The great American writer dubbed the Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, was not completely accurate in his famous definition of puritanism.
“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, maybe happy.”
Mencken’s observation is correct. There is an aspect of puritanical posturing that does take perverse pleasure in denying happiness to others. He is only identifying a symptom of the disease. Puritanism extends deeper than the passive-aggressive jealousy of the bitter and homely spinster or the staid minster. There is a deeper pedagogy entrenched in the panoply of behaviors and norms encompassing Puritanism. Less obvious implications of puritanism are only apparent to those who have grown up in New England. Even the era of the pilgrim has withered away with the sands of time, Puritanism has never left Massachusetts. Only the behaviors considered morally criminal and the means of enforcement have changed. The Pillories of the Massachusetts Bay Colony are now figurative. Public derision is now expressed on cyberspace in the comment section of the local paper’s arrest log.
Mencken misses the mark on Puritanism by overlooking is its focus on “education”. Education in New England has historically manifested itself in many forms. Ranging from the derisive finger-wagging of a neighbor, the lectures of the schoolhouse, and even rapturous sermons being shouted from the pulpit. The eye of judgment has always been pervasive throughout the region. Education has always been tacitly viewed as served a “civilizing” function. Like a missionary imposing his beliefs and customs on tribal society. The assumption that most sinful transgression is the byproduct of ignorance rather than wickedness. Once the empty-headed fool has been properly informed, they will conform to the norms of adequate deportment. A corollary of the progressive concept of the perfectibility of man. This lofty goal cannot possibly be attained, but that does not mean quixotic do-gooders will not try. The overarching assumption being that each step forward is unquestionably an improvement. Moving upward towards the next graduation of progress cleanses us of our past sins resulting from our ignorance. Implying that education has a purifying effect that brings us closer to what ought to be. Such idealism runs astray of the fallibility and true nature of humans.
The idea of salvation through social, academic, and theological education shares common ground with statutes that enforce victimless crimes. Both are designed to save people from themselves. This attribute better describes the defining features of puritanism. Many of the “blue laws” still on the books in New England do little to promote the vague notion of “public interest”. Serve as nothing more than a safety net insulating people from making “bad decisions”. The element of choice even to make an imprudent decision is an immutable attribute of a free society. Even in the name of safety and securing the ignorant the practice of enforcing victimless crimes is questionable at best. Some pragmatists may cite the potential of externalities being justification for upholding laws that prohibit victimless crimes. Spillover effects are never guaranteed. Anticipating the adverse consequences of gambling, adultery, and prostitution is merely speculation. Similar crimes are not going to disappear just because there are criminal penalties for engaging in these behaviors. To pretend that an omnipotent legislator can save people from themselves is at best foolish. For most crimes where the state is the victim, the statute can be regarded as a government-imposed safety net. A parameter was established to protect people from their unfortunate proclivities. The human affinity for intoxication, games of chance, and promiscuity will not cease because the law deems it punishable. The illusion that laws prohibiting vice protect people from harming themselves and others are grossly out of touch with reality. The greatest examples of the inherent shortcomings of Puritanism must be the abject failures of the War on Drugs and Alcohol prohibition. Both flawed social experiments served only to further erode the civil liberties of the American people.
Laws regulating intoxicants, sexual activities, traffic safety laws, etc. may act to save people from the perils of dangerous behavior, what does education save the ignorant from? In most cases, being ignorant of arithmetic or history will not present an immediate and overt danger. Nevertheless, New England led the charge on proliferating public education and the nation’s first compulsory education laws. A clear crusade to protect the general public from their lack of knowledge and understanding. From the perspective of the progressive white knight, levitating people morally and intellectually is an ethical quest that is above reproach. Educating the populous hypothetically creates informed voters. A point that Mencken himself was extremely skeptical of. Despite the increase in minimum mandatory education requirements over the years, the general public has become less enlightened. Distracted by an endless array of entertainment options, no one possesses the attention span to delve into the intricacies of complex political issues. Validating the observations of H.L. Mencken back in the 1930s. Considering how people have become profoundly more ignorant over the years, he must be rolling over in his grave. Yet, the proponents of public education still crusade to fight this uphill battle. Whether their convictions are rooted in a hopelessly naïve optimism or personal gain is difficult to ascertain.
Over the decades, Puritanism has merged with political progressivism forming a secular cadre of moral crusaders. Shifting from saving the average person from evils of the excesses of inebriation and fornication to more abstract transgressions. Some of these initiatives have been integrated into formal education. The lofty campaigns centered around fair-trade produce, inclusion, and diversity, and aggressive attempt viciously stomp out prejudice. Once again, saving people from the excesses of what is deemed ignorant. If you do not purchase ethically sourced coffee you are complicit in the exploitation of third-world coffee farmers. The education efforts have evolved beyond merely inform the ignorant. Now also encourage the newly initiated to proselytize to their ill-informed peers. Operating with the evangelical zeal of door-to-door Bible salesman. Each new person that you have properly informed has been saved from the darkness of their ignorant ways. Leading bands of crusaders to even police language, placing the First Amendment in their crosshairs. Placing so much strain on the language we use, humor is starting to become joyless. Hollowed out by the sanctimonious finger-wagging of droves of woke-social justice warriors.