Bug-Eaters and Thought-Policers
How puritanical zeal—on both the left and the right—can turn into totalitarianism.
So, I just finished a podcast with Commentary’s Noah Rothman, author of the great new book The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun. Here’s an enjoyable excerpt which covers, among other things, a great peeve of mine: the crusade to get me to eat bugs.
As Noah lays out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating bugs. Lots of people around the world do it. Personally, I think lobsters are just giant bugs—which is why I prefer not to have the whole critters on my plate. The main problem with the effort to get everyone to eat bugs is not that it’s wrong, it’s that people want you to do it for political or ideological reasons. It’s all about “saving the world” because traditional meat consumption is bad for the climate (see: cows, farts).
The giveaway, Noah notes, is that the people most passionate about the need to replace beef with beetles rarely put much thought into selling bugs as yummy. Taste is an afterthought at best. The whole point of making people eat bugs is to save the world and imbue in the bug-eaters a sense of righteous sacrifice. “For the New Puritans,” Noah writes, “a smug sense of self-satisfaction is the most delicious dish of all.”
But it’s not just the self-satisfaction, it’s also the domination. Getting other people to bend to your will is one of the great, sinful joys. When I was a kid, a favorite pastime of bullies was getting weaklings to ingest bugs, but also dog food, cat food, dirt, paper, yellow snow, Life cereal, and, of course, liquids that definitely weren’t Mello Yello.
For totalitarian and authoritarian movements, forced eating is a time-honored form of humiliation and degradation. And for plenty of revolutionary, utopian, technocratic, and puritanical movements, getting people to bend their diets to the needs of the cause or the state is commonplace. During the “war socialism” phase of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential tenure, Herbert Hoover served as the head of the Food Administration and imposed all sorts of rationing programs. Agents of the state would knock on doors exhorting people to observe various “Wheatless Wednesdays” or “Meatless Mondays.” “When in doubt,” they instructed citizens, “eat potatoes.” “Supper,” Hoover complained, “is one of the worst pieces of extravagance that we have in this country.”