“Liberal puritanism,” child-rearing edition

Mark Oppenheimer writes of the similarities between an Oregon decision rejecting water fluoridation and a scary birthday party he found himself at:

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. …

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.

His diagnosis:

The Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics. (Today, we try to ban large cups of soda.) The second is an interest in hygiene that could be quite salutary—as when reformers pushed clean water and other public-health measures—but could also fetishize symbolic, pernicious forms of sanitation and purity, as in Margaret Sanger’s support for eugenics.

And prescription:

I am only suggesting that we resist thinking of Puritanism as the only, or optimal, parenting style for liberals, for two reasons. First, thinking 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.

But more important, realizing that Puritanism does not equal liberalism liberates us to think of another way to be liberal: by rejecting the kind of stress that comes from Puritanism. 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’s a bit sweeping, and in general I’m skeptical of “limited brain space” arguments like the above—it’s easy to mention something we should be working more on as a society, and then any cultural practice you don’t like can be cast as excessive. But I share the frustration with niggling over everything edible.

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