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Defining Deviancy Down

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Robert De Niro, the actor, aimed the f-bomb at President 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 Tump 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." Bee's audience, which gave her a rousing cheer, got the message loud and clear. It loved it.

Comedian Dennis Miller told an interviewer that when he watches De Niro splattering his public with political obscenities, he turns around, looks over his shoulder and mimics the actor's psychopathic character in the movie "Taxi Driver," saying: "You talkin' to me? You talkin' 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 cellphones and everywhere else on social media.

Miller, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, 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 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 evermore difficult to do. There're a new opera, new as in a revival of the old, entertaining audiences in the nation's capital. It's called "The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Goes on Strike," reprised for reflection and entertainment, in which it 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 1943 by Viktor Ullmann, a Czech Jew, when he was a prisoner at the Theresienstadt 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 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.

Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed how there's a limit to how much bad behavior can saturate a society before it lowers standards for everybody. He called it "defining deviancy down," saying: "when you get too much, you begin to think that it's not really that bad. 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 -- "And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station ... you 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 because it's a risky political strategy with the midterm 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 Waters and her angry look-alikes to be that party image, no matter how outrageous and disabling.

Just the other day, a 21-year-old congressional intern to Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire 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 Sen. Hassan said she would keep her job. That's what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "defining deviancy down."

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