'Progressives' have more in common with Puritans than they would like to admit
From F 1's grid girls to Victorian water-nymphs, what will these joyless prudes want banned next, asks Fionola Meredith
Not a fun-loving bunch, the Puritans. They were the seventeenth century killjoys who cancelled Christmas: no carols, no mince pies, nor any other 'sinful' pleasures to lighten up the darkest time of the year. Christmas was to be just like any other day. Maybe you'd get a turnip for tea, if you were lucky, but that would be the height of it.
Almost 400 years later, the same repressive spirit of denial, intolerance and censorship has risen, zombie-like, from the crypt and walks among us again. But this time it's wearing the smiley-face mask of progressive politics, which is a really sick joke if you actually believe in freedom, enlightenment and human progress, rather than dumb acts of pious virtue-signalling.
Just like the old sort, the new puritan-progressives believe that they know what's best for all of us and that they are acting on the highest moral principles, for the sake of society as a whole They want to save people, especially women, from themselves.
Take the freshly banned 'grid girls' and 'walk-on girls' who have long adorned Formula One and darts matches, prancing around in something small, skimpy and spangled, while sportsmen strut about importantly.
Not a scene that brings joy to my own heart, I'll admit - I don't like to see women being used purely as decoration and male ego-props. But who gives neo-puritan feminists the right to tell other women what sort of jobs they should do, or what kind of clothes they must wear, or what they are allowed to say?
In my book, being a feminist means sticking up for women's freedom to be whoever they want to be, without rules imposed by anyone else.
One darts girl, now out of a job, said that the work accounted for 60% of her income. Charlotte Wood added: "I have chosen to do this job. I go to work, I put on a nice dress, I escort darts players to the stage, I smile and that is it."
Why, she asked reasonably, should her rights be taken away?
Wood's fees have gone up in flames on the sacrificial altar of political correctness, because her job was deemed to be 'demeaning' to women in general. Now we ladies can all breathe easy when the darts or the motor racing comes on the TV, our delicate honour safely preserved.
I'm sure that will be an enduring source of comfort to Wood and her colleagues when it's time to pay the rent.
Don't be stupid enough to mistake this for a victory against sexism. Firing a bunch of relatively poorly paid models does nothing to challenge ingrained prejudice and inequality. It's just window-dressing, PR puff for the sports industry, and a chance for puritans to feel good because they succeeded in getting something they dislike banned.
They love banning stuff, you see. It's the one thing that makes them crack a rare, wintry smile. It gives them a bitter little kick. Pleasure denied to others, especially men, what could be nicer?
The trouble is, the puritan appetite for repression only gets stronger every time it is fed. That's why we're seeing ridiculous things like Manchester Art Gallery removing a pre-Raphaelite painting of comely naked water-nymphs. The Victorian artwork was suspected of the crime of objectifying women, and its removal was supposed to be a "gallery takeover" - by whom, the breast-police? - intended to "prompt conversation".
Now the painting has been put back after a glorious public outcry against such witless ideologically-driven censorship.
But this is part of a much wider movement. It's not the first and I guarantee you that it won't be the last attempt to subjugate art to the demands of intolerant identity politics.
These puritan-progressives are blind to history and pleasure and beauty. 'Conform to our rules or be damned' - that's their infantile mantra.
It always used to be the religious fundamentalists who tried to censor content deemed to be offensive. The provocative artists Gilbert and George currently have a show at the Belfast Mac, but when they first exhibited in the city, in 1999, there were pickets and protests by enraged evangelicals outside the gallery, and loud calls for a ban.
These days, you just can't get the religious protesters revved up, no matter what you do. Now it's more often the so-called progressives that want to silence people and shut things down.
But they both share the same joyless impulse, identified by the American satirist HL Mencken. Puritanism, he said, is characterised by "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy".
And we can't allow that, can we?