A reader writes:
I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's book of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Her essay entitled “Puritans and Prigs” sets out to defend the Puritans and contrast them to a group she calls prigs, the sort of politically correct thought police that the right used to rail against in the 1990s. I think her argument also has a lot in common with your indictments of fundamentalism and movement conservatism.
The Puritans' belief that we are all sinners, Robinson says, gives "excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain." However, she argues that modernity, of which prigs are emblematic, is essentially Stalinist, in that it believes that society
can and should produce good people, that is, people suited to life in whatever imagined optimum society, who then stabilize the society in its goodness so that it produces more good people, and so on. First the bad ideas must be weeded out and socially useful ones put in their place. Then the bad people must be identified, especially those that are carriers of bad ideas. . . [Thus it] creates clear distinctions among people, and not only justifies the disparagement of others but positively requires it. Its adherents are overwhelmingly those who feel secure in their own reasonableness, worth, and goodness, and are filled with a generous zeal to establish their virtues through the whole of society, and with an inspiring hope that this transformation can be accomplished.
The prigs are the ones who, with a sort of superiority, correct the language you use or chastise you for your diet based on some idea of political correctness:
I think because our zealots subscribe to the conversion myth, they can only experience virtuousness as difference. They do not really want to enlist or persuade--they want to maintain difference. I am not the first to note their contempt for the art of suasion. Certainly they are not open to other points of view. If it is true that the shaping impulse behind all this stylized language and all this pietistic behavior is the desire to maintain social distinctions, then the moral high ground that in other generations was held by actual reformers, activists, and organizers trying to provoke the debate and build consensus, is now held by people with no such intentions, no notion of what progress would be, not impulse to test their ideas against public reaction as people do who want to accomplish reform. It is my bitter thought that they may have made a fetish of responsibility, a fetish of concern, of criticism, of indignation.
Indeed, much the same could be said of today’s right. For my part, it seems all such prigs (left and right) stem from the fundamental epistemological arrogance of modernity--that all things can be known. This is as true of Darwinism as it is of biblical fundamentalism. The older I get, the more folly such claims seem to contain. This is not a new insight: one need only look at Ecclesiastes. Efforts such as political correctness and movement conservatism are destructive of civil society and are based on nothing more than a chasing after the wind.
Beautifully and powerfully put.