Rise of the new Puritans: Once it was religious fanatics who sucked all the fun out of life but today it’s joyless young social justice warriors, writes JULIE BURCHILL, as she reveals why she refuses to bow at their altar of wokeness
The American wit Gore Vidal once observed that, in the 17th century, the Puritans left England for America ‘not because they were persecuted for their religious beliefs, but because they were forbidden to persecute others for their beliefs’.
Surveying the ever-growing pile-up that is wokery in Britain, it’s hard not to recall these words. For woke is the first alleged social justice movement that seeks not to extend freedoms, but — in the manner of all vicious, bullying cults — to limit them.
The great progressive crusades of the 20th century — from women’s liberation to civil rights for black and gay people — sought to increase the span of human dignity by making sure the same rules applied fairly and to everyone.
But as I pointed out in the book I published last year, Welcome To The Woke Trials: How Identity Killed Progressive Politics, the woke movement — that censorious, high-minded mob trying to force everyone else into following their narrow worldview — has nothing so liberal about it.
Instead, it has far more in common with the hysterical witch-hunting of the Middle Ages.
Now two new books take up my thesis: that wokery has a quasi-religious nature, and it’s only getting worse.
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First, there’s The Rise Of The New Puritans, by American Noah Rothman. And secondly there’s Andrew Doyle’s forthcoming tome, The New Puritans: How The Religion Of Social Justice Captured The Western World.
All three of us have been struck by the strange cultish quality of the modern ‘social justice’ movement. For a start, there’s the magical thinking. To the woke, a penis can belong to a female if the owner dons a dress: trans-substantiation!
A starving, penniless drug addict living in a doorway has ‘privilege’ — as long as he’s a white male.
Words mean the opposite of what they’re supposed to. At the BBC, ‘diversity’ is parroting the same line on everything from the importance of breakfast to the folly of Brexit. ‘Inclusivity’ is cancelling anyone who doesn’t mouth the platitudes of the mob.
Criticism of Islam is ‘punching down’, despite it being the world’s fastest-growing religion. (Far safer to kick the Christians instead.) And so on.
The hierarchy of the new woke puritans, too, is strikingly similar to that of the old religions. There’s a priestly caste who are never to be questioned: men in frocks and their aggressive ‘allies’.
After a brief flurry of feminine freedom towards the end of the last century, once again men are the self-appointed experts on everything female.
The most recent and ridiculous example of this was Jason Grant, a young macho man — and former employee of Imperial Tobacco — who was appointed Scotland’s first ‘Period Dignity Officer’. Because nothing says ‘dignity’ like men telling women how to deal with their intimate body issues.
Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters stand with other protesters sitting and blocking traffic on Whitehall at the bottom of Trafalgar Square, during a rally in London in October 2019
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Julie Burchill (pictured) reveals why she refuses to bow at the social justice warriors’ altar of wokeness
Just like so many primitive old faiths, children are being sacrificed to the woke religion — not the ritual child murders of the Aztecs or the child-raping of the Catholic Church, but rather stunting children’s bodies with puberty blockers, sterilising them and maiming them with mutilating surgery.
And then there’s the woke congregation. Look how the flock parade themselves on social media, as they swing between primly signalling their own virtue and baying for the blood of the sinners.
The witches of bygone times were mostly older women who dared to live independently of men, preferring cats. Younger women often denounced them to the authorities.
In an eerie parallel, today it’s older feminists of my own vintage who are more likely to point out certain self-evident truths: that ‘cervix-havers’ are women, say, and that penis-havers are not. Yet it is we who are are traduced by our younger sisters as ‘Terfs’: trans-exclusionary radical feminists, the witches de nos jours.
Queen of the Terfs, of course, is J. K. Rowling, who has received death threats from the woke cult ever since she made fun of their language two years ago, saying: ‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’
As I say, most of the wokies savaging Britain’s most successful author are young: but sometimes they’re women old enough to know better. Joanne Harris, 58, mildly well-known for a single novel decades ago and now chair of the Society of Authors, was recently criticised by Rowling for, as Rowling saw it, insufficiently defending authors from attack following the monstrous attempted murder of Salman Rushdie in New York state.
With Rushdie himself still fighting for his life in hospital, Harris found it the ideal moment to post a jolly poll on Twitter: ‘Fellow authors, Have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)?’
After Rowling pointed out that she had ‘received no communication whatsoever from Harris expressing sympathy for the death and rape threats I’ve received’, Harris adopted a ‘characteristic tone of martyred saintdom’, in the words of Ian Leslie in The Critic magazine. She moaned how ‘exhausting’ was her endless fight for authors’ rights.
But as Leslie also pointed out, only last year, authors including Ian McEwan had signed an open letter highlighting the abuse Rowling faced on social media. Like any woke adherent, Harris’s response was not to praise free speech — it was to publish her own letter in defence of transgender rights.
As Leslie aptly wrote, the letter described itself as ‘a message of love and solidarity’ — evoking someone smiling beatifically as they spit’.
So much for publishing. But the woke puritans live up to their name in another sense: their utter, unending joylessness. Oliver Cromwell’s 17th-century Puritans cancelled Christmas and exhorted the faithful to enjoy — paradoxically — ‘sober mirth’.
Today, studies show that people in their twenties drink less — and have less sex — than their parents did. And their comedy is explicitly unfunny — and far more timid and prim than it was even a decade ago.
According to Noah Rothman — author of The Rise Of The New Puritans — the urge to police other people’s fun is a feature of every puritanical movement, including the one that murdered ‘witches’ in Massachusetts in the 1690s.
In 2020, the height of socially approved comedy was Nanette, by the Australian so-called comedienne Hannah Gadsby. Hannah has autism and ADHD, and the show included po-faced discussions of her gender and sexuality. It seemed to me to be explicitly and deliberately not funny.
As Rothman notes: ‘Perhaps nothing is as important to the promotion of a virtuous society as what you’re allowed to laugh at.’
So on one side today there are heretics such as Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle: too big to cancel and spurred on to riffs of ever-more seditious glee by every cry of: ‘You can’t say that!’
Queen of the Terfs, of course, is J. K. Rowling (pictured), who has received death threats from the woke cult ever since she made fun of their language two years ago, saying: ‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?’
So much for publishing. But the woke puritans live up to their name in another sense: their utter, unending joylessness. Oliver Cromwell’s 17th-century Puritans cancelled Christmas and exhorted the faithful to enjoy — paradoxically — ‘sober mirth’
On the other side are the ‘comedians’ that the BBC endlessly promotes, but who are comedians only in the way that the undead can be called ‘alive’: your Nish Kumars, Shappi Khorsandis and Josie Longs.
Then there’s the ghastly Frankie Boyle. He jokes about rape and disabled children in a way that would normally get him banned from the woke airwaves for being too offensive — but since he’s got the ‘correct’ views on Palestine, that’s all right.
Meanwhile, in the manner of a maniacal Inquisition burning books instead of appreciating art for art’s sake, British universities are today said to have more than a thousand ‘trigger warnings’ in place on their undergraduate reading lists.
Warwick University recently issued a spine-chiller describing ‘upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life’ in Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Hey, farmer — leave them pigs alone!
Becoming a rock star was always the working-class dream: many of my generation swerved university for it. Traditionally the music industry was so debauched that it made Hollywood Babylon look like Tunbridge Wells, and it would have been unthinkable a few years back that the wagging finger of woke would scold this last bastion of sleaze into submission.
‘With its narrow perception of art and its prudish impositions, is it conceivable that the new puritanism will ever achieve anything of lasting artistic value?’ writes Andrew Doyle (pictured) in his forthcoming book The New Puritans: How The Religion Of Social Justice Captured The Western World
But last Christmas, there were two versions of Fairytale Of New York played by BBC Radio — an unexpurgated one on Radio 2 containing the homophobic word ‘f*****’ and a censored one on Radio 1 for the lily-livered youngsters. If rock and roll were invented today, the young would be burning their parents’ records.
The New Puritans are the type described by Aldous Huxley in his novel Crome Yellow: ‘To be able to behave badly and call your bad behaviour ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.’
Religious mobs in the West — unless they are a bunch of bearded Islamist buffoons up in arms about a film they haven’t seen or a book they haven’t read — have been replaced by woke rabble-rousers and their cultish followers.
The idea that great — or even decent — art can ever emerge from such an intellectually frigid climate of fear and self-censorship is laughable. A quote from Andrew Doyle’s forthcoming book, The New Puritans: How The Religion Of Social Justice Captured The Western World, sums it up: ‘With its narrow perception of art and its prudish impositions, is it conceivable that the new puritanism will ever achieve anything of lasting artistic value?’
Doyle continues: ‘This is the gang that would happily see Dionysus turn teetotal and Eros fitted with a chastity belt. Artists who are in the grip of this worldview tend to produce bloodless and dispensable plays, books, films and other creative works, which are interlarded with social justice boilerplate. So much of it seems interchangeable, like a mass frenzy of plagiarism. How could such a movement ever give us a Michelangelo, a Bach, a Yeats, a Marlowe, a Bronte? Their half-made bed will not admit such weighty occupants.’
Religion has been the source of many evils throughout history.
But the Enlightenment, the separation of church and state and the rise of Protestantism have seen Christianity move from darkness into light. And it has also been a force for good — think of the crusade against slavery.
The new puritans will leave no beauty in the shape of songs, or buildings, or good works. They will simply leave a steaming pile of cultural debris — and generations yet unborn, like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet Of The Apes, will fall to their knees in the rubble, wondering how so many people could have become hoodwinked — and joined their terrible cult.
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