Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Holding A Mirror Up To Moynihan

Digby's column at Commonsense is a wonderful piece that needs to be read in full, with a concentration on the details. By taking a factual and rhetorical cudgel to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "Defining Deviancy Downward" thesis originally published in American Scholar in 1993 -
I proffer the thesis that, over the past generation, . . . 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.

- she shows us that, rather than the result of liberal politics and the trepidations of the depraved masked as social policy, the real culprits of our social malaise are corporations who, in pursuit of ever-higher profits, screw people, and the politicians who enable them. The best of the worst examples of the latter are the ill-conceived and misnamed "Tort Reform" bill and "Bankruptcy Reform" bills the Republican-controlled Congress passed a few years back.

Digby writes in closing:
So, here we find ourselves more than 40 years after the conservatives began decrying the moral depravity of the left and 15 years after Patrick Moynihan told us that our liberal culture was defining deviancy down and we find that they were right all along. They just got one little detail wrong. It wasn't the liberal left who were morally depraved. It was them.

While the culture at large was adjusting to the idea that families don't all look the same and that private sexual morality was not the business of the state, the decadent economic elite and right wing ideologues had systematically defined deviancy down to the point where Moynihan's deviant "altruism" can be illustrated as giving bonuses to workers who denied cancer patients their medicine; his deviant "opportunism" is seen as giving hundreds of millions of dollars to failed business leaders who lost their companies billions; and his deviant "normalizing" can be observed as society tossing aside its taboo against government-sanctioned torture.

If those are the "old" standards the culture warriors of the right have been trying to defend, they're killing us. Literally.

I applaud the last line, precisely because it is correct.

There is, however, a problem with this. By holding a mirror up to Moynihan's thesis about "deviance", she forgets that by doing so, she is still buying in to the central idea Moynihan presented, viz., that there was once a time when certain behaviors were verboten, not just as a question of generally accepted values and principles, but even, perhaps as matters of law. In fact, the kinds of corporate crime and political aiding and abetting she describes has been a constant of the United States, with two possible exceptions - Andrew Jackson's fight against the Bank of the US, and FDR's struggle to install corporate and market-exchange oversight and regulation in the wake of capitalism's collapse in the early 1930's.

I would much rather toss the entire thing out on its ear, precisely because the thesis is fundamentally flawed, whether in its original version or its mirror image. The kinds of behaviors of which Moynihan spoke in his original piece are not "deviant" in some absolute moral sense (because no such thing exists), but are various species of either bigotry or narrow-minded social repression masked as moral opprobrium. As far as digby's mirror is concerned, corporations have been screwing people left and right, even killing them on more than several occasions, for doing nothing more than demanding better working conditions, better pay, and more sane work schedules. As for cutting corners in production that endanger consumers (or dropping policy holders if the occasion arises), Americans seem OK with that as long as the products they buy - manufactured for the most part by slave labor or very nearly that in places like China, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Thailand - are still inexpensive. It might be patriotic to scream "Buy American", but everyone knows those pesky unions will drive up prices and we can't have that.

Rather than discuss something nonsensical like "deviance", we should be discussing the very real fraying of the various strands of the social web and infrastructure in the US. Since most Americans (three-quarters in the latest such poll) believe the US is "headed in the wrong direction", it seems this is the best place to start. What can we do in order to be moving in the right direction? I do not believe that harping on "cultural" issues (which is nothing more than attempts to legislate narrow, contingent moral codes held by relatively few people) will be a winner any more for the right. Whether it's bashing GLBT's, or Brown Folks, or lecturing us on our declining values - this argument is over and done with. The American people are pretty clear what they want - health care, a responsible and responsive government that does not spend our military treasure in illegal and pointless wars, a return to a real sense of shared national community. It isn't about "deviance". It's about restoring the United States' social and political and legal infrastructure.

Virtual Tin Cup

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