Whenever I hear people criticise our national broadcaster, I like to remind them that ABC Everyday once published the gritty journalism of Kellie Scott, who consulted not one but two experts for her article “Do you need to wear sunscreen even when inside?” The answer—well, golly—is no.
Such content, I admit with some gloom, is tolerably stupid compared to what our taxpayer-funded digital platform more often inflicts on its readership. It’s a competitive field, but the most risible article ever to appear would surely be Beverley Wang’s lament about Bluey, the globally popular children’s cartoon about a family of—and let me stress this, dear reader—dogs.
Most episodes of Bluey revolve around play, imagination and the daily lives of the Heeler family, but Wang dislikes the program’s lack of a “political lens”. Warming to her subject, she whines about seeing too many white people on Australian television before launching a question that only ABC Everyday readers would care to have answered:
Where are the disabled, queer, poor, gender diverse, dogs of colour and single-parent dog families in Bluey’s Brisbane?
For well-adjusted people, Wang’s question should leave them wondering if what they’re reading is actually a parody. For others, however, like Dr David Burton and Dr Kate Cantrell of the University of Southern Queensland, the quibble with Wang’s analysis is that it doesn’t go far enough.
This review appears in September’s Quadrant.
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Like the ABC, our universities ostensibly employ intelligent adults, which is why the aforementioned educators warn parents about Bluey’s father Bandit—again, a dog—who has a “darker side”. Writing in The Conversation, they condemn the character as both a bad father and a purveyor of toxic masculinity. There’s also a fair bit of academic windbaggery about his larrikinism, which connects, somehow, with our sordid colonial history and literature. What’s more—and this one’s my favourite—the authors damn Bandit for being “surprisingly conservative when it comes to gender values”. His crime, you’ll be shocked to learn, took place in one episode in which he expressed reservations about putting on make-up. This is risky and perhaps even blasphemous stuff, especially for Bluey’s key audience of two-to-six-year-olds, notorious for their lingering attachment to the gender binary.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Beverley Wang and her professorial co-thinkers are simply unembarrassed to be thought of as lunatics; they’re good for a laugh but best not dwell on their influence. They only occupy—and, sure, this is most inconvenient—much of the elite media and educational institutions and major corporations around the country.
Come to think of it, though, that political lens seems to have enveloped a lot more nowadays. It’s even difficult to enjoy an afternoon game of football without being reminded that this is, you know, Pride Round, a chance to recognise—scratch that, I obviously meant to write celebrate—the LGBT-etc community by gushing about the players’ spiffy rainbow socks.
Or perhaps you’ve noticed some unusual additions to your medical or government forms, on which reliable words like mother have been replaced by the somewhat grating birthing person. Keep scrolling and you’ll also find an ever-expanding list of handy neologisms—totally authentic and not at all recently fabricated or delusional gender identities.
Surely, you got that email from your People and Culture team kindly letting you know that you can add your pronouns to your email signature, and, by the way, don’t forget Non-Binary Day of Visibility and Appreciation is coming up next week. There’ll be a guest speaker doing a noticeably less welcoming Welcome to Country, reminding you that you have committed the inexpiable sin of being born on stolen land. You have, as usual, so much work still to do and so much still to learn.
Skip that class, I reckon, and seek to understand the depths of this insanity by reading Noah Rothman’s latest book, The Rise of the New Puritans. Rothman, an editor at Commentary, argues that the woke, the social justice goons, the soft totalitarians—choose your preferred epithet—come from a long-standing Anglo tradition. Although they would shudder at the suggestion, today’s left-wing activists in academia, media and everywhere borrow from their religious forebears a good deal of theology, both in theory and practice.
The Puritans of the seventeenth century left England—where things were a bit too jolly and sinful—for the New World where they made much of their opportunity to start anew and live in accordance with the harsh strictures of their faith. While music, sex, laughter and fun in general were not their idea of a good time, they brought a good deal of vim to the burning of witches and the denunciation of heretics and unbelievers.
This probably sounds familiar already: the New Puritans, in Rothman’s persuasive telling, have taken this mindset and its attendant practices off the shelf and have done a fair bit of burning and denouncing of their own. Their revelation, so to speak, is that everything in life—sport, food, hobbies, even cartoons about dogs—must serve a political purpose. That could be anti-racism one week, trans inclusivity the next, and no doubt the evils of whiteness are on the agenda again soon. Modern progressivism, as a totalising system and way of life, has no room for idleness or neutrality or second-guessing the ever-changing litany of potential trespasses. As Rothman writes of the ancestral Puritans: “That which was not an instrumental contribution to Puritan philosophy was regarded as an assault on it.” Nowadays, that messy philosophy is wokeness, and you, too, can be beaten into salvation.
In each chapter, Rothman elucidates one of the older Puritan virtues, like piety or temperance, and skilfully demonstrates how each has been adopted and deformed by the new church. He assembles examples that shock, amuse, and make one despair for the citizenry.
You may have noticed that today’s progressive activist, busily toiling away at the latest cause, has something like an allergy to merriment. This lack of chirpiness, Rothman says, is a mark of the New Puritan’s pious commitment to the tasks still to do: remaking our entire social, political and cultural order is serious stuff, and you don’t want to be caught kicking back while on the job.
Racial consciousness—not really a knee-slapper of a subject, to be fair—is especially useful for displays of woke piety. Talking about race and not much else became the dominant American pastime in the summer of 2020, when George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Earnest protesters as well as more than a few rioters and looting enthusiasts took to the streets across America—and Australia, too—to make their noisy case for police abolition, a racial reckoning, and urgent re-education, mostly for sinful whites.
If you wanted to be saved, genuflections to Black Lives Matter mattered most, although the organisation’s accounts department liked generous indulgences, too. In numerous and sometimes excruciating episodes, Rothman details the baffling lengths to which individuals, corporations and institutions have gone in order to parade their anti-racist piety in this post-Floyd moment. The television show Cops, despite having a popular thirty-three-year run, was cancelled by its network. The writers and producers of Law & Order and the like condemned themselves for not portraying their police characters as irremediable brutes. My favourite—and this should be familiar—came from Nickelodeon kids’ show Paw Patrol, which wanted to avoid the slightest accusation of impiety. Rothman drily remarks: “Future generations will marvel over why an animated program portraying cartoon dogs as first responders felt the need to issue a tweet demanding ‘Black voices to be heard’.”
Of course, that didn’t suffice: yes, activists really called for the Paw Patrol pups to be euthanased and the program to be cancelled, and that was after its social media intervention. That’s the problem with woke piety, as you can never quite demonstrate enough. The New Puritans direct their barbs not so much at those who remain silent, but rather, at those who learn the gospel and begin the work, but with inadequate zeal.
Rothman gives the example of the Poetry Foundation and its published letter of “solidarity with the Black community” during the summer of riots. Paltry solidarity, you say? A wishy-washy commitment to poetry’s power to do more? Quite a few poets in the sodality were decidedly miffed and dashed off an epistle of their own. They asserted that the Foundation’s original statement amounted to “violence” and, no, they didn’t mean it as metaphor. Of course, the president and the chairman of the board resigned, but exactly how America’s poets advanced the cause of racial equality remained unclear.
The New Puritans, like their forefathers, are true innovators when it comes to extirpating the fun from your life. Rothman takes a hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking excursion into an emergent culinary politics, as your menu selection, it turns out, reveals a great deal about your commitment to the cause, comrade.
Food, you may have wrongly thought, provides the diner with the opportunity to savour a true art form, learn about and appreciate a culture through its cuisine, and enliven your precious moments with family, friends and strangers. No, the real satisfaction, the food police remind us, comes from ensuring your repast isn’t mere nourishment, but that it serves a political function. Unfortunately, if you follow these rules, you may end up a bit peckish, as you’ll be left unsure and confused about what’s permissible to eat and cook.
Rothman tells the nightmarish stories of local food entrepreneurs and professional chefs who have become victims of social media mobs and physical ones, too. Their crime has been to whip up dishes of a culture to which—the audacity!—they don’t belong. The white ladies of Kooks Burritos in Portland, for example, turned their passion for Mexican fare into a food-truck business. They enjoyed a great deal of success until the social justice food critics came on the scene and gave them a very bad review. The charge, “cultural appropriation”; the harsh sentence, the besmirching of their reputations—racists, of course—and the ruination of their business and livelihood. These campaigns of bullying and intimidation have led to a kind of culinary segregation, and we all know that such a form of social control works wonders. Score one for tolerance and cultural appreciation, I guess.
But even this isn’t enough. To be even nearer to God, in a manner of speaking, the New Puritans practise self-deprivation, and they really want you know about it. Sticking with dietary matters, this takes the form of a dual insistence on the sinfulness of meat consumption and the moral responsibility to eat—ah, yuck—bugs. The point, as ever, is to flaunt your virtue, shame the unbelievers, and contribute to a political end. In this case, it’s arresting climate change and saving the planet. Such demands, and this is the key point, have nothing to do with enjoying what you’re munching on. The hardship and the struggle are what matter most. Who needs flavour anyway? As Rothman writes, “For the New Puritans, a smug sense of self-satisfaction is the most delicious dish of all.”
Rothman wields his incisiveness and laconic wit on every page. He’s particularly good on the intrusion of woke politics into culture and art, especially comedy. Let’s not forget that Australia—yeah, sorry about that—is responsible for Hannah Gadsby, the “anti-comic” stand-up who exhorts her audience not to find her funny. Given that Gadsby is a humourless bore, that’s pretty easy for me; those in the pews, however, lap it up and love the labour. The modern activist has no time for frivolities like humour in stand-up comedy, and you shouldn’t either. The exigencies of our moment, after all, are no laughing matter. The connection with the Puritans of centuries past, never known for their jauntiness, couldn’t be more apparent.
I like best Rothman’s discussion of the updated virtue of chastity. At first glance, that might be surprising, given that the New Puritans of today are always banging on about sex and gender and how polyamory is a noble blow against the cisheteropatriarchy. Or something like that. Quadrant readers, I suspect, are not in the habit of keeping up with the 112— or has it been updated?—number of genders and their respective genital preferences. The celebration of such identities, minus that awful and contemptible one, has led to a phenomenon known as “heteropessimism”—the soul-crushing melancholy and guilt experienced by straight people, poor sods, unable to do their bit for the revolution. Anyhow, it might be better off to remain chaste and dodge a charge of sexual assault, as its #MeToo-era definition has been lately revised to hearing a suggestive or unwanted joke. Also, sex could lead to procreation, and the nuclear family, as the Black Lives Matter manifesto reminds us, is classist, sexist and racist and deserves abolition. And you thought you were serious about environmentalism? There’s an anti-natalist and perhaps even King Herod-like policy around here: why would you bring children into the world and expedite the doom of the planet? Shut up, do the work, and eat your bugs.
On and on it goes until—and this is Rothman’s sunny conclusion—it’s no longer sustainable. There is a significant and unavoidable problem with making everything about politics and demanding adherence to a capricious set of woke requirements: it makes you bloody miserable. As Rothman writes, it all adds up: “The price they demand of those who would contribute to their cause is the sacrifice of spontaneity, risk, frivolity, and carefree joy.”
The New Puritans are a menace to civilisation, yes, but their perpetual gloominess is our advantage. “Mock them,” Rothman advises, and that strikes me as a ripe proposal, and not at all a difficult one. After all, let me remind you, there are serious people very upset about Bluey, a cartoon canine with an insufficient commitment to the gender revolution in Brisbane. Sooner or later, these exhausted sad sacks will have to throw up their hands and concede defeat.
Still, just for fun, let us hasten their disappointment.
The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun
by Noah Rothman
HarperCollins, 2022, 320 pages, $45
Timothy Cootes lives in Sydney and contributes regularly to Quadrant Online