Defin­ing de­viancy down

The vul­gar­ity of the cul­ture is spread­ing. Is vi­o­lence far be­hind?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

Robert De Niro, the ac­tor, aimed the “F-bomb” at Don­ald Trump in re­marks to a large au­di­ence at the Tony Awards. Fol­low­ing an ap­pre­cia­tive ap­plause he re­peated it and got a stand­ing ova­tion. Sa­man­tha Bee, the tele­vi­sion co­me­dian, used the even more vul­gar “c-word” to de­scribe the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter, Ivanka Trump. Well, they’re only words, some peo­ple say. “The prob­lem with Robert De Niro’s us­ing the f-word against Pres­i­dent Trump isn’t the word it­self,” writes Chris­tine Emba in The Washington Post, “it’s the ab­sence of un­der­ly­ing con­tent.” But the ob­scen­i­ties are the only “un­der­ly­ing con­tent.” Sa­man­tha Bee’s au­di­ence, which gave her a rous­ing cheer, got the mes­sage loud and clear. They loved it.

When co­me­dian Den­nis Miller watches Robert De Niro splat­ter­ing his pub­lic with po­lit­i­cal ob­scen­i­ties, he tells an in­ter­viewer, he turns around, looks over his shoulder, and mim­ics the ac­tor’s psy­cho­pathic char­ac­ter in the movie “Taxi Driver,” and asks: “You talk­ing to me? You talk­ing to me?”

Many of us are ask­ing that ques­tion now, ex­tend­ing it to the ter­ri­ble things other peo­ple are do­ing and say­ing in th­ese po­lar­ized and an­gry times. There’s a reach for rude­ness, am­pli­fied by cell phones and ev­ery­where else on so­cial me­dia.

Den­nis Miller, late of “Satur­day Night Live,” may be an ironic per­son to cri­tique the in­creas­ing vul­gar­ity of the cul­ture, but like grow­ing num­bers of the rest of us, both red and blue, he re­gards the vul­gar­ity of the cul­ture as a tragic state of af­fairs. Ugly words and ugly pub­lic be­hav­ior bom­bard the pub­lic con­scious­ness, con­spic­u­ously in pol­i­tics, but in art and en­ter­tain­ment as well. It’s im­pos­si­ble to rise above the an­tag­o­nis­tic and the dis­pu­ta­tious, to es­cape the anger that begets blind hate and mind­less rage. Can vi­o­lence be far be­hind?

But mind­less­ness re­quires mind­ful­ness. Classes in mind­ful­ness are pro­lif­er­at­ing be­cause they teach how to fo­cus on the in­tel­lec­tu­ally im­por­tant. That’s ever more dif­fi­cult to do. There’re a new opera, new as in re­vival of the old, re­cently en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. It’s called “The Em­peror of At­lantis, or Death Goes on Strike,” reprised for re­flec­tion and en­ter­tain­ment, and suc­ceeds, in part, but in re­vival it suc­cumbs to the di­rec­tor’s con­ceit to com­pare Don­ald Trump to Adolf Hitler. The opera was writ­ten in 1944 by Vik­tor Ull­mann, a Czech Jew, when he was a pris­oner at theThere­sien­stadt death camp shortly be­fore he was trans­ferred to Auschwitz to be mur­dered by the Nazis. The opera has a heavy drum­beat meant to rep­re­sent a bru­tal­ized en­vi­ron­ment. The di­rec­tor up­dates the cen­tral char­ac­ter, orig­i­nally a par­ody of Hitler, to a dic­ta­tor ob­sessed with his coun­try’s bor­ders, with jar­ring ref­er­ences to “fake news” and “you’re fired.” This re­duces se­ri­ous philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions to so­cial me­dia cliches.

It’s pop­u­lar in cer­tain precincts to com­pare the pres­i­dent with Hitler and the Holo­caust, and it’s what his­to­rian Jay Winik, writ­ing in The Wall Street Jour­nal, calls an “ob­scene lie.” When Michael Hay­den, for­mer di­rec­tor of the CIA, com­pared im­mi­grant de­ten­tion cen­ters to Auschwitz and tweeted the in­fa­mous pho­to­graph of the sin­gle rail line into Auschwitz, civil lib­er­ties lawyer Alan Der­showitz called out Mr. Hay­den’s re­marks as “Holo­caust de­nial.” It was a cruel and stupid anal­ogy to the place where more than a mil­lion Jews, in­clud­ing many chil­dren, were sent to “show­ers” of poi­son gas.

The late Sen. DanielPa­trick Moyni­han ob­served how there’s a limit to how much bad be­hav­ior can sat­u­rate a so­ci­ety be­fore so­ci­ety low­ers stan­dards for ev­ery­body. He called it “defin­ing de­viancy down.” “When you be­gin to think that it’s not re­ally that bad,” he said, “pretty soon you be­come ac­cus­tomed to very de­struc­tive be­hav­ior.”

That’s where we are now, with a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial asked to leave a restau­rant be­cause the owner doesn’t like her boss, and a mem­ber of Congress urg­ing her con­stituents to or­ga­nize a mob to ha­rass con­ser­va­tives — “in a restau­rant, depart­ment store, or gaso­line sta­tion” — to “push back on them, and you tell them they’re not wel­come — any­more, any­where.”

Some Democrats are alarmed, not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause such vig­i­lante rhetoric is wrong, but it’s risky po­lit­i­cal strat­egy with the midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions loom­ing just ahead. They’re con­cerned that Rep. Max­ine Wa­ters is not the im­age of the party they want to project in the months lead­ing to Nov. 6. “Con­fir­ma­tion bias” is in­sid­i­ously at work, en­abling Rep. Wa­ters and her an­gry look-alikes to be that party im­age, no mat­ter how out­ra­geous and dis­abling.

Just the other day, a con­gres­sional in­tern, 21, an aide toSen. Mag­gie Has­san of New Hamp­shire, a Demo­crat, sent an“F-bomb” sail­ing to­ward the pres­i­dent as he walked past her through the Capi­tol ro­tunda. She was sus­pended for only a week and Mrs. Has­san said she would keep her job. That’s what Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han called defin­ing de­viancy down.

Some Democrats are alarmed, not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause such vig­i­lante rhetoric is wrong, but it’s risky po­lit­i­cal strat­egy with the midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions loom­ing just ahead.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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