December 14, 2007

Defining Deviancy Down

Dear Friends,

I was recently contacted by a reporter for the New York Times, who asked me to clarify the relationship between culture and politics. Below, my reply.--mb

Dear Kirk,

Thank you for writing. Yours is a great question, both in the sense of being very important, and in the sense of being vast. In fact, to provide you with a decent reply, I think I'd need to go off and do about six years of research, and I'm guessing your deadline is a bit sooner than that. The problem here is that there is no definitive pattern, or even set of patterns, I know of, for the relationship between culture and politics. In some cases, it makes no difference at all that I can see: the British decision of a few years back to outlaw fox hunting, for example. A similar ban in NYC, a few years ago, on smoking in bars and restaurants. There is a lot of stuff in that category.

At the other extreme, we might consider the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century, or in contemporary Northern Ireland. These are/were cultural conflicts with huge political consequences, quite obviously. Hatred of Jews in Germany during the 1930s, and the cultural campaign against them; e.g. movies (which I've seen) comparing Jews to insects, crawling through sacks of wheat, poisoning the food supply, i.e. the larger "healthy" German culture. As one historian famously remarked, "ideas have consequences."

As for the things you point to, such as capital punishment or homosexual marriage, I could offer some guesses, but that's all they would be.

I do, however, know of one pattern by which culture impacts politics, a pattern identified by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the phrase, "defining deviancy down." In other words, what is socially unacceptable at one point, becomes perfectly OK--or at least, tolerated--a decade or so later. I used to ride the Metro quite often when I lived in Washington, DC, and watched how increasingly, people put their feet up on the seats, or sprawled out on them. Cell phone users could care less who is listening to them, so one now has to suffer through dinner with a friend in a restaurant while 3 feet away, someone is yakking loudly about their personal life. The Met, in NY, used to ban cell phone use in the galleries; now, one has to look at Rembrandt or Van Gogh while someone stands next to you, describing their recent gall bladder operation. Visitors even talk on their phones in St. Patrick's Cathedral. In schools, rudeness to teachers, and violence toward classmates, has become commonplace. Learning for learning's sake is a thing of the past, something "quaint," for patsies. There is a long list of this sort of behavior, and in fact a long list of books on incivility in American life (Stephen Carter's "Civility" is a good place to start).

There is also a large literature documenting a complete lack of interest in community and the larger society in the US, and how, following Moynihan's prescription, this is now taken for granted. The most famous of these is Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" (this for the period 1965-95), but you might also check out Alan Ehrenhalt's "The Lost City," among others.

The impact of these things on politics is that politics becomes more or less irrelevant. We don't really have a society any more, so in that context, what is it that politics could possibly accomplish? Most Americans don't vote, and I doubt that very many, in their heart of hearts, really believe things are going to get better over time, regardless of which party is in office. The result of incivility and loss of community, of a world in which (e.g.) violence in our high schools is now regarded as simply a fact of life, and learning and erudition regarded as jokes, is cultural death, cynicism, loss of belief in America at large. "Democracy" becomes little more than a slogan. Bill Clinton or Barack Obama can talk about "hope," but all this is nothing more than empty rhetoric, because there can be no hope in the face of such large-scale solipsism and narcissism. Politics cannot be meaningful when the huge majority of the population has turned away from "the commons," from any participation or even concern about the larger society (which politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher claimed didn't even exist), and into private worlds of shopping, Prozac, TV, the Internet, religious fundamentalism, and the like. And this certainly does constitute an historical pattern, whether we are talking about the end of the Roman Empire, or the disintegration of the American one. Indeed, probably the greatest factor in the collapse of a civilization is spiritual death; and as Moynihan pointed out, we are seeing more and more of it every day.

As for your own question regarding the resolution of all this: take a guess.

Anyway, that's the best I can do on short notice. If there is anything in the above that might be useful to you, feel free to take what you need.

With best wishes,

Morris Berman