Puritanism at the UN
by Tibor R. Machan
Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, gave a pretty vapid talk at the
UN, intimating but rarely naming names of those he deemed guilty --
but there was a moment when his true outlook managed to surface. I
was watching him give his speech and the translator relayed one of
his sentences in which Ahmadinejad attacks all those who perpetrated
"injustice, violence and decadence."
Of course, no one wants injustice and few want violence, especially
the kind that is initiated as distinct from being used in
self-defense. But what about this outburst at decadence?
A couple of matters come to mind about that right away. First, there
is H.L. Mencken’s famous quip, "A Puritan is someone who's afraid
that somewhere, somehow, somebody might be happy!" That is just what
can be expected from a death-loving leader. What really is wrong with
the Americans and those who like them is that they export pleasure --
some of it perhaps ignoble, admittedly, but most of it simply good
fun -- around the globe.
When people learn about this way of life, they tend to respond
positively. And they begin to reject the leadership of those who are
intent on imposing nothing but drudgery on all those they presume to
lead. If it isn't your duty to suffer all the time, why would you
tolerate a bunch of leaders who insist that you be subjected to their
orders, their regimentation, their demands for sacrifices from you?
So American "decadence" is clearly hazardous to the health of these
But there is something else about this lament about how American and
its friends spread decadence. Sadly, even the leadership in America
and Co. have some problem responding to the charge in appropriate
fashion, namely, admitting it and standing up for pleasure. In much
of the West a compromises has been reached between the official
doctrine that human life must mainly include sacrifice and drudgery
and that it may also involve some measure of pleasure and happiness.
The former position is still the widely propounded one, even among
intellectuals who ought to know better. In our very own time a whole
slew of them are writing books denouncing happiness, claiming it
isn't good for us -- indeed, paradoxically, that it makes us unhappy.
(Dan Gilbert of Columbia University is a forceful voice championing
And religions throughout the West promote this notion quite
vociferously, although in most there is room made for mundane
pleasure and happiness as well. However, these are not openly
advocated, promoted. Only in the marketplace, which has never been
favored either by most of the clergy or the bulk of the
intellectuals, are pleasure and happiness approved. Sometimes this
is true also in self-help psychology books but not so boldly just
now, what with so many academic psychologists pooh-poohing it all
recently. There is still a bit of the "happy ending" mentality in
Hollywood and in the pulp fiction industry but these are deemed, by
most of the literati, gauche and pedestrian. The highfalutin' among
us don't speak up for the anti-Puritan school of thought.
So, the Iranian president did something smart. And here he is
following the lead of Osama bin Laden and the host of others who
claim to speak for Islam and the Arab world. That is, he hit the West
where the West has trouble standing up for itself. Will George W.
Bush say, openly, that it is quite OK, indeed, grand, to seek
happiness in life, even some substantial pleasure? Will others,
especially in the academy, defend "the good life," meaning a life
that is enjoyable, fun, satisfying?
No, sadly, they will not. So the charge leveled by President
Ahmadinejad will probably go unanswered. Which means all those of us
who do actually look forward to enjoying our lives will remain
intellectually defenseless unless we ourselves are confident about
our righteous path. We need to realize that there is absolutely no
conflict between benevolence toward our fellow human beings,
generosity toward those in dire straits, and a healthy dosage of
personal joy in life.
Of all people, Oprah Winfrey had it right, speaking in Baltimore on
04/10/06 at a fund raiser, when she recounted a little story: "I was
coming back from Africa on one of my trips, ... I had taken one of my
wealthy friends with me. She said, 'Don't you just feel guilty? Don't
you just feel terrible?' I said, 'No, I don't. I do not know how my
being destitute is going to help them.' Then I said when we got home,
'I'm going home to sleep on my Pratesi sheets right now and I'll feel
good about it.'"