The Puritanism Of Progressive Parents

Jul 21, 2013 @ 7:26pm

Spurred by voters in Portland, Oregon who defeated a bill that would have provided for the fluoridation of their drinking water, Mark Oppenheimer decries the trend of “left-wing Puritanism”. He relays this telling anecdote:

Last month, at a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. 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. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

His broader argument about the meaning of liberalism:

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 makes no sense to re-enslave ourselves with fear, worry, and stress. That is not liberal but reactionary.

Arit John adds a point of contrast:

[C]onservative parents have generally become relatively more open-minded. Lenore Skenazy was famously called the worst mom in America after admitting that she let her 9-year-old ride New York’s subway home alone. But really, she’s just instilling her kids with self reliance and pull-yourself-up- by-your-bootstraps-grit. Skenazy’s Free Range Kids movement supports events like “Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day,” which is both self-explanatory and (potentially) horrifying. And yet none of her children has gone missing or been taken away by the authorities.

All those liberal worries about about obesity, high blood pressure, germs, autism and industrial chemicals, is leading to a lot of stress, which may in the end be more harmful than anything. Your bickering about the virtues of antibacterial hand lotion might give your kid a complex.

Jul 25, 2013 @ 10:44am

Ctd …

A reader writes:

I’ll leave readers to decide how convincingly Mark Oppenheimer made his case about liberal puritanism, but as a proud Stumptowner, I gotta call BS on dragging Portland into it.  Like so many local issues, when an essayist just grabs a headline and lazily uses it as a metaphor for some larger theme, his whole premise is undermined by misunderstanding what actually happened.

So here’s what actually happened. Flouridation has gone down at the ballot three times here – 1956, 1962, and 1978.  Oregon, like other Western states, was red until the Clinton years.  The voters who defeated these measures through the decades were not the hipster stereotypes you see on Portlandia.  In this year’s election, the proponents outspent opponents 3 to 1 and represented a lot of the bedrock liberal interests that fuel Portland’s liberalism.

The reason voters rejected it is the same reason they always do: they have a romantic love of the natural beauty of Oregon and are enormously proud that their water comes straight from the Bull Run Reservoir in the Mt Hood wilderness.  It arrives completely untouched and untreated – pure Cascade spring water.  Most Oregonians are immigrants who were attracted to this region for the natural bounty, and Bull Run water is a powerful testament and metaphor for that purity.  The measure failed by 20 points, not because radical lefties were afraid of fluoride (even in Portland, you don’t get 60% on far-left votes), but because of the idiosyncrasies of tap water.  Lots of random Oregonians voted to save the water in its natural state.  That’s how we roll.

(For the record, I voted for fluoride.)

Update from a few readers:

“It arrives completely untouched and untreated – pure Cascade spring water.” Bullshit. All tap water in the country is treated. One hiker with giardia taking a dump in the watershed and the whole city, well, you get the idea. (The watershed is generally off-limits, but still.) From the City’s website:

The 102 square-mile protected Bull Run watershed collects water from rain and snowmelt that then flows to the Bull Run River and its tributaries. The river drains into two reservoirs, where more than 17 billion gallons are stored. The Portland Water Bureau treats the water before it enters into the three conduits that transport it to Portland. The water moves through the system by gravity, requiring no fossil fuel consumption to move water from its intake to the main storage reservoir at Powell Butte.

The other reader:

With all due respect to my fellow Portlander, my read of the anti-fluoride vote was very different.  I didn’t see it as a romantic desire to preserve the natural beauty or the clear water coming from Bull Run and helping maintain our PBFs.  Rather, I saw it as exactly the kind puritanism the author of the original piece so justifiably pointed out.

I wrote a piece for Skepchick on the subject and posted it to my Facebook wall and my circle disseminated it widely.  When I was interviewed by the Oregonian (local paper) about the issue, friends of my partner at PSU started asking why I was “shilling for the chemical industry” and accused me of the most sinister motives.  I didn’t “care about children” etc.  It is the psychology of purity and taboo in run completely rampant.

The left has entered into a love affair with the naturalistic fallacy which, at times, is equally infuriating and amusing.  Infuriating because there’s no scientifically supportable reason to be anti-fluoride, anti-vaccine or anti-GMO and the hypocrisy of leftists who mock right-wing partisans for their global warming denial or their evolution denial is just a little too rich for my tastes.  It is amusing because Whole Foods and other companies have discovered that the primrose path to the wallets of liberals is marked by the signs “Natural” and “Organic”.  Put those words on your product and lefties will beat a path to your door to give you their money. There’s a very cynical part of me that gets a chuckle out of it.  Then I remember the public policy implications of neither side being willing to be “humble before the data” of the real world and I face-palm and despair for the kind of mess we’re going to burden my grandchildren with.

Now, I say this as a committed liberal (although I like to think of myself as a Burkean Liberal, by which I mean that my public policy commitments are, on the whole, pretty in line with social democracy but tempered and held in check by a rather pessimistic view of human nature that we are not perfectible as a species and we should, where possible, look for incremental changes instead of radical lurchings pillar to post in public policy).  Above all we should try not to break things because as many ways as there are to have a society, there are far more ways to have a bad society than a good one.

Jul 29, 2013 @ 3:56pm

Ctd …

A reader writes:

As a progressive liberal parent, parenting in progressive liberal Seattle, I’m finding the lopsided caricature of liberal parenting presented recently on the blog to be rather unfair. In the specific case of fluoridation, it is by no means proven that fluoride is harmless –  some studies have linked fluoride to disruption of the endocrine system, leading to metabolic disorders and thyroid problems.  Could America’s obesity rates be somehow linked to its obsession with fluoridating its water?  The case against fluoridation is given here.

But in general, I would consider being against fluoridation to be a somewhat conservative stance. To me the idea of adding medicines to drinking water seems to be the nanny state operating at its finest (there is no other reason for adding fluoride to water beyond the prevention of tooth decay).  If I want to use fluoride, then it’s super simple for me to just buy a fluoridated toothpaste, giving me a degree of choice and control over what I put into my body that federally-mandated fluoridation just doesn’t give me.

On a more general note, I’m a firm believer in “you are what you eat”. I don’t think it’s an accident that my daughter is very rarely sick. It’s because she generally gets her five fruits and vegetables a day.  But I have to be vigilant over what my eight-year-old daughter puts in her body because no one else is doing it for me.  Added sugars, salt, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated fats are routinely added to processed foods, often when you would least expect them. Why do juice boxes require added sugar? Wherever she goes – camps, after school activities, birthday parties – she is presented with an overwhelming abundance of boxed pizza, boxed mac ‘n cheese and processed sugary treats. Try finding a vegetable, or even fruit,  on any kids menu in America. And that’s before we get to the barrage of propaganda on behalf of (government subsidized) Big Ag that she’s subjected to every time she turns on the TV.

It seems to me that “conservatism” is all about preserving the status quo of Big Ag and Big Pharma, whereas it is we progressive liberals who are seeking to return to and conserve an earlier simpler world where we can all have access to nutritious food grown in proper soil by local farmers. If we occasionally seem paranoid and over-zealous – and we are sometimes – it’s because that simple goal is nowadays really difficult to achieve.

Update from a conservative reader:

It warmed my heart to see this self-described “progressive liberal” parent from Seattle rail against government-mandated fluoridation and government-subsidized Big Ag – it certainly isn’t the libertarians pushing this stuff. I only wish that more of my friends on the left would see the virtues of smaller government.

Jul 30, 2013 @ 2:42pm

Ctd …

A reader quotes the previous one:

To me the idea of adding medicines to drinking water seems to be the nanny state operating at its finest (there is no other reason for adding fluoride to water beyond the prevention of tooth decay).  If I want to use fluoride, then it’s super simple for me to just buy a fluoridated toothpaste, giving me a degree of choice and control over what I put into my body that federally-mandated fluoridation just doesn’t give me.

This statement is so full of naivety that I barely know where to start. Does the reader also oppose all other federally-mandated water requirements? Does she realize how many chemicals (or medicines) are required to get water treated and safe? Why are they not nanny-state? Why not abolish those? People are perfectly able to buy bottled water in the supermarket, no? Or would that not be possible because most bottled water is just tap-water from elsewhere, and you need some standards to keep that safe?

Another reader:

The post from your Seattle correspondent could have been drafted by my lesbian sister and her naturopath wife. Nothing that wasn’t organic ever crossed their daughter’s lips and she was never sick. Until she had nine cavities. And until she was diagnosed with leukemia. It nearly killed her parents to subject my niece to general anesthesia for dentistry and chemotherapy for cancer, but now she is healthy and thriving.

Ignorance of science and medicine is a luxury that is great so long as you’re basically healthy. When you’re really sick, however, you’d better toss all that alternative crap out the window.


It never ceases to amaze me how oblivious self-identified “progressive liberals” are to the defining characteristic they share with the Tea Party: nostalgia for a world that never existed. When in American history did everyone – rich or poor, white or black – “have access to nutritious food grown in proper soil by local farmers”? Is this the same “earlier simpler world” as the unvaccinated utopia where no one was ever crippled by polio or killed by the measles?

I especially like the repetitive linking to an advocacy website reliant upon selective quotation and interpretation of scientific literature. It’s a perfect example of how the simultaneous blind reverence for and total ignorance of science permeates so much of this community.

Another piles on:

I can’t believe we’re still talking about this crap.  Are there legitimate concerns about fluoride? Possibly. Should our diets contain less sugar and processed junk? Yes. But the bottom line is that fluoride is great for those among us, especially children, who can’t afford to go to the dentist. In a perfect world we wouldn’t need fluoride because everyone would receive basic healthcare despite their ability, or lack thereof, to pay for it. Maybe we’re working on creating that kind of world, but we’re not there yet, and fluoride is something that even the smallest municipalities can do right now. The fact that the citizens of Portland couldn’t find it in their hearts to think of the welfare of their least fortunate community members (who are not so gradually being pushed into the suburbs by gentrification anyway) instead of a bunch of reactionary pseudo-science is a travesty.

Aug 6, 2013 @ 3:01pm

Ctd …

A reader writes:

As a former resident of Portland, I’ve followed the fluoridation debate lightly without much of an opinion, but have dug into it some more with the unfurling of this thread. I tip my cap to the reader who linked to the anti-fluoride site. I, for one, have been trying to figure out what’s wrong with my teeth for some time, with no leads (even from dentists) until I saw the pictures of dental fluorosis:


I grew up in Lawrence, KS which had fluoridated water, and my teeth look like those with mild dental fluorosis. (But I also had no cavities while growing up.)

Overall, I thought that some of the arguments made on the site were compelling, some less so. But the reflexive cries of “whack-job” by readers in the following post made me cringe. In addition to providing zero links to their claims of pseudo-science for others to evaluate, there’s a rich irony lost on the responders.

Oppenheimer’s article wasn’t about fluoridation or organic food; it was about the aggressive purification of the left betraying the fundamental values of classic liberalism and subverting its societal priorities. That those readers imagine that they’re proving Oppenheimer’s point by citing Western medicine is laughable. There is perhaps no better example of “liberal” ideological purity and certainty than mainstream Western medicine, which dismisses all forms of knowing that can’t been “proven” in a lab.

A reader with a long-term illness writes:

I couldn’t resist responding to this statement: “Ignorance of science and medicine is a luxury that is great so long as you’re basically healthy. When you’re really sick, however, you’d better toss all that alternative crap out the window.” What upsets me most is the either/or attitude the reader advocates. I think this mindset permeates our culture.  I think it’s completely unproductive and does nothing but produce self-righteous justification for one’s current beliefs.

I was raised holistically by both my parents. On the rare occasions me or my brother did get sick my parents used homeopathy and other alternative methods and home remedies to treat us.  When we had colds, it was honey / lemon / cayenne pepper tea, and onion cough syrup.  If you look either of the home remedies up you will see that they are very old and have been used for many generations.  Neither of us ever had bronchitis, tonsillitis, strep throat or other common childhood illnesses.  We had our regular check ups and yes we got our required shots.  We were the healthiest kids in our class and of most of our friends.

However, that changed for me around 10-12 when I got bit by a tick.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I had contracted Lyme disease.  My lyme would go undiagnosed for close to 20 years until I reached 30.  In my early 20s I developed very severe endometriosis.  After much searching and many visits to various doctors and specialists over a 3.5 year period, I was properly diagnosed and had two surgeries for it.  The first was diagnostic but didn’t fix the pain.  The second was done two years after my first by a surgical specialist and I was finally on the mend – or so I thought.  I was diagnosed with chronic and untreated lyme disease two years after my second surgery.  (Before any of your skeptics chime in on my lyme diagnosis, my diagnosis was confirmed based on the CDC guidelines for diagnosing Lyme, even though my bite occurred almost 20 years prior, and I never had any of the initial symptoms of a bull’s eye rash, fever or flu like symptoms.)

I write this brief history to note that I am exactly the type of kid the reader was referring to.  But you know what ultimately got me better?  BOTH alternative therapies and Western medicine.  During the two years between my first and second surgeries, I used prescribed drugs by my gynecologist but I used acupuncture and Chinese herbs to support my system.  This kept my nausea and fatigue at bay and was very helpful in lowering my pain.  I also used a long list of other therapies, including medical marijuana. My Lyme treatment started with herbs for the first 1.5 years followed by a solid year of long-term antibiotic therapy.  During this I worked closely with a kinesiologist that my Lyme doctor (yes, a regular MD) sent me to in order to tweak my supplements and antibiotics as needed.

Without using both holistic and allopathic medicine, I don’t think I would be as healthy and thriving as I am today.  My Lyme is in remission and my endometriosis is under control.  I still have mild symptoms that are controlled with herbs and supplements in addition to progesterone therapy, and a diet focused on whole foods, fruits and veggies. I think it’s incredibly narrow minded to dismiss the “alternative crap” as “ignorance of science”.  I needed the drugs and the surgery, and I was perfectly willing to admit that and to use them as needed.  But I wasn’t about to dismiss other treatments I’ve used preventatively my entire life that helped to sustain me and move me through my medical issues in a gentler way.

Update from a reader:

“There is perhaps no better example of ‘liberal’ ideological purity and certainty than mainstream Western medicine, which dismisses all forms of knowing that can’t been ‘proven’ in a lab.” I have my issues with liberal dogma (which most certainly does exist), but if one cannot prove something in the lab, then it isn’t “known” – it is rumor. Worse yet, such logic leads to homeopathy, healing crystals, and other bunk.

True, some herbs have medicinal properties, but unless one has run a double-blind test, then you truly don’t know if the herbs do anything beyond the placebo effect. The US government has spent over a billion dollars trying to prove non-Western medical claims, and guess what? The herbs and other items very rarely do anything positive, occasionally show mild effects, and often have undocumented side effects.

Wanting things that have been proven in the lab might be something many liberals want, but that want is based on what science has done for us, while the dismissal of the scientific method by your reader in nothing short of scientific denialism that is also the father of global warming denying, anti-vaccination movements, and other kinds of crazy.

Aug 8, 2013 @ 10:43am

Ctd …

The thread continues:

Thanks so much for posting my response.  It’s one of the many things I truly appreciate about your site, the airing of both sides. You posted an update from another reader immediately Fourpetal_St._Johns-wort_(Hypericum_tetrapetalum)_(8460154764)after mine:

True, some herbs have medicinal properties, but unless one has run a double-blind test, then you truly don’t know if the herbs do anything beyond the placebo effect. The US government has spent over a billion dollars trying to prove non-Western medical claims, and guess what? The herbs and other items very rarely do anything positive, occasionally show mild effects, and often have undocumented side effects.

I have to take issue with this comment as well.  I happen to work in the dietary supplement industry, specifically selling botanical extracts in raw material form to dietary supplement manufacturers and contract manufacturers.  I’ve worked for some of the largest German Botanical Extract companies that are at the forefront of research for botanical medicines.

I’m all for running double-blind tests, but the design of the study is incredibly important.  I’ll give you an example: St. John’s Wort. You may recall in the late 1990’s that St. John’s Wort was discussed as an exciting way to treat depression and anxiety.  Historically it’s been used to treat various nerve conditions and disorders, as well as mild to moderate depression.  There was a huge explosion of sales of St. John’s Wort after Barbara Walters did a 20/20 special on the herbal extract that aired in early July of 1997.

Naturally the NIH decided to do it’s own double-blind placebo controlled study, but they decided in spite of little evidence, to research St. John’s Wort for treatment of moderate to severe depression.  However, most materia medica’s and botanical monographs for St. John’s Wort suggest it for mild to moderate depression.  So the study moved forward, and guess what? The results showed that it gave little to no effect for treating severe depression.  This was no shock to those of us in the industry but the general public and media response to the news was that yet another herbal medicine was proven to be ineffective.

Another great example is to think of the deaths we have in the U.S. each year by those who forage for wild mushrooms.  You inevitably hear about someone who picked and ate the wrong species and dies from liver toxicity.  In Germany they use an IV treatment of milk thistle extract, which is kept stocked in hospitals, and their outcomes are much better.  There have been a few instances of doctors in the U.S. using the IV therapy with promising results and there have been discussions with the FDA to approve the use of this therapy.

I’d be much more inclined to listen to studies on botanicals that come out of Europe because they actually use botanical medicine in their medical system much more than we do in the U.S., and their herbal therapies are often treated as drugs requiring a prescription.  They also integrate herbal therapy into their medical schools so medical doctors know how to properly use them and treat their patients.

Here’s the thing.  Botanical/herbal medicines are a great when used preventatively, or as a first line of defense against common illnesses and ailments, if you know how to use them properly and use them at the required dose.  If they don’t do the trick, you bring out the big guns, prescription medicines and more invasive surgical interventions.  I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but to take the either/or approach is to ignore centuries of successful historical use for botanical/herbal therapies.

(Photo of St. John’s Wort via Wikimedia Commons)

Aug 21, 2013 @ 12:41pm

Ctd …

By Tracy R. Walsh

Keith Humphreys thinks the phrase “progressive Puritans” is unfair to both progressives and Puritans:

A Puritan would be delighted to meet a fellow member of the faithful, but that is not what I see in these parents. If they are vegetarian and meet another vegetarian, they are unhappy and commit to becoming a vegan. If they then meet another vegan, they become unhappy and commit to becoming an ovo-lactic vegan. They don’t want other people to share faith in a community of peers; they want to outrank their lessers within a hierarchy. This is also why they are not truly liberal or progressive. They are not trying to save the world, they are trying to get an edge in life for themselves and for little Hayden and Sawyer too.

Rather than surrender the terms liberal or progressive so easily to the domain of lifestyle and shallow issues of personal identity, I suggest we let those terms retain their political meaning by not describing panicky, entitled, hierarchy-obsessed, materialistic strivers as “liberals.” Likewise, let’s not throw theology and history to the side and call them “Puritans” either. If we need a shorthand term for them, I suggest that someone with literary skill invent an entirely new one, as long it isn’t very polite.

Any ideas?

(Thumbnail photo by Flickr user thefixer)