Almost 20 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the senior senator from New York and then and now one of the smarter congresscritters ever to serve, published an essay in the journal American Scholar. In it, drawing on the work of Emile Durkheim and Kai Erikson, he suggests that social control is aimed not necessarily at eliminating things like crime, just keeping it within certain boundaries:
In both authors, Durkheim and Erikson, there is an undertone that suggests that, with deviancy, as with most social goods, there is the continuing problem of demand exceeding supply. Durkheim invites us to imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes, properly so called, will there be unknown; but faults which appear venial to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, this society has the power to judge and punish, it will define these acts as criminal and will treat them as such.
Recall Durkheim’s comment that there need be no cause for congratulations should the amount of crime drop “too noticeably below the normal level. It would not appear that Durkheim anywhere contemplates the possibility of too much crime. Clearly his theory would have required him to deplore such a development, but the possibility seems never to have occurred to him.
Erikson, writing much later in the twentieth century, contemplates both possibilities. “Deviant persons can be said to supply needed services to society.” There is no doubt a tendency for the supply of any needed thing to run short. But he is consistent. There can, he believes, be too much of a good thing. Hence “the number of deviant offenders a community can afford to recognize is likely to remain stable over time.” [Moynihan's emphasis -- Lex]
Social scientists are said to he on the lookout for poor fellows getting a bum rap. But here is a theory that clearly implies that there are circumstances in which society will choose not to notice behavior that would be otherwise controlled, or disapproved, or even punished.
It appears to me that this is in fact what we in the United States have been doing of late. I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation, since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.
From such “exempt[ing] much conduct previously stigmatized” came the title of Moynihan’s essay, “Defining Deviancy Down.”
Now, keep in mind that at the time Moynihan wrote this, violent crime had been rising steadily for 40 years. Almost 20 years later, it has fallen off dramatically, and the reasons may have less to do with any sociological factor than crime-and-punishment types want to believe. (Doctors who wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1992 that violent crime was a “public health emergency” were more right than they knew.) Certainly, it has nothing to do with whether we still consider violent crime to be, well, violent crime. We unquestionably do, even if some other behaviors widely considered deviant a couple of generations ago (e.g., homosexuality) no longer are so widely considered.
But this phenomenon, as Erikson predicted, has played out in other areas, most notably in this election year what is considered sane, rational political discourse. Consider, if you will, what Gingrich said this past weekend about stem-cell research: He called such research “the use of science to desensitize society over the killing of babies.”
Did anyone blink? Did anyone in a position of responsibility in the Republican establishment suggest, publicly or privately, to Gingrich that if he was going to suggest that scientists were in the business of whipping up some baby-killing fervor as an end in itself, he might want to offer some, you know, evidence? If so, there’s been no sign of it.
Take it away, Charlie Pierce:
You could argue that stem-cell research represents hubristic overreach on the part of the scientists. You could argue that those scientists are fundamentally amoral and that they are only in it for the pot of gold that waits for whoever finds a way to use stem cells to cure some horrendous disease. You could argue that you have come to oppose such research after long and prayerful consideration once you were no longer governor of a state that depends so vitally on bio-tech dollars and have only to give long and prayerful consideration to the question, “How will this play among the rubes in Florida?” (That would be Willard Romney’s position.) You could argue that you are opposed to it simply because every fertilized embryo is sacred. Period. (Hi, Rick Santorum!) You could argue any one of those. I would not agree with you, but I would not feel compelled to call the Nervous Hospital and have you picked up, either.
But consider, for a moment, what Gingrich said. He accused these scientists not of hubris or cupidity, and he did not accuse them of idly casting aside the philosophical considerations of their work. He is saying that these scientists, and their work, are deliberately engaged in a campaign to make the “killing of babies” easier in American society, that their grand design is not fame and fortune, nor ridding the world of terrible illness, but, rather, that they are in service to a dark agenda to turn America into some kind of futuristic child-killing dystopia. I’m sorry, but this is just nuts. I mean, I’ve heard the argument that climate scientists have invented the “hoax” of global climate change in order to get rich, but that’s a nursery rhyme compared to what Gingrich is dealing out here.
Tell me again that Ron Paul is the crackpot in this race.
(Full disclosure: Both my brothers have Type 1 diabetes, and if stem-cell research offers them the hope of a cure, which it might, then I support it. For that matter, if scooping Gingrich’s guts out with a rusty spoon offered them the hope of a cure, I would at least strongly consider it.)
I’ve argued before that the GOP primary voting base responds most strongly to hippie-punching, and that people like Newt Gingrich succeed by punching hippies. But cui bono? Moynihan had a suspicion on that, too:
Our second, or opportunistic mode of redefinition, reveals at most a nominal intent to do good. The true object is to do well, a long-established motivation among mortals. In this pattern, a growth in deviancy makes possible a transfer of resources, including prestige, to those who control the deviant population. This control would be jeopardized if any serious effort were made to reduce the deviancy in question. This leads to assorted strategies for re-defining the behavior in question as not all that deviant, really.
Newt Gingrich has made it very clear that he wants to dismantle the New Deal and Great Society, and in this he is not alone in the GOP. Indeed, some of the party’s wealthiest, most powerful backers — corporatists, if not fascists, and people whose beliefs are inimical to American ideals — stand to get even wealthier and thus more powerful if Gingrich or anyone like him gains political power.
Does it matter that these candidates defy the laws of nature by pushing creationism, casting unfounded doubt on a proven means of reducing disease and dismissing climate science that might be essential to the survival of the species? Does it matter that these candidates make the grossest of moral accusations without evidence or accountability? Does it matter that these candidates’ proposals are plainly and simply unconstitutional as well as economic and social suicide?
It does not.
And so they define lunacy down. They hear the batshit and do not think, “How can I make this stop?” but, rather, “How can I make this work for me?” And so the nation bungee jumps into the Canyon of Crazy without a cord.
Moynihan, speaking in the context of violent crime and single-parent households (statistically associated with many social ills), concluded:
As noted earlier, Durkheim states that there is “nothing desirable” about pain. … Pain, even so, is an indispensable warning signal. But societies under stress, much like individuals, will turn to pain killers of various kinds that end up concealing real damage. There is surely nothing desirable about this. If our analysis wins general acceptance, if, for example, more of us came to share Judge [Edwin] Torres’s genuine alarm at “the trivialization of the lunatic crime rate” in his city (and mine) [New York -- Lex], we might surprise ourselves how well we respond to the manifest decline of the American civic order. Might.
One large subset of the people who would govern us has taken leave of its senses. Our “liberal” news media treats this phenomenon as unremarkable. And those Americans who haven’t had to sell their TVs and gaming sets because their unemployment insurance has run out are, by and large, taking comfort in “Call of Duty” and “NCIS” instead of doing something about it.