We live in a very strange age.
We live in an age of Totalism, an age of resurgent Puritanism, an age of ideology in which the personal is everywhere and always the political. And not only is this the spirit of the age in which we live, but we have all internalized it so much that even we who declare ourselves to be in open rebellion against that spirit often accept its frame and fall into its mindset without even realizing it.
But wait… an age of Puritanism? Is this not the age of progressivism, even of libertinism? How can it be Puritan? And what is Totalism?
To take the latter first, Totalism (not to be confused with totalitarianism) is what John Derbyshire described as the philosophy of “no middle”. It teaches that only extreme views on a given question are possible – that you can only either celebrate something in the most gushing of terms and wish to throw it a parade, or you must hate it and want it destroyed by the most violent means available. You cannot mildly dislike it, or give it lukewarm support, or (perhaps worst of all) simply be apathetic. One can only love Big Brother, or one surely wants him destroyed; one cannot say: “Emmanuel Goldstein? Seems like a bit of a twat to me, I suppose, but I don’t really care all that much”. You are either present at every Two Minutes Hate session, prepared to jeer at the top of your lungs, or you are an enemy of the state who must be assumed to be working for its destruction. Nothing else is possible.
Now, Puritanism: one must not be tempted to assume that because our culture (such as it is) is filled with degeneracy, licentiousness, and sin, that this means that Puritanism has left American life. The truth is quite the opposite, in fact. No, Puritanism never went away in this country – it can’t; it is too much embedded in the American mindset to ever really go away – it simply switched sides. This was not so very hard to do. Puritanism is, more even than it is a set of religious or moral beliefs, a mindset, a worldview, an attitude towards life and humanity and how to deal with the problems of living. You can substitute one set of variables for another, i.e. liberal morals for Christian ones, but the mindset remains the same and thus the method of applying those values to the world remains unaltered. America is, in fact, just as Puritan as it ever was, if not more so. This can be seen in the Puritanical behavior of Modern American leftists – conformist, fanatical, absolutist, priggish, nagging, instructive, finger-waving, tut-tutting, pearl-clutching spoilfuns who careen from one moral panic to the next and inject their ideologies into everything they come in contact with, no matter how inappropriate it may be or how badly their ideas fit in that that arena (e.g. Gamergate, Metalgate). Nothing may be left alone, no transgression may be let slide, and the guilty must always be shamed and made to publicly confess their sins as a warning to others. This is American Puritanism in its most essential form. And since Modern leftism, wherever it may be practiced, is Americanism, and Americanism is all Puritanism, all Modern leftism is Puritan in nature.
One important part of Puritanism is its lack of distinction between the public and the private spheres of life. Sin anywhere is an offense against their god (whether that God is Yahweh or the god of equality) and a lurking threat to the stability of their order, eternally waiting to burst out of the shadows and into the light; as such, it cannot be abided. Thus the dream of the Puritan, expressed both in the religious literature of the 17th century and in progressive literature stretching from the reformers of the 19th century to the present day, is to lift the roofs off of all the houses; to peer inside and discover the sin occurring behind closed doors, and to punish it. In his 1846 novel Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens, that best-known of Victorian reformers, invoked Le Sage’s tale of the demon Asmodeus when he pled, “Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and begignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them!” If one merely changes the variables – substitutes “progressive” for “Christian”, and “racism/sexism/homophobia/bigotry” for “the Destroying Angel” – one has the mindset of the leftist progressive in the 21st century. A fine modern-day example of this can be found in the case of Donald Sterling, until recently the owner of a professional sports team. The roof was, metaphorically, lifted off of his house when a recording of him making remarks mildly disparaging of a class of people protected by the progressive establishment, clandestinely and illegally made behind closed doors and within the privacy of his own walls, was revealed. That the remarks were private, and that in his public life and in the conduct of his business he had always been gracious and equitable with members of that class, meant nothing. The private, the public, the personal, the political… to the leftist, these are one – there is no distinction, and no sin against their doctrines nor offense to those under their protection, no matter how privately expressed, may be allowed to stand unpunished.
“Beware of those in whom the will to punish is strong”, said Nietzsche, and it should be clear now exactly why we ought to be. Modernity is full of utopianism, Totalism, and a strong will to punish that extends into every corner of life, public and private. It is easy – ever so easy – to fall into, for it is the spirit of our age. And yet, as much as our Modern hearts (and we all have them, for as much as we may wish otherwise, we are all native-born sons of Modernity) may cry out for this, it must be resisted. In a healthy age – indeed, in the Victorian era whose ways Dickens condemned in his desire for something “better”*, but that now every man of sense and decency regards as the height of the Western culture – there is an understanding, empathetic and reasonable beyond the ability of our rigidly ideological and Totalist age to comprehend, that private vice, while by no means something to be praised, is universal, inevitable, an ineradicable part of nature and of the human condition. It is for this reason that the Christian teaching that all people are fallen sinners, so often misunderstood (willfully or not) by atheo-leftists as cruel and condemnatory, is revealed as actually being comforting and humane. It says: you are not alone, this is the way of all mankind; you are not particularly evil, you are only human, and it is human to be a fallen sinner. It does not approve of private vice, nor does it obviate the need for repentance of it (far from it – repentance of sinful vices is one of the core requirements of Christianity), but it acknowledges the reality of human nature (Yes, human nature – that eternal bane of all utopian ideologies!).
Presuming that one is not a subscriber to the ideology of Puritanism (and I cannot speak for you, dear reader, but I have had quite enough of it myself), then the search is on for a means to avoid moral chaos without succumbing to Totalism and ending up in the excesses of Puritanism. That might seem like a rather tall order, but – and here’s an idea that should suit the tastes of a reactionary – why not simply look to the past for an idea that worked perfectly well in decent, stable, orderly societies for a very long time? Why reinvent the wheel, when our ancestors took so much care to develop it for us? Before the Puritans and the progressives came along, they believed in the separation of the private and the public spheres of life, in which vices were kept behind closed doors and discreetly overlooked by the larger society. This was the philosophy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” rather then that of the only two choices being the forced public apology or the pride parade. It was the philosophy of leaving the roofs safely on the houses in the belief that, like Chesterton’s fence, they were there for a reason. It was the most humane and realistic way available to acknowledge and deal with two ineffable facts regarding human existence: first that vice will always exist among humans; second that we must all find some way to live together in a modicum of harmony in an orderly society that keeps itself out of the bottomless pit of relativism. This is a compromise, yes – but that is just another way of saying that it is not Totalist. And as rightists, we must remind ourselves that it is the left that incessantly comes up with utopian schemes that make no concessions to reality or human nature – we should not feel that we are somehow obligated to make exactly the same mistake, but with our favored variables substituted for theirs. And we should not feel so strong a will to punish that we recoil from all that is humane and tolerant.
Yes, I used the word “tolerant”. But here I mean it in its actual sense, not in the debased sense in which the left means it (they have a long history of redefining words in order to make their demands seem far more reasonable than they actually are). To tolerate something does not mean to celebrate it, nor even to approve of it. If one hears that somebody has “tolerated” an experience (perhaps something like a business-related social function), the meaning is clear enough – they put up with it, but they didn’t enjoy it. To tolerate something means not that one likes something, but merely that one has chosen not to punish over it.
For those in whom the will to punish is strong, this is an untenable proposition – they must punish, for to them the desire to do so is irresistible. For the ideological Totalist, it is an insensible position – something must either be celebrated or punished, with no options in between (one is reminded of the description of Mao’s China as a place in which everything that was not forbidden was mandatory). Puritans are always the latter and frequently the former (for Puritanism attracts such people into its fold and gives them social status, and thus authority, within the Puritan in-group). But that does not mean that Puritan Totalism is the only, or is even a very desirable, way to order human affairs, and it does not mean that society would end up in moral chaos were we to order them another way.
Of course, it should go without saying that a line must be drawn, definitive even if unspoken, between which vices are tolerable and which are not. I propose a simple formula. First, a tolerable vice must not involve anyone who, for whatever reason, is unwilling or unable to give informed consent to participate in it. Thus, for example, anything that harms a little child, or sex acts that begin with an involuntary drugging, or knowingly concealing a sexually-transmitted disease from someone and passing it to them during a sex act – these would all be beyond the pale, and should not be tolerated or discreetly ignored by anyone. Second, the vice must be assiduously kept private. It should not be tolerable to attempt to poison the social order or coarsen the culture in the name of accommodating emotionally exhibitionistic, needy people who feel a manic desire to make their private lives public and to impose upon the world a demand for validation of their vices. In fact, the optimal situation is for most vice to be technically illegal, on the understanding that prohibitions on such vice, when indulged in discreetly and behind closed doors, are both unenforceable and not very worth enforcing, and thus would remain essentially unenforced. These laws would, then, simply be a hedge against attempts to bring private vice “out of the closet” and to demand for it the approval of the public. Any activist who attempted to do so would end up in jail, technically for practicing the vice in question, but really for being a disruptor of public order.
So the formula is indeed simple: You keep your closet door closed, and we will keep the roof on your house. If you insist on making your vices public, they will be dealt with in a courtroom; otherwise they are best left to be dealt with in a confessional. This is the way of dealing with vice that our ancestors, who were far more sensible people, understood was best; whereas it is we, absorbed in the absolutist, uncompromising, Puritan-infused Totalism of Modernity, who turn up our noses, point our fingers, and shriek “Hypocrisy!”.
And perhaps it is. But there are far worse systems than one based on a little bit of prudent hypocrisy. You should know that, dear reader – you are living in one.
(*The above-quoted passage from Dombey and Son continues: “For only one night’s view of of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too-long neglect; and, from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker! Bright and blest the morning that should rise on such a night: for men, delayed to no more by stumbling-blocks of their own making, which are but specks of dust upon the path between them and eternity, would then apply themselves, like creatures of one common origin, owning one duty to the Father of one family, and tending to one common end, to make the world a better place!” This quote reveals much about the mindset behind it. It is based upon the assumption that private vice can be eliminated from the human experience [which is a kind of variation on the idea of the perfectibility of man], and the idea that it must be, for only when it is can the world be made “a better place” [which fits in squarely with the Whig view of history as a slow march towards a perfected state of mankind]. For a man as perceptive of the ways of human nature as Dickens, that level of denial of its realities can only be attributed to ideology).