The highlight of the year I spent as a postgraduate at Harvard was a speech given by Tom Wolfe to the graduating class of 1988. His theme was the decline of Christianity in America and the extraordinary freedom that had given rise to. Until quite recently in American history, he argued, people’s personal behaviour had been circumscribed by their sense of right and wrong, which was largely dictated by the morality associated with various puritan sects dating back to the first European settlers. When it came to sex, for instance, their choices were limited by a fear that certain practices would cause irreparable spiritual harm. Not any more, said Wolfe. America had embraced an ‘anything goes’ philosophy and that had resulted in unprecedented levels of freedom, particularly in the sexual arena.
Wolfe predicted that puritanism would reassert itself in the form of a resurgence of Christianity, but he was only half right. Twenty-five years later, many aspects of puritan morality have indeed made a comeback, but they are disguised as secular liberalism.
For instance, the attitude of the British Humanist Society towards the teaching of creationism in faith schools is reminiscent of the attitude of Christians to the teaching of the theory of evolution at the beginning of the last century. There are also traces of old-fashioned, Bible-thumping puritanism in the environmentalist movement, the hounding of anyone suspected of sexual harassment, the campaign to ban Page 3 and the attack on tabloid licentiousness spearheaded by Hacked Off. It’s almost as if the progressive left, having won the culture war, has unconsciously taken on many of the least attractive aspects of its Christian opponents.
The left has always had a puritan streak, but what is fairly new is the extent to which it has abandoned libertarianism, leaving the right to take up the cudgels on behalf of free speech and other individual rights. This was brought home to me during the row over Julie Burchill’s article about transsexuals earlier this year. After it was taken down by the Observer, I republished it on my Telegraph blog and immediately had to contend with the wrath of trans activists, nearly all of whom are on the left.
Their objection to Burchill’s piece was that, by rehashing various crude stereotypes about transsexuals (‘screaming mimis’, ‘bed-wetters in bad wigs’, etc), she was making it more likely that members of their community would be assaulted. In other words, they were positing a causal link between the appearance of something in the media and violent behaviour — exactly the same argument that the Christian film critic Michael Medved made in his 1992 book Hollywood vs America. They weren’t claiming there was any evidence of such a link. Rather, the mere possibility that Burchill’s article could result in an assault was reason enough to ban it.
The implications of this argument for free speech are alarming, particularly as the Royal Charter embodying Lord Leveson’s recommendations creates a mechanism for third parties’ complaints. The same activists who persuaded the editor of the Observer to unpublish the offending article lodged a formal complaint with the Press Complaints Commission against both Burchill and me, but it was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t breach the editors’ code. Would the new, post-Leveson regulator be equally unmoved by such complaints? I doubt it.
What surprised me about the attitude of the trans activists — not to mention gays and lesbians, many of whom are equally censorious about ‘offensive’ articles — is that they don’t see a link between freedom of expression and sexual freedom. Apparently it’s perfectly acceptable to deviate from various sexual norms, however upsetting some people find their behaviour, but completely verboten to dissent from the majority view of the metropolitan elite. Such double standards are weirdly similar to those of American Christian fundamentalists who would lay down their lives to defend the first amendment but oppose gay marriage. Like the trans activists, they want to choose certain freedoms from the smorgasbord of liberal democracy and discard the rest.
Tom Wolfe’s reason for believing Christianity would experience a great revival in the West is that he didn’t think human beings could cope with the level of freedom they enjoyed in the late 1980s. He was right about that, but wrong about where it would be curtailed. We continue to enjoy an unprecedented level of bodily freedom; it’s freedom of the mind that’s no longer tolerated.