Progressive Puritans

 by George H. Walker and Co. After J. E. Baker

How the once-transgressive left tries to criminalize fun

For writes:  When I first started hearing people on the political left describe themselves with some frequency as progressive back in the 1990s, the term did not seem tethered to the epoch-defining, early-20th-century spasm of moral crusading and government centralization that helped give us everything from trust busting to Prohibition to the Federal Reserve. As articulated by champions like Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins, the progressive label was both a way to get out from under the generation-old baggage of liberal-a term Ronald Reagan and others had turned into an epithet-and to differentiate lefties from seemingly apologetic triangulators like Bill Clinton and that now-vanished tribe known as the New Democrats.

From a libertarian perspective, ’90s progressives were good on issues the New Democrats stunk up (particularly criminal justice and the drug war) and bad on those that made the Clintonites worthwhile, such as lowering trade barriers and restraining federal budget growth. At their best, such as at the “shadow conventions” organized by Arianna Huffington in 2000, progressives of the era challenged both parties to address long-neglected issues and reverse government policies that actively damaged people’s lives.

Since many of the people who self-identified that way came of political age in the ’60s and ’70s, progressives on the whole clearly belonged to the longhaired side of the culture war. They were the ones mocking the squares, pushing the envelope on free expression, and taking up arms in the sexual revolution. The more progressive the publication, the kinkier the sex classifieds in the back.

If you could put a date on when modern-day progressives fully re-inhabited the moral rigidity of their Progressive Era forebears, it might be September 24, 2012. That’s when Village Voice Media, the country’s biggest chain of alternative newsweeklies, split off its online classifieds site after a years-long, progressive-led campaign to shutter the site over claims that it facilitates “sex trafficking.”

“If street pimps go to jail for profiteering on under-age girls, should their media partners like Village Voice Media really get a pass?” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the country’s most prominent progressive scold, wrote in a March 2012 column that blamed Backpage for the 2003 peddling of a 16-year-old prostitute, even though the site didn’t exist in 2003. “Paradoxically, Village Voice began as an alternative newspaper to speak truth to power. So it’s sad to see it accept business from pimps in the greediest and most depraved kind of exploitation.”

Kristof had the paradox almost exactly backward. It is he and his fellow crusaders, not the buyers and sellers of controversial products and services, who are aggrandizing power at the expense of the little guy and mangling truth in the service of that unseemly goal.

Take e-cigarettes. In March, the 15-member Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to outlaw vaping in all the places that cigarette smoking is currently banned, including parks, beaches, and restaurant patios. Among the anti-scientific reasons cited by councilmembers was the nastiness of secondhand smoke (even though inhaling vaporized nicotine instead of the byproduct from burning leaves does not create any of the stuff) and the horrors of long-term cigarette addiction (which vaping is tailor-made to prevent).

Look around the country and you’ll find a strong correlation between e-cigarette bans and progressivism. Los Angeles joined New York, Boston, and Chicago with its prohibition, and now D.C. is threatening to get into the act with regulation from the Food and Drug Administration. The same moralizing impulse is leading to blue-city bans on everything from plastic bags to fried chicken joints to bottled water…(read more)

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