A surfeit of prigs

SAM SMITH, 1989 – In pre-revolutionary Connecticut, being a common scold was a felony. Despite the currently overcrowded conditions of our prisons there is much to be said for reviving this offense, for few characteristics of our time have been more burdensome than the noisy priggishness that has come over the land.

For some years we had a woman in our neighborhood who had the disconcerting habit of standing on her front porch heaping opprobrium on passing children. It didn’t particularly bother the children, because the very young are blissfully immune to priggishness, knowing that anyone who behaves in such a manner properly belongs in an asylum.

The problem for adult America is that we increasingly seem to be taking such people seriously. We have elected a remarkable number to office, with the inevitable result that prigs are now taking over appointive positions as well – most disastrously on the Supreme Court which now has its first prig majority in many decades.

Worse, prigs are in ascendancy in places where they have previously been disqualified. For example, prigs, while long allowed in the editorial offices of newspapers, were largely banned from newsrooms. Prigs in show business were limited to such activities as the Morman Tabernacle Choir, Up With People and the Lawrence Welk Show. Now we even have priggish rock stars, engaged, among other things, in pelvic proselytizing against drugs. Prigs have even infiltrated the left.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To some readers, the word may seem a bit arcane so a definition is in order. I like that of Webster’s Third, in part because the definer clearly doesn’t care for prigs, priggishness or priggism, perhaps because some prig is always trying to keep certain words out of dictionaries.

A prig, according to Webster’s is, among other things,”one who offends or irritates by obvious or rigid observance of the proprieties: one self-sufficient in virtue, culture or propriety often in a pointed manner or to an obnoxious degree.”

Being priggish is “marked by overvaluing oneself or one’s ideas, habits, notions, by precise or inhibited adherence to them.”

And priggism “is self-conscious propriety of conduct; stilted correctness of behavior; prim adherence to conventionality.”

Woodrow Wilson, one of the few politicians who actually dealt with the prig problem, told a crowd in Pittsburgh in October 1914:” If you will think about what you ought to do for other people, your character will take care of itself. Character is a byproduct, and any man who devotes himself to its cultivation in his own case will become a selfish prig.”

The emphasis on salvation in isolation that is so central to current evangelicalism (not to mention certain strains of psychotherapy and contemporary self-help literature) is an ideal breeding ground for the prig. One can note, in fact, some correlation between the presumed level of God’s direct notice and intervention in personal matters and the level of priggishness a religion encourages.

But whatever the cause, the relative priggishness of a religion becomes a matter of critical importance when theology spills over, as it has with a vengeance, into national politics. For when politicians and Supreme Court Justices talk and think about God they are not talking of the God of the deist, the 11th Commandment ecologist, the Unitarian, the Quaker, the liberal Catholic, the low Episcopalian, the Seventh Day Agnostic or even the ancient god of the Jew. It is patently clear from their language that they are describing The Great Prig In the Sky — lord, master and protector of the unctuous, the self-righteous and the ostentatiously saved.

Creeping propriety has even affected institutions that should, by their nature, be immune, including many of a progressive bent. This is perhaps the inevitable result of a politics which has changed from an emphasis on coalitions to a politics of the most precise special interest. Having moved vigorously in recent decades from such simplistic divisions as labor and capital, farmers and ranchers, and liberal and conservative, we now find ourselves atomized into acronyms. The organizations bearing these acronyms carry out their purported purposes, but they also increasingly define and restrict us.

The problem with over-specialized self-definitions is, firstly, that one’s politics can become as prissy as the dress of the dandy and, secondly, that eventually it causes one to act on the belief that the explanation is true and complete, making one seem less a real human and more a bumper sticker.

The recent self-conscious effort to upgrade the status of blacks by calling them African-Americans demonstrates well the problems involved in excessive concern with self-definition. One need only think of how black history might have been different if a publisher had been asked to consider a book called African-American Like Me or if Fats Waller had written, “What did I do to be so African- American and blue?” But the determinedly pious don’t sing.

I tend to stay away from political prigs even when I am in sympathy with their cause. I can smell piety a mile away and prefer the company of sinners just trying to do better to those who leave the strong impression that you’re not really good enough to join them. Besides they might catch me eating a Big Mac.

Fortunately, there is plenty of activism that doesn’t ask too many questions or demand that we save ourselves before, together, we try to mitigate the damage that clearly faces all of us. Besides, the prigs never attain the perfection they pretend. They not only irritate others and deceive themselves, they miss that of the mystery of life which lies in its contradictions and inconsistencies. The sinners know, in their hearts, that they have more fun. Furthermore, as the poet William Stafford pointed out, “If you purify the pond, the lilies die.”

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