H. L. Mencken once characterized Puritans as people possessed by the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Puritans come in all sorts of political and religious flavors. They are not just people who dress in black and thunder about misdeeds on Sunday mornings. They can be Hollywood types and even singers. Such as Sheryl Crow.
A few years ago, according to the Washington Post, Sheryl Crow wanted to regulate how many squares of toilet paper might be used at any one sitting in order to save trees and reduce pollution. She suggested one square is enough—at least most of the time—with a maximum of three in exceptional situations. She also thought tissues were horribly wasteful. She believed that people should start wiping their noses on their sleeves when they have a cold instead of tissues. She dislikes paper napkins, too. So she wants folks to use their sleeves instead of paper napkins when they eat. She hopes that new sorts of removable, replaceable sleeves can be developed that would make the behavior we were criticized for as children more acceptable to the population at large. She figures that if we do these “simple things” then we’ll save a lot of trees. Obviously having crusty sleeves will improve our lives immensely. Anything for the trees.
Such attitudes, which seem, for those not infected by them, to have as their aim to just make life more nasty, brutish and short—are remarkably common. After all, we all have behaviors that someone, somewhere disapproves of. My wife dislikes it when I make slurping noises, for instance. My children dislike it when I tell them to clean their rooms. The Taliban thinks it’s awful that Americans listen to music and our women wear clothing that won’t make them pass out from heatstroke on hot summer days.
We all have pet peeves, whether it is people downloading porn, owning handguns, smoking, or driving an SUV. There are always people wanting to insist that our video games have too much violence, our books express ideas that are destructive to civilization, and that allowing kids to watch movies with stuff blowing up in them will automatically turn them into serial killers.
There are no shortages of those who want to control what we eat, what we drink, what we read, what we think, where we go, who we talk to. They insist that certain foods will cause our hearts to explode, cancer to bloom, deplete the environment, damage the world, and rot teeth. Some of these people are religious, some are political. Some are conservative, some are liberal. They are all well-intentioned, seeking what’s best for us, what’s best for society, what’s best for the children.
In essence, such people who spend their time telling us what not to do are simply incapable of finding joy in life. The glass is always half-empty. The sky is always falling. The world is forever on the brink. They are forever afraid that being content or being happy is going to destroy life as we know it and life as we know it is always, they insist, barely tolerable. Whether it is a scold berating us for allowing “those” sorts of people to run amuck and warning in dire terms that if such behavior is not nipped in the bud then we face imminent destruction—or someone proclaiming that unless we change our ways in regards to overpopulation, driving cars, eating meat, or owning guns that the world will end, the children will die, and civilization will collapse—the end is always near.
We make fun of the clapboard-draped man with scrawled words announcing, “repent, the world ends tomorrow.” And yet we listen with tolerance and approval to men in suits with celebrity status who solemnly inform us that if we don’t change our profligate ways the world will be destroyed, our arteries will clog, or our children will be stunted, and they’ll be made stupid.
Legalists inform us that if we pass laws regulating what words we are allowed to say, what terms we use to define situations, people and conditions, then the millennium will dawn and we will all live in harmony singing a pleasant tune (but not too loud, lest we damage our ears).
Meanwhile, while one group gets mad when it is suggested that their behavior is immoral in regards to sex or drugs (and will insist that such moralizing is “wrong”), the angry group will then berate those who own guns or drive big cars or eat red meat. Scolds are everywhere, even among those who say they don’t believe in values. And they are certain that they know how everyone else must act—after all, it’s for the good of the planet and for the sake of the children.
And disagreeing with the scolds of the world doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, or merely have a different opinion. No, you’re the enemy and you’re evil and you must be stopped (though we must never judge others). That’s always the bottom line for the scolds of the world: we’re all bad boys and bad girls who need to have our candy taken away. Fun is overrated, anyhow, they’ll have us know.