Let’s bring back stigma against cultural vandalism 

When is a flawless, gleaming, plate-glass shop window a broken window?

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had no trouble answering the question after one look at the Nike sneaker shop’s display on his city’s upscale Newbury Street.

There, above the company’s “Just Do It” slogan, were eight T-shirts bearing, in boldly graphic lettering, such messages as “Get High,” “F--- Gravity,” and “Dope,” this one accompanied by an open pill bottle with skateboards spilling out.

The mayor clearly understood George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s famous theory that one broken window left unrepaired in an empty building suggests that nobody is watching and nobody cares, sparking more vandalism and disorder, which in turn emboldens the violent and lawless to commit hard-core crimes.

Here, the mayor saw, was cultural vandalism: Nike’s fashion statement, so to speak, was that it is trendy to take drugs. And the company was happy to turn its teen and preteen customers into walking billboards for drug use.

Menino fired off a sharp letter to the store manager, with copies to her CEO and the press, reprimanding her for her display’s assault on the young and on common sense.

He urged her to remove the shirts and remarked that if Nike decided “to take more seriously the issue of drug abuse,” he could point out several successful Boston antidrug programs.

With the sulky peevishness of its adolescent clientele, the company refused the mayor’s request, but a week later, at the end of June, a new display replaced the offending garb, though the “Dope” shirt defiantly remained.

Menino’s letter, along with the publicity he generated by it, was exactly the right approach. He didn’t try to outlaw the offending display; the First Amendment guarantees us free speech, after all, even down to protecting the right of kids to play hyper-violent video games, the Supreme Court has just ruled.

But when what is legal is also disgusting and wrong, the proper response is criticism and stigma, especially effective when the prominent — like Boston’s mayor — publicly express it. A kid in a “Dope” shirt should draw the sneers of passersby, and business executives should tell their Nike counterparts that their supposed edginess pollutes the culture.

The top brass of the Diesel clothing chain, now running a “Be stupid” ad campaign, should hear the same disapproval. Until recently, their Fifth Avenue store, which has defaced an urbane classical building with a 30-foot-high cast-stone bas-relief of an angry lout in a Mohawk haircut, proclaimed from its window: “Smart may have the brains, but stupid has the balls.”

The chain’s website asserts, “Smart may have the authority, but stupid has one hell of a hangover,” and “Stupid is the relentless pursuit of a regret-free life.”

Outfitting thugs and bar brawlers, while egging them on, is not an honorable way to make a living, nor is selling gangsta rap that glorifies law-breaking and mistreating women, nor is hawking video games that have kids pretend to kill, maim and rape.

And parents who let their kids buy such junk merit the scorn of their neighbors. Our culture isn’t something we merely consume. We also all participate in creating it.

Myron Magnet is editor-at-large of the City Journal. This article was adapted from the Summer 2011 issue.

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Myron Magnet

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