legislative affairs. So how do we tease this?

As we’re talking about law and the amending of legal conventions — which happens generally over the course of many decades, if not generations. You wouldn’t get Obergefell before Windsor. But maybe you wouldn’t have gotten Windsor without “Will and Grace.” But “Will and Grace” didn’t beat you over the head with a ploddingly didactic narrative.

It created an entertainment product. The cultural product here is distinct from the political outcome, in part, because these cultural creators didn’t set out to make a political point. They set out to make an entertaining product.

jane coaston

I would just like — this is a audio podcast. But I would just like the audience to know that I am looking at you extremely askance.

noah rothman

And there’s nothing but affection in my look towards you. My eyes, have little crow’s feet of affection.

jane coaston

I am — I’ve heard this argument before about “Will and Grace” and “Ellen” which, notably, Ellen lost her sitcom because she came out. I think the bigger question that I’m trying to get at — which we cannot answer today, and perhaps we could not answer in 1,000 hours of this podcast — is, what is the purpose of government here?

Because at a certain point, you know, if you are a libertarian as I am, you recognize that some of the policies that I advocate for would probably mean that things would be worse for other people in some ways. And I’ll explain.

If I want there to be fewer laws dictating the conduct of other people, because I believe that laws come with the assumption that they will be enforced by the state, and the state can kill you, that means that there will be things taking place that would no longer be illegal. But I still wouldn’t like them.

To you, Alex, whether you think that some liberals on the internet, are they trying to regulate unacceptable acceptable behavior in a way that the government just shouldn’t or can’t?

alex kingsbury

I mean, if you want to think about a society where nothing was political, like a theocracy, the Mass Bay Colony would be a good example of that, right? So I mean —

noah rothman

Well, nothing was political. And everything was political.

jane coaston

But I think that, when we see that there are states that are attempting to pass bills, essentially, saying, we would want you to stop doing things that we do not like you doing. For example, when Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, announced his “Stop Woke Act,” he cited all these incidents of excessive wokeness. And I am using air quotes, because it’s helpful on an audio podcast. And a bunch of them didn’t take place in Florida.

And we’re starting to see some in government who were essentially saying, this thing that happened on the internet that I saw that went viral that libs of TikTok tweeted, we’ve got to do something about it. The quote, unquote “new Puritans” and the Puritans of the right are both interested in regulating behavior that isn’t wrong. They just find it irritating.

noah rothman

Yeah, law, government, the venues in which politics belong do not feature prominently in this book, both in the incidences and the levers that are used to affect the kind of cultural outcomes that the new Puritans prefer. In fact, the law is a guarantor of quite a lot of those freedoms against the impositions that would be made on us by the puritanically inclined.

Let’s take Ron DeSantis as an example, because he’s one of the few, I think, that the more aggressive cultural, revanchists on the right, politicians in prominent positions actually respond to this particular outlook in ways that enlivens them. And he does it in ways that are ridiculously unconstitutional.

The Florida legislature passing a law saying that Donald Trump needs to get back on Twitter, a very unconstitutional law that said you could roll through protesters a little with your car, if you like. No, it’s actually never OK to hit a pedestrian, no matter how much you might want to.

This is the sort of thing that is guaranteed by the law. So the activism that I chronicle in this particular book and, as you noted, exists outside the law, does not use the levers of the state to effect its will, because the levers of the state are deaf to them, are unresponsive to them. And long may it be that way, because when it is not, we will regret it.

jane coaston

So Noah, to me, your book is about trade offs, as you’ve said, what we owe our fellow man, what we decide is OK in society when it comes to our needs, versus other people’s needs. And that is the great challenge of living in a society. Other people are weird, while you, yourself, are beautiful and special and should have everything you want.

I’m curious as to how you think about, what’s the line between my freedom and someone else’s comfort? Is there a happy medium? And how do you know where you find it? Who gets to have fun?

alex kingsbury

You can take that one first, man. You just wrote the book. I’ll let you go first.

noah rothman

Well, this is an old philosophical argument about when your liberty encroaches on my liberty and the dividing line.

jane coaston

I believe it’s something about, punch, yeah. It’s the end of your nose or something.

noah rothman

Yes, this is a moving target, a shifting target. But fortunately, the Constitution is not so changing, is far more deaf to this shifting sands that you’re describing. And slippery slopes, that’s the sort of thing that I’m focusing on in this book which, I think, is mostly a story of a series of moral panics, many of which are entirely unproductive on the left, to a degree that I think the left would recoil at if they were to steep themselves in this book and take a long look in the mirror.

This is not their conception of themselves. Their conception of themselves is rooted in what my conception of the left was for most of my adult life, which was libertine, liberty loving in the personal realm, not in the political realm. And they would draw a distinction, a broad distinction between that which is political and that which is social and cultural.

alex kingsbury

I think it’s a complicated question about where you draw any line between politics and environmentalism, or race relations and sports. Are these things political? Are they not?

So it’s important where you draw the line. But more importantly, I think it’s who is drawing the line. And what we’ve seen in the past 20, 30 years is an expansion of the people capable of drawing that line.

And I think it has created a little bit of disorientation by the velocity of change, and the amount of people, and the types of people that are exercising the power of drawing that line between politics and something else, because when you draw a line, that decides what’s inside the line. But it also decides what’s outside the line. And I think there’s just a lot more people making a lot more choices. And what we’re seeing is the reality of that.

jane coaston

Alex, Noah, thank you so much for joining me.

alex kingsbury

Thanks, Jane.

jane coaston

My pleasure, thank you. [MUSIC]

Alex Kingsbury is Editor at Large for Times Opinion and a member of the Times Editorial Board. Noah Rothman is author of “The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun.” He’s Associate Editor for “Commentary Magazine” and an MSNBC contributor. I recommend my last conversation with Noah back at Vox in 2019 on the social justice movement. You can find links to this in our episode notes.

What do you think of Noah’s argument? I’m very curious to hear what you think. You can always send me an email at argument@nytimes.com. “The Argument” is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett and Vishakha Darbha. Edited by Alison Bruzek and Anabel Bacon, with original music by Isaac Jones and Pat McCusker. Engineering by Carole Sabouraud, mixing by Pat McCusker. Fact checking by Mary Marge Locker. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta, with editorial support from Kristina Samulewski.

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