Fun has always carried a little bit of danger in its back pocket: there’s something radical, even anarchical, about having too much of it. “We were just having some fun” could be the thing you say to the neighbours who’ve knocked on the door at 3am to tell you to turn the music down; it could also be what you say as you stand around the prone, bleeding body of a guy who tried to cannonball off the roof after having too many drinks. It’s like our parents used to say, when we started getting rowdy: it’s all fun and games until it isn’t.
In American culture, the role of the cautioning fun-averse parent has been typically played by the political Right. For many years, Republicans were the party of rules and regulations, of just saying no (to drugs, to sex, to a good time in general), of pearl-clutching church ladies waging a perpetual war against smut — a category comprising all sorts of titillating material but also the Teletubbies, who were obviously perverts. The Conservatives of pre-Y2K were out to outlaw everything from skateboarding to South Park to non-missionary-position sex. If you wanted to fight for your right to party, the Right was who you were fighting.
That is not because fun is inherently a Left-wing phenomenon, but rather because it’s anti-ruling-class. The people in power make the rules; the fun-havers have fun by breaking them. “Fun — when your rulers would rather you not have it, and when the agents of social programming insist on stirring non-stop apprehension over the current crisis and the next one, the better to keep you submissive and in suspense — is elementally subversive,” wrote novelist Walter Kirn, as citizens of the US endeavoured to enjoy their first normal summer since 2020.
And if fun is inherently countercultural, then the inverse is also true: when a party finds itself in power, pucker-mouthed puritanism tends to creep up on it.
When it comes to cultural power, the moral majoritarians of my millennial youth have long since been dethroned. Now, the Left holds the keys to the castle, and the punk rockers are all wearing MAGA hats. That the forces of censorship, prudery and conformity have lately shifted their location to the political Left is not a new observation, but The Rise of the New Puritans by Noah Rothman is the first book-length work to identify it explicitly as a “war on fun”. According to Rothman, the progressive impulse toward policing fun is a feature of every puritanical movement, including the original one that gripped the not-yet-United-States back at the turn of the 18th century. History repeats itself: in 1699, Puritan leaders exhorted the public to contain themselves to the paradoxically termed “sober mirth”. In 2020, the height of socially approved comedy was Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a stand-up special that is intentionally and explicitly not funny. As Rothman notes: “Perhaps nothing is as important to the promotion of a virtuous society as what you’re allowed to laugh at.”
It’s not just what, but also how much. The rule-makers set the parameters for socially-approved fun; they also seek to quash whatever falls outside them. The content of, say, an HBO comedy special from even ten years ago is legitimately shocking to the sensibilities of our current moment. The edgy comedians of the time, like Sarah Silverman, seem to be telecasting their material not just from the distant past but possibly from another planet entirely. A 2013 standup routine features Silverman espousing the greatness of rape jokes, adding: “Who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape. I mean, they’re traditionally not complainers.”
And so the sanitisation of today’s cultural landscape is as much a question of what’s not there anymore: ribald comedy and steamy sex scenes are vanishing from mainstream film. Books are subject to review and rejection at the manuscript stage for “sensitivity”. Fusion restaurants are shuttered for the crime of cultural appropriation — which in many cases is not really about theft, but a lack of reverence for the culture in question. The Rise of the New Puritans keenly points to the prudery at the heart of such complaints, such as the one aimed by journalist Evy Kwong at a Toronto dumpling restaurant whose condiment selections included the cheekily-titled “HOT PHO U” and “JERK ME”. Kwong blasted the restaurant for “sexualizing jerk sauce and pho hot sauce” — which is to say, failing to take these sauces seriously. Irreverent condiment-based sex puns? Not in this house, mister.
Rothman catalogues how the tentacles of puritanism have wound their way into everything from food to film to football to fashion. This insistence on the dead seriousness of everything is one of the defining elements of our present moment. Everything frivolous must be taken seriously, injected with deep urgent meaning; everything fun must be seen first and foremost as a vehicle for danger, if not literal death then life-altering trauma.
Consider the way we talk about sex — and the way we attempt to scare young people out of having it. The puritans of the Nineties had their own approach to this, predicated on the notion that sex was a fun activity but it had dire consequences for those who attempted it outside of marriage (pregnancy or death from a flesh-eating STD). Today’s ideologues would instead have us believe that sex is damaging in and of itself, abetted by consent rhetoric that imagines the act as a tightrope walk over a vast ocean of potential violation. If you are ever less than 110% enthusiastic about what is happening, we tell young women, you are no longer consenting, but being raped. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect recipe for taking all the fun out of intimacy: how can you abandon yourself to the pursuit of physical ecstasy if you must also, at the same time, maintain a state of constant vigilance lest something go horribly wrong?
And then there’s the pandemic, the impact of which is not addressed in The Rise of the New Puritans, but which certainly helped make the book’s subject go mainstream — much as the Salem witch trials were fuelled by an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that arose out of the fear of smallpox. The threat of Covid made explicit the connection between fun and danger, as every enjoyable social activity was recast as a vector for the spread of disease. It’s hard to think of a better example of “sober mirth” than the grim delight of the New Puritans as they padlocked the playgrounds, filled skate parks with sand, or patrolled the beaches in Florida dressed in a hood and a scythe. Forget problematic comedy, irreverent jerk sauce or bad sex. Here was a chance to send the entire world to its room, with a warning: if you attempt to go out and have fun now, you will be literally killing people.
For over two years, the contemporary puritans found their highest calling as pandemic enforcers. But it also seems possible now that this is where the fun police will make their last stand: rather than return to the cancellation trenches, targeting this restaurant or that television show for its offences, many of our most dedicated culture warriors have turned taking Covid seriously into their sole priority, seduced by the potent combination of performative asceticism, high stakes and low effort. Not only can you fight this war from home, your position is that much more unimpeachable if you yourself never leave the house. And they don’t; instead, you will find them online, railing away in the comments sections. Even now, they want to close the schools, ground the planes, mandate the masks. They are, invariably, martyrs to their own cause, which only fuels their righteous anger — if I haven’t gone to the theatre, dined indoors, or hugged my family since March 2020, then why should you?
Here’s the thing: you can only see them online, and here they are preaching to the choir in an otherwise empty church. It is only the true believers who are left, feeding on and off each other, stewing in fear and resentment while everyone else goes outside and has fun. And as loud as they might seem to themselves, and each other, within the confines of their echo chamber, the truth is that outside of it they’re not just irrelevant, but nearly invisible. Their power, and their numbers, are diminished by the mere existence of normal people living normal lives.
And when this movement collapses under the weight of its own joylessness, as it almost certainly must, it’ll be the proverbial tree falling alone in a forest, unnoticed and unmourned. Because while the progressive puritans among us are, to paraphrase the H.L. Mencken quote, tormented by the notion that someone somewhere might be having a good time, the fun-havers are having too much fun to think about them at all.