Bostonians’ Puritan forebears. To the extent that we pay them any mind at all outside of grade-school Thanksgiving celebrations (and denunciations), it’s usually to poke fun—those hats! with buckles!—or invoke the evil of the Salem witch trials. Aside from their legacy of teetotaling blue laws that ensure no hour will ever be truly “Happy”, the Puritans scarcely influence our present political and social discourse…right?
While the Puritans wouldn’t know what to make of “toxic masculinity” or “the patriarchy”, they understood “By their fruits ye shall know them”—them being false prophets who have their own selfish agenda to promote. The Puritans’ raison d’être was exposing those they considered false prophets, the Catholic Pope most of all. What a great irony it is then that, today in Boston, the former seat of the Puritans’ national power, the Puritans are denounced as false prophets: white, colonizing, chauvinists who lied the natives out of their land while oppressing women and anyone else who didn’t submit—penis or no.
There’s a greater irony in this—a meta irony if you will; the more things change, the more they stay the same, and so it is with the Puritan legacy. Understanding the Puritans is frequently the shortest route to understanding moments of national moralizing, and suffice to say, these have historically been moments of Boston-peak-prudishness. As a Boston man in 2019, understanding the current moralizing moment could be the difference between becoming a social-media (or, worse, real-life) pariah or meeting a nice girl and falling in love.
Case in point: a friend, a young Boston man, recounted how he recently found himself outside a bar sharing a cigarette with two young women on a busy sidewalk. He had bummed the smoke and exchanged a few politely appreciative words and then, as smokers do, stood some feet away so not to interrupt the girls’ conversation. A few minutes of solitary smoking went by when, keying in on something said by one girlfriend to the other that made her laugh, the young man smiled and flirtatiously added to the joke. The girls laughed and began to flirt back. As they did, a couple walked between him and the young women. The woman of the passing couple stopped.
“Are you okay?” she presumptuously asked the girlfriends, still smoking. “Is he bothering you?” she followed suspiciously. An awkward “No” and a smile from the girls in reply, and the couple continued on their way. As my friend tells it, he was humiliated. His effort-at-flirting was instantly turned into an offense-in-perving, and not even sure what to say, he awkwardly told the girls goodnight and went back inside. Hours later, to add insult to injury, he was again outside smoking, and a young man walked up to him.
“Hey man, I just want to apologize for my date. She stopped earlier and said something, and I don’t know where that came from, but it was rude.” If my friend knew Boston’s history better, he’d have replied: “The Puritans.”
In the mid-to-late 1800’s, Victorian-Boston times, there was a name—actually, it was a club!—for these busybody-fun-sucking-fanatics of Puritan vintage: The New England Society For The Suppression Of Vice. Public shaming, so popular presently on Twitter and in the media, was always close to a Puritan heart, and it was no different with the Victorian moralizers. When they couldn’t get the law on their side—and in those days the legal authorities were often on-the-take with Boston’s hundreds of saloons and houses of ill repute—they resorted to destroying public reputations. Except, in true Puritan fashion, when it was one of their own. And so it was in late-Victorian Boston when all the rage among the daughters of prominent Bostonians was to have their photos taken in the nude. Word got out, and Boston’s prudishness became the butt of national jokes (think John Oliver in a stove-pipe hat) as the photos were never published nor the daughters humiliated, jailed, or otherwise taken-to-task by their Puritanical mothers and fathers (as poorer women often were for lesser perceived offenses).
What’s a modern Boston man to make of this history? Like most moments of national moralizing, this too, shall pass and probably in max-hypocritical fashion. For now, however, the buckled-shoe is ostensibly on a female foot (it’s naïve to think it’s not always a coequal affair, but that’s an argument for another time), and having rooted out brothels, gambling halls, most drugs, and “intemperate” drinking, the moralizers are coming for your perceived untoward actions and, more concerning, any evidence of improper thinking. You pig!
In the meantime, remember the Puritans, and carry a consent form for public flirting. What? You’ve never seen that sort of chivalry in a Rom-Com?
John Maden has been opining on regional and national politics since before the Big Dig. John developed an allergy to red tape after returning from the Peace Corps and completing a Masters in Public Policy, and he’s spent the last decade in operations management for Boston start-ups.