- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Some books fall into a category that might be labeled, not unkindly, "completely true but not the complete truth." They leave you wondering, OK, so what's the rest of the story?

"The Politics of Deviance" is such a book. It's mostly fine as far as it goes. But the rest of the story you fill in for yourself.

Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, finds her theme in a 1992 speech and subsequent American Scholar essay by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (himself a recovering sociologist) which deplored the national habit of "Defining Deviancy Down." In his formulation, more and more deviant behavior becomes acceptable and accepted until the very notion of deviance disappears.

Here, the author notes correctly, while some forms of traditional deviance get defined out of existence or redefined as positive goods (homosexuality, for example), other hitherto acceptable activities are now stigmatized (smoking). Significantly, most of the work of defining up and down is now handled, not by traditional sources of authority, but by well-organized and well-funded advocacy groups, aided and encouraged by sensationalistic media, postmodern academics, and re-election-fixated politicians.

The author then offers a series of case studies, from medicalizing drug abuse to ever-expanding definitions of mental illness; from pedophilia to suicide; and from celebrations of aggressive female sexuality to the cowering, spiteful mentality that decrees every male a potential rapist and every female doomed to a lifetime of either getting raped or awaiting it.

Sad reading, this tale of how the oppressed of one era become the oppressors of the next. Chapter after chapter, a pattern repeats itself. A movement, be it feminism or gay rights or civil liberties for the mentally ill, arises often in response to very real prior abuses, excesses and injustices. These movements promise liberation from ancient evils, but too often end up perpetuating them in mutated form or creating entirely new catastrophes.

The author's solution: We must once again "draw from nature, reason and common sense to define what is deviant and reaffirm the moral ties that bind us."

And there begins the rest of the story.

It starts with a sense of uneasiness at the author's tone. The book is a weary one, far removed from the zestful indictments of decades past "The Culture of Complaint," "Madness in the Streets," "A Nation of Victims," to name only three. At times, the volume seems akin to the final minor prophets of the Old Testament, the Malachis and Zephaniahs and Habakkuks going through the motions, knowing that they'd lost.

Like her fellow weary prophets, the author seems to view the world as a place that can neither keep going as it has nor find a way to change. Her weak and abstract calls for a return to individual responsibility and communal morality notwithstanding, she seems genuinely bewildered.

She needn't be. Two great truths and one speculation provide a possible rest of the story.

The first great truth is contained in the statement, "If present trends continue." Present trends never continue. History is the story neither of straight lines nor of cycles (though both may be adduced), but of strange and improbable veerings, recombinances, and novelties.

Second, some stuff works better than others, no matter what you call it. Label drug addiction or promiscuity what you will, they still destroy. And not even the most sophisticated marketing campaign can overcome the resistance reified in the phrase, "Tried it. Didn't work." And, whether the product be soap or sexual liberation, the underlying dynamic's the same.

Finally, society and culture are not zero-sum games. "Tradition versus PC" does not exhaust the possibilities. Consider, for example, what might happen were this society to adopt as a moral premise something called honor, defined by Aristotle as a life of meeting one's obligations and demanding one's due. Modern victimhood consists mostly of demanding one's due. Modern responsibility consists mostly of meeting one's obligations. Why not recombine them, with a bit less worry about setting rigid boundaries and a bit more appreciation of how vastly different folks can still aspire to and attain honor?

Far-fetched? Only if you believe you already know the rest of the story. And that it's bad.