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Another Day, Another Book Against the Woke "New Puritans"
Andrew Doyle—aka Titania McGrath—promised an erudite and measured account of this left wing movement but delivered hyperbole
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Andrew Doyle, a journalist and comedian who holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance poetry, has written extensively on free speech issues. But he is best known for his parody Twitter persona, Titania McGrath. Titania, who describes herself as a “radical intersectionalist poet” and “ecosexual,” can be funny, in part because she is only a hair more absurd than the progressives Doyle mocks through her.
When Titania tweets, “There is a very good reason why self-harming among chickens is on the rise … WORDS HAVE CONSEQUENCES,” she isn’t pulling it out of thin air. She’s commenting on a post from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that urges us to abandon the insult “chicken” in favor of “coward” and thereby “reject [speciesist] supremacist language.”
That’s funny if you ask me. But the New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, Doyle’s latest book, isn’t. Like Titania, the real-life Doyle, who bills himself as a moderate liberal, highlights the absurdities and excesses of the contemporary left wing in the U.K. and the U.S. But, unlike her, Doyle is attacking not the leftist fringe but what he considers the mainstream left, which, as far as he is concerned, has become “regressive” rather than progressive. Moreover, these leftists who “brook no dissent” have taken “control of our major cultural, political, educational, and corporate institutions.” Doyle seeks to rally fellow liberals who value “civil discourse, the free exchange of views and evidence-based analysis” against these “high priests of the religion of Critical Social Justice.”
Veterans of this anti-left front in the culture war will find much to agree with here—as do I. We are distressed that trans issues have become difficult to discuss. For example, no one dare say that overuse of hormonal and surgical treatments for trans-identifying youth may one day be viewed as “a grave medical-political scandal.” Similarly, it’s become risky to opine that “most disparities between Black and white people … are not due in 2022 to ‘racism’ in any sense compatible with clear and honest language.” (Ironically, even the claim that Americans are “losing … the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned” invites a torrent of abuse.) Liberals may not endorse such views, but they do believe that it should be possible to enunciate them without risking one’s livelihood.
That said, every quotation in the preceding paragraph is drawn from the opinion pages of The New York Times, the last from its editorial board.
It is true, as Doyle notes, that this same New York Times, under pressure from staffers, pushed out its opinion editor, James Bennet, for publishing an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton that called for summoning federal troops under the Insurrection Act to quell the arson, vandalism and looting in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. The staffers considered the op-ed itself “tantamount to violence.” Doyle is probably right to be upset about all this. Cancel culture is not a mere right-wing talking point. He offers ample evidence that it takes only prudence and observation—not a Breitbart subscription—to fear that you can be condemned, harassed, investigated or passed over for a promotion if the right people decide that you are a racist, sexist or transphobe.
But a book that seeks to honestly and accurately diagnose the extent to which free speech and inquiry is ailing must account both for the pressure against holding certain heterodox opinions—pressure that can cost a person their job—and the fact that those opinions do find voice in the mainstream media. Doyle, who harps on the “ideological capture of today’s major institutions,” isn’t equipped to offer such an account.
Be that as it may, who exactly has done this alleged capturing, according to Doyle? In chapters loosely organized by theme, he rounds up the usual suspects that anti-left critics have long pointed to: critical race theorists, gender activists, Marx, Foucault, Marcuse. He uses their worst attributes to construct the new puritanism. The new puritans believe, according to him, in “the perfectibility of mankind” through the control of language and the creation of “an entirely fresh pseudo-reality.” They reject “reason, evidence-led analysis, and critical thinking” and “abjure the very notion of objective truth.”
They believe in tearing down monuments and vandalizing art made by morally imperfect artists. They “reject the appreciation of beauty” that “demands and evokes humility.” They believe in collectivist identity politics. They reject Martin Luther King’s “famous dream of a future in which ‘people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’” They reject “equality of opportunity” and believe in “equality of outcome.”
This list of beliefs does not, for Doyle, add up to a coherent ideology. “The appeal of authoritarianism” ties the new puritanism together. Or perhaps fundamentalism does. (He doesn’t make it entirely clear.) The new puritans process “half apprehended” Marxism through the “meat-grinder of a new fundamentalist fervor.” The “greatest failing of the new puritans” is that they “allow [their] reason to be dominated by [their] passion.”
For all of Doyle’s attentiveness to the philosophical roots of the “new religion” of critical social justice, he looks for that religion’s essence not in the books it refers to but in its socio-psychology. So we get an earful about its adherents’ “infantile tantrums” and “entitled demands.” We hear that, just like the girls of Salem, we take the “pink haired loons” much too seriously when they point their finger at someone. In a reference to Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, Doyle concludes, just a few pages after he challenges us to “restore the need for nuance,” that “the keys of the kingdom must be wrenched back from the crazy children.”
Doyle isn’t wrong about censoriousness on the left, but his account of the new puritans and their power is too simplistic and exaggerated to be of much use. To be fair, Doyle makes any number of concessions to nuance. But he almost always pulls the rug out from under himself in that regard.
For example, he concedes that there is an identity politics of the left and the right. But his treatment of the two lacks any sense of proportion. A tiny student Twitter account that whitewashed Stalin’s gulags rates a couple of paragraphs—not to mention a lecture on the “tendency to persist with false convictions even when evidence is produced to contradict them.” How much space is merited for Steve Bannon, who believes that the way to counter the media is to “flood the zone with shit,” and whose very popular podcast regularly features voter fraud nonsense, and who openly described Breitbart Media when he was its chair as a “platform for the alt-right”? The same—a couple of paragraphs. There is time though for a lecture on the “historical illiteracy” of branding Bannon a fascist.
Doyle dismisses with a wave of the hand the robust debate among liberals like him, as well as conservatives, about whether the fascism label does in fact fit some pieces of the Trumpian right. What’s stunning is that a writer purporting to study evidence-free beliefs and mass delusion doesn’t think birtherism, election denialism and so on are worthy of note. The right appears in the New Puritans as a racist but powerless fringe—and that, too, mostly when Doyle wants to chide the left for abetting or resembling far rightists.
That makes sense because if Doyle’s thesis about the new puritans’ “stranglehold” over our institutions is to work, the contemporary GOP can’t exist; Fox News can’t exist; social media platforms on which conservative publications do remarkably well can’t exist. Unsurprisingly, they hardly feature in the book. That, however, is a problem for an author whose repeated refrain is that the new puritans are selling an “alternative reality.”
In another concession to nuance, Doyle allows that the “charge of systemic racism should be taken seriously,” in part because “racist policies from the past can have an impact on the perpetuation of racism in the present.” But he doesn’t consider one conclusion that a reasonable person might draw from that admission, namely, that one can’t combat such racism without focusing on race. Nor does he consider another explanation—that a peoplehood can be forged in part from a common history, including a history of discrimination.
A sensible liberal response to those suggestions might be that race-neutral politics are more likely to mitigate the harms of discrimination than race-conscious politics. But Doyle insists that race-conscious politics are identity politics and that “the perverse end point of identity politics—whether that be on the identitarian left or the racist far right—is segregation.”
Whatever one thinks of the “affinity housing” one encounters on some college campuses that Doyle criticizes as a form of segregation, it doesn’t make us wiser to narrow our sense of the difference between voluntarily living with people with whom we have something in common and being compelled to live with people because others consider us inferior, disloyal or dirty. That’s not to say that there aren’t fruitful comparisons to be made between the left and the right, or even between self-styled anti-racists and racists. But such comparisons shouldn’t collapse the difference between an internment camp and a Japanese culture club.
The idea that social justice is a religion of sorts is now, as Doyle concedes, “commonplace” as is his puritan analogy. Many thoughtful books have been written about the ways in which the principles and psychology of left-wing activism undermine liberal principles, the pursuit of knowledge or progressive reform. Many of them are popular books that require no additional popularization.
So, if a new book is going to tread this well-worn ground, it should be in the service of making us smarter about the present climate for free expression and inquiry. Instead, despite regular nods to the value of reasonableness, Doyle seeks to rile us up. In a characteristic moment, Doyle warns, “we must exercise a degree of caution when it comes to drawing comparisons between the antics of ‘woke’ activists and the horrors that Solzhenitsyn describes.” But only a degree. So he plunges right in.
An anti-woke Titania McGrath could hardly have done better.
Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College and a conservative, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education