Over the last few years, we have more than once had occasion to cite Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s brilliant 1993 article from The American Scholar called “Defining Deviancy Down.” In that essay, Senator Moynihan outlined some of the manifold ways in which our society has attempted to deny deviancy by redefining it as normal or even, in some instances, as glamorous. In case after case, he showed, behavior that would have been considered unacceptable even a few years ago is excused or championed today as normal. The result has been a blunting of our sensibilties and an increasing impotence in the face of social breakdown. Inured to the outrageous, we often can barely recognize deviance as such, much less take effective action against it.

In “Defining Deviancy Down,” Senator Moynihan was concerned primarily with such glaring urban pathologies as illegitimacy, drug abuse, unemployment, and violence. But his diagnosis is equally applicable to the realms of culture and morality. There, too, over the last few decades we have witnessed concerted efforts to deny deviancy by redefining it. As a result, basic standards of propriety, taste, and accomplishment have been eroded—where, indeed, they have not collapsed altogether. Much that would formerly have been rejected as repulsive trash is now not only countenanced but also celebrated.

Readers seeking corroboration of this assertion will find particularly egregious examples in The New York Times Magazine for December 17. Among other offerings in that issue was a fawning article about the writer Dorothy Allison, coyly self-described as a “cross-eyed, working-class lesbian addicted to violence, language and hope,” and—under the title “Zine Dreams”—a peppy encomium about the way underground magazines, “occasionally obscene and invariably idiosyncratic,” have attracted the mainstream attention of “Hollywood, record companies, even Barnes & Noble.”

Note well: these articles are instances of advocacy, not reporting. The brutal, pornographic writings of Miss Allison and the trashy, postmodernist ravings of such organs as Dirty, Crap Hound, and Boiled Angel are held up not for scrutiny but for admiration. Miss Allison—whom the Times refers to as “the Roseanne of Literature,” a reference to the vulgar television comedienne—has recently gone from being an obscure fringe figure to celebrity on the basis of Bastard Out of Carolina, a semiautobiographical novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award and is now being made into a movie. According to the Times, Miss Allison appeals to a “broad spectrum,” “from readers of Southern fiction to incest survivors and lesbian sex radicals.” How broad can you get? As Andy Warhol might have put it, all the way from A to B and back again.

She writes now “to save herself.” Nevertheless, she refuses “to write morality plays.”

Written by Alexis Jetter, the article about Dorothy Allison is cast in the smarmy, P.C. victim-speak that the Times now favors for all its approved subjects. Accordingly, Miss Allison exudes an “aura of raw pain.” She was born illegitimately to a fifteen-year-old “in a culture where women were old at 25 and men never grow up at all.” Legally blind in one eye, “she can’t even step off a sidewalk with much confidence.” Amazingly, though, “she’s a mean shot with a rifle.” Having been sexually abused by her step-father as a child—and having sent her little sisters into him “because I knew he wasn’t as bad with them as he was with me”—Miss Allison “wakes up in the middle of the night, plagued by survivor guilt.” She writes now “to save herself.” Nevertheless, she refuses “to write morality plays.”

Indeed. Miss Allison’s book Trash is described as a collection of “angry short stories” that deal “forthrightly with the scars of incest and the joys of raunchy sex between women.” Although “she can’t always tell where the truth ends and the story begins,” Miss Allison is emerging as a kind of moral beacon for like-minded souls. She takes pride in her “white trash” background. Her editor describes her as “the Lourdes of writers”—“people come to her to be healed”—and “critics” are said by Miss Jetter to have compared her to “William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee.” (Well, a character in works by Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, perhaps.) Miss Jetter ends her gushing portrait with a cozy domestic moment. Although not “easily lulled by happiness,” these days “a certain contentedness” has seeped into the Allison ménage, which consists of Miss Allison, her partner, and her partner’s biological son, a three-year-old named Wolf. No one reading this article will have any doubts that Miss Allison will succeed in being “a model of outrageousness” for this little boy, whom she describes fondly as a “turkey-baster-bastard.” Whether he will also grow up to enjoy life, as she hopes, is, alas, a more difficult question.

The Times mustered similar enthusiasm for the new, mainstream popularity of formerly underground magazines: low-budget, generally smudgy paeans to quirkiness, fetishism, and cultural fragmentation. It says a lot, we think, that the editors at the Times Magazine considered the cover of one of the “zines” under discussion “a little too racy” to be pictured. We learn that the owner of Beer Frame is “bursting to sell out” while Dirty maintains its integrity by never using “computer graphics programs . . . to enhance [images of] critical male body parts.” Crap Hound, a compendium of kitchen gadgets and sex toys, comes in for sub- stantial praise, as does Boiled Angel, which publishes “the kind of Americana that only a pedophile could love: homey portraits of childhood abuse rendered in words and crude cartoon images. Crack-addicted mothers. Sodomizing fathers. Children who ‘tickle’ their siblings with broken beer bottles.” Supporters of this last gem, we are told, include the creator of “Beavis and Butt-head” and Andres Serrano, he of the crucifix-dipped-in-urine fame. Impressive recommendations, these!

It is hardly a secret that The New York Times Magazine long ago ceased being an organ with any claim to journalistic distinction or intellectual integrity. Increasingly little more than a slick vehicle for advertising from the fashion industry, it has in recent years become ever more shallow and trendy. But articles like those praising Dorothy Allison and “zines” like Crap Hound and Boiled Angel demonstrate that the Times is not merely reflecting the deviancy of our age: it is helping to sustain and nurture it as well.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 5, on page 4
Copyright © 2024 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now