December 1, 2004


A broken window into civilization (Kathleen Parker, December 1, 2004, Townhall)

The "broken windows" theory of social breakdown goes more or less like this: If a broken window in a building is left unrepaired, pretty soon all the windows are broken, and so goes the neighborhood.

By now familiar, the theory was conceived and popularized by Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. They wrote in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly that if broken windows are not repaired, "the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside."

"Or consider a sidewalk," wrote Wilson and Kelling. "Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

The authors determined that the way to prevent vandalism - and thus more serious forms of crime and urban deterioration - was to fix the broken windows. To clean up the sidewalk. To fix the small things before they become big things.

As mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani put the theory to work by strictly enforcing laws against small crimes - subway fare evasion, for example - and major crime dropped significantly.

Wilson and Kelling explained that the reason one broken window leads to more broken windows is because human beings respond to these signs as an absence of caring or of anyone being in charge. In the absence of authority - the symbolic adult - children tend to behave badly. Order breaks down. Civility disintegrates.

Given which, it seems reasonable to extend the broken windows theory to the larger culture. Why wouldn't a similar lack of adult attention to standards of human civility eventually result in the cultural equivalent of broken windows?

It does not seem a stretch that what we witnessed on the basketball court and the football field is merely the inevitable conclusion of the general coarsening we've witnessed in the culture the past few decades.

Where Wilson and Kelling considered broken buildings and littered sidewalks, we might consider a profane and sex-saturated culture in which coarse language, base human interaction and incivility are no longer the exception but the norm.

Which is why it's so important to re-establish decency standards on network television too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 1, 2004 8:49 AM

Mandatory coats and ties for all male fans in the lower tiers, fans removed from the stands without proper attire; throwing anything onto the court warrants a loss of season tickets. Run any fan who yells profanities and have the police fine them a few hundred for every offense. There's a large pool waiting for season tickets here in Detroit, so to heck with anyone who won't conform to the artificial society of live spectatoring. Athletics doesn't have to be a Roman circus.

Check out the fans' attire in the stands as Mays makes his catch in '54, they look better than the people at my church today.

Posted by: JimGooding at December 1, 2004 10:00 AM

As long as everyone knows what he's getting, there need be no 'decency' standards on network TV. The Owens/Sheridan incident on MNF is the exception that proves the rule. In a free society, some people will choose to watch dreck like Desperate Housewives, others will not. The outrage occured because people who would not watch Desperate Housewives had their football viewing experience invaded by a cheesy self-promotion, of dubious taste. I know that if I had small children watching the game with me, I'd be very angry.

Jim, dress codes are weird. I really liked the idea of dressing in various levels of slobbishness when I was in college, grad school and even when I started teaching. However, now that I am perhaps getting hidebound in my dotage, I find that in the workplace, even though 'business casual' is the rule, I always wear a blazer, tie, white shirt, black shoes, etc. It's staggering.

You are correct about the attire some fans wear. Even at a Giant football game, there are people with vulgarities on their clothing(a few years ago I saw some lout wearing a sweatshirt that said 'I just f*****your sister). Again, if I had children and were bringing them to the game, this is not something I should find acceptable. You have an excellent point about its coarsening effect, and Lord knows the NY Metro area does not need additional coarsening.

Posted by: Bart at December 1, 2004 10:14 AM

Hear hear.

I've always thought that we can pinpoint the exact moment when the world started to Go To Hell In A Handbasket...

It happened in 1919, when Suzanne Lenglen won the Wimbledon lawn tennis championship, and did so wearing "a flimsy and revealing calf-length cotton frock with short sleeves, several yards of colored silk chiffon, shiny white stockings that were rolled to her knees, and a headband."

Prior to this, ladies had been required to wear heavy bustles, several stiff petticoats, corsets and a straw boater.

Now just look at the floosies that prance provovatively around the courts today!

(Incidentally, it won't surprise you to learn that Mlle Lenglen was a Frenchwoman.)

Posted by: Brit at December 1, 2004 10:22 AM

Bart: "various levels of slobbishness" is a dress code; there's always a dress code! What we wear is one our primary signalling devices to strangers.

Posted by: JimGooding at December 1, 2004 10:33 AM

The real value of "quality of life" policing is that it gets a lot of a**h**** off the street by a) scooping them up on outstanding warrants, which 2/3 of them seem to have, and b) driving them out of your community into those less likely to "harass " them.

It's not about breaking glass, it's about breaking b***s.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 1, 2004 11:05 AM


Take a look at the most recent episode of Desperate Housewives.

Considering its reputation, an astonishing amount of it came right out of OJ's playbook.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 1, 2004 12:44 PM

If we really want to clean up broadcast television, we should mandate that no person or animated figure can be shown firing a gun of any kind, using any weapon whatsoever, or physically beating/striking any other person.
No explosions.
No car chases.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 1, 2004 12:58 PM

Just apply the old comic book code to TV?

Posted by: Governor Breck at December 1, 2004 1:17 PM

Shock value always has been an easy way to attract people -- far easier than actually going out and hunting down people who might produce something imaganitive and entertaining for viewers. Hollywood starting pushing the envelope in the 1960s due to their declining attendance due to television, and that led to the elimiation of the production code and the installation of the G-M-R-X ratings system in 1968 (for which they hired Jack Valenti to help make it pallitable to Wasington). TV then responded by stretching what it allowed on the air, starting with "All in the Family" in 1971.

HBO followed a year later, and with the advent after that of more cable channels and public access (Manhattan Cable Television had stuff on in the mid-1970s as bad as anything today), the ability of shock value stuff to take away viewers from the networks put them in the same position by the 1990s that the networks put the film studios in 30 years earlier. Add to that the incestuious nature of the business, and instead of going out and finding people who can make imaganitve and inventive shows, you end up with more and more shock schlock, whether it's an MNF towel drop or seeing who can eat the most worms while balancing on a scooter on a guide wire over the Grand Canyon. In a windstorm. To get a job with Donald Trump.

Broadcast radio is facing the same problem, with the looser decency rules available on satellite radio - we're only 13 months away from Howard Stern being able to say whatever he wants in the mornings, which, reading a few websites, is apparently seen as the near-ultimate triumph of the First Amendment (the ultimate being if he could do it over the regular broadcast airwaves).

If the trend continues, I would guess 20 years down the line a radio home run call like Harey Carey's "Holy Cow" will be replaced by something like "F---ing A" by some ambitious announcer and team looking to juice their ratings by pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Posted by: John at December 1, 2004 2:04 PM

We may have gone beyond the tipping point; thus the election, thus the attribution of some to moral issues; really meaning: "I can't take it anymore." If coarse vulgarity isn't staunched there may be hell to pay in 2006 and Republicans may be held to blame for broken expectations. Congress needs to create some meaningful legislation on the issues and let the libertines protest. Please!

I'm far from being a prude, but something needs to be done to move society toward a family friendly atmosphere.

Posted by: genecis at December 1, 2004 2:29 PM

I've worked in oil refineries that were kept clean and tidy like there was going to a visit by the CEO. It reflected a "boot camp spit and polish" mentality. Why the apparent obsession? It's application of "broken windows" - - loose pipe insulation indicates rainwater infiltration or WORSE. Superclean gravel under pipe runs will, by discoloration, flag dripping hydrocarbons that calls for ABSOLUTELY IMMEDIATE RESPONSE !! A leak and FIRE are a possibility. Drips or spills around sampling stations indicate that a plant operator is sloppy - - that's even worse, because employee inattention(sloppiness) leads to accidents(sometimes fatal.)

The money spent on such care of the physical plant, and attentiveness/diligence by the personnel, is a good investment: the cost and disruption from a major fire or explosion would pay for a lot of tidyness and personnel training. When people are on the ball and the place is tidy, it becomes second nature to keep it that way.

Admiral Rickover's demanding standards for nuclear submarines was scoffed at by 1950's naval officers. He ended up having the "last laugh" in a field where 'broken windows' was no laughing matter.

Slovenly dress is the slippery slope to substandard behavior - - that the general coarsening has led to brawls in professional sports should be no surprise.

Posted by: LarryH at December 2, 2004 4:30 PM