Bestselling author Jack Cashill is back with his most timely book yet, "Scarlet Letters: The Ever-Increasing Intolerance of the Cult of Liberalism."
Cashill, a WND columnist, addresses what he describes as the unholy rise of progressive neo-puritanism.
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As in old school puritanism, worshippers achieve a sense of moral worth simply by designating themselves among "the elect" – no good works required. To validate that uncertain status, they heap abuse upon the sinner lest they be thought indifferent to the sin, he outlines.
Rather than simply cataloguing the neo-puritan assaults on reason and liberty, "Scarlet Letters" illustrates how the progressive movement has come to mimic a religion in its structure but not at all in its spirit while profiling brave individuals like Clarence Thomas, Aayan Hirsi Ali, Camille Paglia and many lesser known truth tellers who have dared to take a stand against this inquisition.
Released Tuesday by WND Books, Scarlet Letters shows in detail how an allegedly "liberal" movement has become what can only be described as bizarrely punitive and inquisitional.
Exclusively at WND.com, you can read here the first chapter of "Scarlet Letters:"
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Man's Second-Oldest Faith
By Jack Cashill
In those heady first years after the Russian Revolution, tremors from the east tripped the internal Richter scales of sensitive souls from Mitte to Montmarte to Greenwich Village. One Villager who felt the shock was crusading birth control advocate Margaret Sanger. Although she did not think Marxism the solution to her issue – "the sexual and racial chaos" then vexing liberal America – she knew many an aspiring bohemian who bought the whole package.
"The heaven of the traditional theology had been shattered by Darwinian science," she wrote in her 1922 book, "The Pivot of Civilization," "and here, dressed up in all the authority of the new science, appeared a new theology, the promise of a new heaven, an earthly paradise, with an impressive scale of rewards for the faithful and ignominious punishments for the capitalists."
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Sanger was hardly alone in sensing a shift in the spiritual landscape. At about this time, a young Whittaker Chambers was coming to terms with what he would later call "man's second-oldest faith," the faith Adam embraced when he yielded to the serpent's plea, "Ye shall be as gods." To this point in history, no human cohort had committed itself to this faith more passionately than the Communist Party, and it was this passion that attracted Chambers. Communists, however, had no monopoly on the vision. As Chambers saw it, leftists of various stripes – "socialists, liberals, fellow travelers, unclassified progressives and men of good will" – shared the conviction that human reason would displace "God" as the "creative intelligence of the world."
What eventually prompted Chambers to rethink his alliances were the "punishments" Sanger mentioned in passing. As a high-level operative in the Communist underground during Stalin's ruthless rise to power, Chambers could see just how arbitrary and "ignominious" those punishments could be. He saw too much, in fact, to remain a Communist. His break eventually led to a dramatic, mid-century face-off against former comrade Alger Hiss, the well-connected avatar of the evil Chambers only barely escaped. Even as Chambers rejected Communism, however, he could not deny Sanger's claim that a "new theology" had shattered the firmament. Nor could he deny that at mid-century this theology was ascendant. In fact, by choosing "Almighty God" over "Almighty Man," by rejecting Communism for freedom, Chambers thought himself on the losing side of an epic showdown.
Given America's cultural and political dominance in the years after World War II, many thought Chambers unduly pessimistic. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not among them. Of all the college commencement speakers in 1978, Solzhenitsyn was perhaps the only one to sense that in the near future no major university would dare ask a person like him to speak. If he had shared this concern before his address, few would have believed him. At the time, after all, he was arguably the most sought-after commencement speaker in America. The fact that Harvard recruited him was testament to that.
"In terms of the effect he has had on history, Solzhenitsyn is the dominant writer of the 20th century," New Yorker editor David Remnick would write some years later. "Who else compares? Orwell? Koestler?" No Harvard speaker before or since saw more or suffered more than Solzhenitsyn.
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The son of a Russian artillery officer, Solzhenitsyn graduated from college just in time to sign up for the "Great Patriotic War." He would serve three punishing years as a battery commander in the Eastern European bloodlands. Just as victory loomed, Solzhenitsyn, in a letter to a friend, made the seriously "incorrect" jest of referring to Stalin as "the man with the mustache." That little joke would earn him a twelve-year sojourn in the hellish outposts of what he would render infamous as the "gulag archipelago."
While imprisoned, Solzhenitsyn conceived any number of short stories. In 1962, six years after his release, he put one of those stories to pen as the novella "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." Thanks to a very brief thaw in the long Soviet literary winter, the book found a publisher, and Solzhenitsyn found an international audience. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1973, the thaw long since over, he smuggled a copy of his epic masterwork, "The Gulag Archipelago," to publishers in the West.
In 1974, Soviet authorities decided they had had enough of Solzhenitsyn and booted him from his beloved homeland. He eventually made his way with his family to an obscure hamlet in Vermont, and there he was living and writing as something of a recluse when Harvard invited him to speak. No speaker ever brought more gravitas to the Harvard podium, certainly not recent commencement speakers, such as Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling, or the serial plagiarist Fareed Zakaria.
The fact that Solzhenitsyn criticized his adopted country could not have troubled those in attendance. They expected as much. By 1978, bashing America had become de rigeur at any university to the left of Bob Jones. What surely rankled students and faculty both was that Solzhenitsyn aimed his guns at them, "the ruling groups and the intellectual elite." He chastised them for their lack of courage and of self-restraint, their materialism and their self-indulgence. "Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space," he lectured. "Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence."
Knowing that many in the audience, faculty and students alike, played at socialism, Solzhenitsyn coldly stripped them of their illusions. "Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death," he told them. It is the inevitable path men take when they see themselves as the master of the world, free of personal evil and confident that "all the defects of life are caused by misguided social systems, which must therefore be corrected."
All of this was disturbing enough, but Solzhenitsyn rocked the young swells when he described, much as Chambers had, the unfortunate choices America's ruling classes had made. Thinking themselves "the center of everything," they had forgotten what the nation's founding fathers well understood, namely, that "man is God's creature." For those graduates who had not heard the word God in the last four years, save as the first half of a swear word, this news had to shock.
As both Chambers and Solzhenitsyn recognized, the empty rationalism of the twentieth century had eroded the traditional faith of millions of Western intellectuals and replaced it with a smug, self-satisfied belief in the human will to power. At its conception, this new theology was self-righteous to the core and keen on "punishments," but initially those punishments were reserved for its class enemies. Over time, believers would broaden the roster of sinners. Indeed, contempt for these many and various sinners would become the faith's unifying core. Although Soviet-styled communism was in the process of exhausting itself at the time of Solzhenitsyn's Harvard address, man's second-oldest faith was mutating and adapting to the environment. As a would-be 1960s radical, African American author and social critic Shelby Steele watched it happen up close. Like Solzhenitsyn, Steele noted the emergence of a narcissistic "new man, a better man than the world has seen before." This new man, teased Steele, was "so conspicuously cleansed of racism, sexism, and militarism that he would be a carrier of moral authority and legitimacy."
According to the Steele, the nation had begun to address the obvious imperfections in its racial history just when the baby boomers were coming of age. As their elders struggled to atone for racial sins real and imagined, boomers sensed a crack in their moral authority and drove a wedge through it. Boomers would celebrate themselves not for honing their own character or for honoring some larger principle but for disassociating themselves from "the sins that had caused whites to lose moral authority in the first place – racism and racial discrimination, but also imperialism, ecological indifference, sexism and so on."
In Great Britain, author Peter Hitchens observed a comparable loss of confidence. The "old morality," as he saw it, lacked the conviction to withstand "the sneering assault of our modern age." With the embers of their Christian heritage not quite extinguished, young Brits looked for spiritual satisfaction wherever they could find it. Many of them, perhaps most, wrote Hitchens, found "an acceptable substitute for Christian faith" in the multicultural canon, specifically "a commitment to social welfare at home and liberal anticolonialism abroad." What distinguished these secular, often atheistic evangelists from their Christian peers, Hitchens added, was a "high opinion of their own virtue."
In late twentieth-century Holland, Somalian refugee Ayaan Hirsi Ali found a seeming wonderland of tolerance and functional technology. As a female, she particularly appreciated the freedoms her adopted country afforded. What surprised her, and what finally undid her, was that "nobody seemed proud of being Dutch." Lacking confidence in their own traditions, Dutch leftists in particular found refuge in multiculturalism. The Dutch strain, like the British and American, had at its heart a contempt for the host nation's Western heritage and a blind embrace of certain select subcultures. As Hirsi Ali would discover, the blind had no mercy on those who could see.
As the new century began, liberal boomers dominated the news media, academia, and popular culture throughout the Western world. Within their "magic circle," observed Walter Russell Mead in the American Interest, their ideas had "never been more firmly entrenched and less contested." Convinced of their own righteousness, activists were taking a more aggressive posture, culturally and politically, than the generation past. This may explain why they abandoned "liberal" and adopted "progressive" as their preferred self-designation ("multiculturalist" being too unwieldy in any case). The word switch mirrored a political reality. If old-school liberals could content themselves with honoring a fixed set of principles, progressives, like sharks, had to move forward. At the risk of tautology, progressives "progressed." Their identity depended on it.
At this intermediate stage in the movement's evolution, progressives had the power to hector and humiliate, but they had only a limited ability to enforce their values through the police arm of the state. Throughout the West, the democratic process restrained them. If within the magic circles progressive ideas seemed fabulous, outside the circles those same ideas, said Mead, often seemed "outlandish." In the United States, citizens enjoyed the added protection of the Constitution. With the ascent of Barack Obama – "the next messiah," as he was called too often and too earnestly – that protection began to erode. Until this point, progressives had shamed many a poor soul out of a job, but they had sent no one to a gulag. Francis Cardinal George was among those traditionalists who sensed an unhealthy shift toward the coercive in Obama's Washington. The government, George observed, was beginning to take upon itself "the mantle of a religion." In the age of Obama, he feared, a cultural-political "ruling class" was extending its sway over the nation's institutions and was "using the civil law to impose its own form of morality on everyone." From his perspective, these moral czars seemed much too eager to tell citizens "what they must personally think [and] what 'values' they must personalize in order to deserve to be part of the country."
Although the national government had never before harbored such ambitions, there was an American precedent for what George witnessed, the Puritans of New England. In his classic 1850 novel, "The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne rightly described his seventeenth-century ancestors as "a people among whom religion and law were almost identical." This was a reality the novel's protagonist, Hester Prynne, learned through hard experience. As the plot unfolds, the birth of Hester's child while her husband is still in England alerts civic officials to her adultery. As punishment, Hester is made to stand on a scaffold in the Boston town square for three hours and forever thereafter wear an embroidered scarlet A – for adultery – on her chest.
In the age of Obama, the "new theology" took a turn for the Puritan. The enforcers of progressive orthodoxy would never call themselves "neo-puritan," but that is what they had become. In their mingling of law and morality, they mimicked the polity of those early New Englanders but were, if anything, less merciful. Dissent was no longer merely "misguided," said Mead; it was "morally wrong." In that "bad thoughts create bad actions," Mead added, "the heretics must be silenced or expelled."
To be sure, not all progressives were neo-puritans, but all neo-puritans were progressives. With little resistance from their passive coreligionists, the neo-puritans made themselves the punitive arm of the progressive movement. An astute observer of the culture, prominent Catholic social critic Joseph Bottum, described them as "hungry for the identification of sinners – the better to prove the virtue of the accusers and, perhaps especially, to demonstrate the sociopolitical power of the accusers."
In her HBO documentary Fall to Grace, Alexandra Pelosi – yes, Nancy's daughter – revealed, without intending, how the shifting progressive creed had become conflated with "sin." The documentary tracks the career of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, the self-dubbed "gay-American" disgraced in a sex and security scandal. In one passing scene, McGreevey enters an Episcopal church ostensibly more welcoming than the hidebound Catholic church of his childhood. The message board on the church front reads, "Jesus liberates us from our sin of sexism, homophobia, racism and classism." Had the message board been bigger, the good pastor might have had Jesus liberating "us" from xenophobia, Islamophobia, and global warming denial as well. Although there were many other ways the insensitive could go wrong, these stood for the moment as the seven new deadly sins.
Over time, neo-puritans have shown less interest in celebrating the many colors of the multicultural rainbow than they have in condemning those who resisted the celebration. The accusers insist that resistance is born out of hatred – of blacks, of gays, of immigrants, of Muslims, of women, of poor people, even, yes, of Mother Earth. "Hate" stands as the umbrella sin for all dissenters. Indeed, if there is one shared ritual among the progressive subcults, it is the imputation of "hate" to the less enlightened. Hawthorne accused his Puritan forebears of "being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived," but they were the picture of tolerance compared to the progressive neo-puritans who would flourish four centuries later.
Like Hazel Motes, the embittered protagonist of Flannery O'Connor’s prescient 1952 novel "Wise Blood," Western progressives were creating "a Church Without Christ" – a church without God, for that matter – where, in O'Connor’s words, "there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn't the first two." Among the many contradictions of contemporary progressivism is its avowed reluctance to pass judgment. If neo-puritans did not create the word judgmentalism, they created the taboo around it. "Censorious judgmentalism from the moralising wing, which treats half our countrymen as enemies must be rooted out," thundered Alan Duncan, Britain's openly gay Tory MP a few years back. In a similar vein, actress Ann Heche, speaking at a vigil for slain gay student Matthew Shepard, wished that "one day, we will all join on the opposite side of hatred where one truly connects with God."
The catch was, of course, that Duncan and Heche, like most progressives, could no more shuck the impulse to judge than could Hazel Motes. After scolding his colleagues for their judgmentalism, Duncan denounced them as the "Tory Taleban." After scolding her fellow Americans for their antigay judgmentalism, Heche reminded them, "You, you are the abomination in the eyes of my God."
Without meaning to, Duncan and Heche captured the paradoxical nature of what Steele called "an unforgiving social puritanism" and what Peter Hitchens called "an intolerant and puritan secular fundamentalism." For all of their postmodern prattle about relativism and multiculturalism, neo-puritans would prove quicker to judge and harsher in their judgments – Abomination? Tory Taleban? – than the most spiteful New England divine. "Throughout the Western world," author Mark Steyn has observed, 'tolerance' has become remarkably 'intolerant,' and 'diversity' demands ruthless conformity." With the exception of Islam, an unlikely ally in the rainbow coalition, progressive neo-puritanism may well be the most judgmental, vengeful, unforgiving quasi-religious sect abroad in the Western world today.
Despite the dogmatism, progressives, like their seventeenth-century New England soul mates, exist in a perpetual state of anxiety. For the original Puritans, the anxiety derived from a Calvinist theology that spared only the "elect" from eternal damnation. The problem was that no amount of good works could assure one's "elect" status. Only faith could do that, but even the devout could not be certain their faith would suffice. This uncertainty led many a Puritan to proclaim his own worthiness and question the worthiness of others.
For progressives, the anxiety derives from never quite knowing what the boundaries of thought and language on a given subject at a given moment might be. Resident Duck Dynasty philosopher Phil Robertson got it right when he described their belief system as "constantly changing and evolving" and eventually "morphing into a dark maze of nonsense." The further this system estranges itself from reason, the more confused progressives are about what a "perfect faith" entails. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, all virtues are compatible. One can just say no to wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony more or less simultaneously without semantic assistance from the Ministry of Truth. Progressivism, to say the least, lacks that kind of coherence. The biggest slacker in Logic 101 can sense the dust-up coming when the enemies of sexism and homophobia and the friends of Islam try to hammer out a multicultural "ten commandments." Heads just might roll. Literally. Like their New England forebears, progressives cope with this anxiety by aggressively asserting their rightful place among the elect. Steele coined the phrase "zone of decency" to describe the sacred preserve in which progressives imagine themselves clustering. To distinguish themselves from lesser mortals, argued Steele, they are quick to "decertify" those who do not embrace the values du jour and to dispatch the condemned to Hester Prynne's "magic circle of ignominy." And again like the Puritans, Steele argued, progressives need "only the display of social justice to win moral authority."
The Puritans, at least, could turn to a fixed source of authority in the Bible. As Robertson noted, "Biblical correctness has never changed." When the Puritans "decertified" one of their own, the individual almost always understood why. Hester acknowledged she had committed adultery and did not protest the scarlet A with which she was branded. Her sin was willful. Those subject to neo-puritan scrutiny have no such assurance. If the charges against Prynne were legitimate, the charges against sinners today rarely ever are. "Even when you have no idea you're committing a hate crime, chances are you still are," Mark Steyn opined after Canadian neo-puritans dragged him before that nation’s official inquisitors. Neo-puritans exaggerate the sins of the targeted or concoct them out of whole cloth. In either case, like Hawthorne's Puritans, they publicly brand the sinner to render him or her, in Hawthorne's words, "the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point." "If there is no God," said Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous paraphrase of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "everything is permitted." Observed Obama mentor and small-c communist Bill Ayers, "The old gods failed and the old truths left the world. Clear conclusions were mainly delusional, a luxury of religious fanatics and fools." Given this latitude, the neo-puritan clerisy add new sins regularly and new sinners daily. An awkward phrase, a misunderstood joke, a quote out of context, a frank look at data, a hacked e-mail, or a persistent belief in a revered tradition could earn a sinner any one of many scarlet letters as ablaze with "awe and horrible repugnance" as Hester’s own scarlet A – a letter progressives treat as the punch line of a joke.
Among those the neo-puritans would decertify was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. "When his name comes up now," wrote Remnick in 2001 of the previous century's most consequential writer, "it is more often than not as a freak, a monarchist, an anti-Semite, a crank, a has been." Solzhenitsyn did not change. The rules did. Upon his death in Russia in 2008, the New York Times obituary recounted a conversation between leftist writer Susan Sontag and Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. "We were laughing and agreeing about how we thought Solzhenitsyn's views on the United States, his criticism of the press, and all the rest were deeply wrong, and on and on," said Sontag. "And then Joseph said: 'But you know, Susan, everything Solzhenitsyn says about the Soviet Union is true. Really, all those numbers – 60 million victims – it's all true.'" Solzhenitsyn never stopped telling the truth.
The West just stopped listening.