THE ‘haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’. In truth, H L Mencken’s arresting definition of New England puritanism is a tad harsh. Yet on the level of popular perception it works perfectly. Small wonder that of all the monikers ascribed to the culture wars’ pious and intransigent antagonists, ‘new puritans’ seems the most pertinent. In his latest book, The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, stand-up comic, satirist and GB News broadcaster Andrew Doyle lifts the veil on this pervasive yet strangely nebulous cult.
In a work brimming with literary-historical allusion (Doyle has a doctorate in Renaissance poetry), the infamous witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, provide an aptly brooding backdrop. Drawing on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, the author traces an eerie symmetry in the febrile atmosphere and power dynamics pertaining then and now. Revelling in performative victimhood, and demanding brethren ’social justice’, the young female witch-accusers discover a means of exerting enormous influence over their community. Beware the ‘bully who bullies others in the name of love’.
Much hinges on the lethal credulousness of the villagers. Duped by phoney conviction, they are only too willing to believe the girls’ fabricated visions. This chimes with the permeation, among otherwise sensible people, of such contrived notions as ‘institutional racism’ and ‘white privilege’. The trouble is, as Doyle observes, ‘when bad ideas are allowed to spread unchecked they take on an illusion of incontrovertibility’. Fear, mistrust and tribalism in 1690s America induce a collective mania, a groupthink or ‘frenzy of conformity’ demanding retribution. At least the quarry of today’s SJWs escape with their lives – for now. In Salem, Doyle reminds us, 19 ‘witches’ hanged and five died in prison.
The author is particularly convincing on the ideological underpinnings (such as they are) of what he calls the Critical Social Justice movement, with its holy trinity of race, gender and sexuality. What we are witnessing, he argues, is the counter-Enlightenment. Postmodernism rejected reason and objective truth. Hence its new-puritan disciples, for all their progressive claims, fundamentally oppose the liberal consensus. A different philosophical worldview altogether has been adopted. It is ‘supernatural at heart’, seeing only – and everywhere – the ‘invisible power structures’ derived from a postmodern understanding of human relations.
‘Lived experience’ now trumps evidence; there are many ‘ways of knowing’, and multiple ‘individual truths’. Freed from the tiresome requirement to supply facts in support of theories, the ‘clergy for the digital age’ have set about destabilising language to transform alleged oppression into power. It’s a potent tactic, since ‘the basic tool of the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words’.
We see the effects all around us. In once-respected universities words are now equated with violence, and suddenly require ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’. This is a strategically useful position when you wish to shut down debate or expose the ‘Nazi’. Likewise, the sheer impenetrability of the new faux-intellectual lexicon (consider today’s abstruse taxonomy of genders) is designed at heart to deflect and intimidate.
The author, it should be said, is a leftie. And it shows. Multiculturalism (anti-racism’s fuel supply) is never challenged, nationalism associated chiefly with the ‘far right’. Yet while for the conservative this frustratingly limits Doyle’s purview, to cavil too much seems churlish. There is much to learn on this topic from social liberals. No one skewers the authoritarian left quite like the democratic left. And unless and until a newly self-confident popularism re-emerges, as in Italy, this may be the confrontation which yields the best results.
Doyle isn’t the first author to examine the methods and motivations of woke fanatics, and he won’t be the last. However, I doubt whether anyone will do so with more style or generosity of spirit. The new puritans aren’t losing their vice-like grip on Western politics and culture any time soon. But knowing your enemy is half the battle. And if this book gains sufficient traction, these ‘nice totalitarians’ might just endure the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, has rumbled them.