Daniel Patrick Moynihan, revisited

Daniel Patrick Moynihan [offered] an arresting view . . . in The American Scholar entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.” His point is that deviancy – crime, broken homes, mental illness – has reached such vast and incomprehensible proportions that we have had to adopt a singular form of denial: We deal with the epidemic by simply defining away most of the disease. We lower the threshold for what we are prepared to call normal in order to keep the volume of deviancy – redefined deviancy – within manageable proportions.

Since 1960, for example, the incidence of single parenthood has more than tripled. It now afflicts – and anyone acquainted with the figures for poverty and the various social pathologies associated with single-parenthood knows that “afflicts” is the right word – more than one-quarter of all American children. As the problem has grown, however, it has been systematically redefined by the culture – by social workers, intellectuals, and most famously by the mass media – as simply another lifestyle choice. Dan Quayle may have been right, but Murphy Brown got the better ratings.

Moynihans second example is crime. We have become totally inured to levels of criminality that would have been considered intolerable thirty years ago. The St. Valentines Day massacre, which caused a national uproar and merited two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia, involved four thugs killing seven other thugs. An average weekend in today’s Los Angeles, notes James Q. Wilson. More than half of all violent crimes are not even reported. We have come to view homicide as ineradicable a part of the social landscape as car accidents.

And finally there is mental illness. Unlike family breakdown and criminality, there has probably been no increase in mental illness over the last thirty years. Rates of schizophrenia do not change, but the rate of hospitalization for schizophrenia and other psychoses has changed. The mental hospitals have been emptied. In 1955, New York state asylums had 93,000 patients. Last year they had 11,000. Where have the remaining 82,000 and their descendants gone? Onto the streets, mostly. In one generation, a flood of pathetically ill people has washed onto the streets of the American city. We now step over these wretched and abandoned folk sleeping in doorways and freezing on grates. They, too, have become accepted as part of the natural landscape. We have managed to do that by redefining them as people who simply lack affordable housing. They are not crazy or sick, just very poor (as if anyone crazy and sick and totally abandoned would not end up very poor).