Puritanism’s Long Shadows

“Puritanism, in whatever expression, is a poisonous germ. On the surface everything may look strong and vigorous; yet the poison works its way persistently, until the entire fabric is doomed.” – Emma Goldman

With an apparent raging storm of accusations and allegations against powerful men in the US, social media has erupted into another cause célèbre. While many are optimistic that this will lead to a revolution of sorts, some are cautioning us to beware of the terrible turn things like this can take, especially within a society with deep inequities and a dark legacy of punitive legalism. This isn’t to suggest that sexism, misogyny and sexual violence are not persistent and colossal problems, nor that they shouldn’t be exposed and condemned. But to look at American cultural trends without acknowledging its puritan roots is not only dishonest; history has proven it to have tragic consequences.

While most of the recent sexual harassment, abuse and rape allegations against powerful men in the US are not directly rooted in the rigid mores of puritanism it should be noted that its insidious tendrils still extend into every facet of American life. And it isn’t only the Christian Right that steers these kinds of societal attitudes. This legacy strongly influences modern liberalism and how institutions and the powerful make decisions and interpret human failings, morality and social ills. They look at culture through puritanism’s punitive lens which is reflected in a variety of ways.

 

In regard to accusations or allegations, America’s history is littered with examples of frenzied crusades reminiscent of puritanism. This is not in any way to suggest that most of the people making accusations about improprieties, harassment or assault today are lying or merely wrong. And it is not intended to protect powerful, wealthy men with status and influence; but the opposite. This is a society whose brutal past casts long shadows. There are countless instances in US history which document the detrimental impacts of hysteria created by false or exaggerated accusations.

The most historically infamous were the Salem Witch Trials, which mostly targeted women and endure as the tragic legacy of the Puritans themselves. The “Red Scare” of the 1950s which aimed to purge the US of communists and their sympathizers is another. Thousands of people lost careers, relationships, faced financial ruin, and even lost their lives in some instances due to suicide, thanks to being labeled a subversive, a homosexual (which was socially taboo and largely illegal at the time) or a pervert (which could be twisted to mean just about anything). The debunked day school “satanic ritual abuse” scandal of the 1980s and 90s is a more recent example, but to me one of the most tragic incidents involved a 14 year old black boy in Mississippi.

 

In 1955 a false accusation of sexual assault led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till. He was a black boy in the Jim Crow south and his accuser was a white woman. He was accused of whistling at the woman, grabbing her hand, making sexual innuendos and shouting obscenities. The boy had a speech impediment, and he was undoubtedly schooled by his family on how to “behave” in the oppressively hostile environment of white America, so this woman’s accusations bore little resemblance to the lived reality of millions of people. But it was of no consequence. He was dragged from his bed by a mob of white men, tortured, mutilated, tied with barbed wire and thrown over a bridge. His tragically horrid fate was linked to hundreds of years of racist oppression. But it is worth noting that this was just a little over 60 years ago and his accuser is still alive.

The current maelstrom of sexual assault allegations in the highest echelons of US media and the political establishment in its current form is likely only to produce enduring, material benefits for the already wealthy, privileged and powerful.This is because without a mass movement from below which addresses structural injustices and inequities endemic to the American power structure, the elite will continue to dictate how such things will unfold. The spectacle, at this point, is a squabble among the powerful, wealthy upper classes. So unless that structure itself is ultimately overturned all other social justice causes will continue to be co-opted and tainted by its elitist brush.

 

This is especially so when most of the revelations being made are actually emanating from the elite classes themselves. To the powerful, sex and sexuality are little more than commodities to trade, and most of the accused among their ranks will not likely suffer in real world consequences, only in optics.  After all, they have plenty of money, influence and access to armies of lawyers who will ensure that their class is ultimately protected from the most damning aspects of the US legal system. It is the lower castes who will likely suffer disproportionately from any punitive or legalistic actions they may produce as a response.

Politicians operating under an already grossly unfair and corrupt US oligarchy that worships “free market capitalism” will never address the conditions that generally lead to abuse, crime or assault like imposed poverty, institutional racism, debt wage slavery or the dismantling of the social safety net, it will instead answer with the only thing it has at its disposal: more punitive and retributive laws which always disproportionately affect the poor, youth and the disenfranchised. Sex offender registries are an example of this. Designed to punish crimes of a serious sexual nature and protect the public from dangerous predators, they have all too often ruined the lives of people who pose no threat to society. Urinating in public, teenagers having sex with other teenagers, breast feeding in public, engaging in prostitution or being a prostitute, all these things have threatened ordinary people with the stigma of being on a registry for life. And once on, they are restricted in employment, education and housing, further impoverishing people who were already poor.

 

The good thing is that this apparent “reckoning” need not remain in its current form. It need not be an issue generated by the elite and privileged class who limit its scope and respond to it with repression rather than restorative justice. I know some, both women as well as men, who have become more interested in antiwar activism because of it, others who are becoming more involved in solidarity with those in the global south who suffer under our racist, capitalist fueled, sweatshop economy and military occupations. In ecological activist circles it is galvanizing many to make the needed connection between a culture of rape and the rape of the living planet. It most certainly seems to be helping many to find the courage to come out of shadows of torment and find community and a sense of personal justice and healing. And at the very least it appears to be igniting a long overdue discussion in the broader society about sexual harassment, abuse and assault, and may also be causing some to honestly face the insidious demons of patriarchal misogyny.

I applaud, celebrate and stand in solidarity with all of this especially if it continues toward the revolutionary paradigm shift we so desperately need. But even with all this I know there might be some who, after reading this essay, will somehow think I am being an apologist for powerful men or sexual predators. So I want to make it clear I understand where much of the anger is coming from. It is not only thanks to years of counseling people who survived different kinds of sexual assault, but because I am a survivor of an assault myself. I won’t go into the lurid details, but it took a long time to get through the panic and rage that ensued after a terrifying experience. I am only sharing this to let those reading this know I do not take such things lightly or hold survivors in contempt. Nor do I dismiss the courage it takes to come forward.

 

I understand that the current reckoning unfolding among the powerful elite has not yet turned into anything described above. And it is my sincere hope that women from all strata of society will benefit from the societal sea change that could come as a result. But I also know how purges and other movements based on accusation, inference or allegations can often lead an already deeply unequal society down an even more frightening path. I know that, whether or not it is acknowledged, puritanism still persists in American culture and society. I know how the poor and people of colour (especially women), and the LGBTQ community have historically suffered the worst ramifications from such turns. And however unpopular a stance it might be, being silent about these concerns is simply not an option.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017


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