The $*(#$ing Power of Vulgarity

I don’t have my copy of Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night on my lap. A few years ago, I loaned it to someone who took it with her when she drifted out of my life. But among the sections that have stuck in my head, more or less intact, is one where Mailer digresses from recounting his speech to assembled antiwar protestors, to a general defense of vulgarity.

If I’m reconstructing this right, he flashes back to one of his old army squad-mates, a Southerner, who finds his bowels in sudden, urgent need of relief. After doing the honors in the middle of a Filipino rice paddy, the man returns, beaming, and reports, “Man, I just managed to take me a noble shit.” To Mailer, Johnny Reb’s unlettered, country-boy wisdom — shit can also be noble — sums up the foundation of America’s democratic spirit.

Mailer was right, at least to the point that vulgarity has always featured prominently in the songs and verse of the common people, or the vulgus. The English tavern song, “A Man’s Yard,” which dates to 1600, challenges listeners:

Reed me a riddle: What is this
You hold it in your hande when you pisse?
It is a kind of pleasinge stinge,
A pricklinge and a pleasinge thinge.

It is a stiffe shorte fleshy pole
That fittes to stopp a Maydens hole;
It is Venus wanton stayinge Wand
That ne’er had feet, and yett can stande.

(It could be added: “Yett this fyne stave, so cruellie,/was cutte from Norton’s Anthology.”)

Of course, the better sort of people did get into the act. (General Patton famously said that no man could call himself a gentleman unless he could swear for three minutes without repeating himself.) But they often aimed upward. When Napoleon called Prince Talleyrand “shit in a silk stocking,” he was speaking not just as an emperor to a minister, but also as a Corsican lawyer’s son to a member of the old aristocracy. Back to the subject of members, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, made speaking filth to power into a nearly respectable art form. In his “Satyre,” he wrote — not unjustly — of Charles II:

Peace is his aim, his gentleness is such,
And love he loves, for he loves fucking much.
Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th’ other,
And make him little wiser than his brother.

What does any of this have to do with Catholicism? Well, lots. With its countless news services, online publications, blogs and social media, the Internet has permanently tweaked the geometry of ecclesial power. True enough, the bishops are still formally in charge; their voices are the ones that count, ultimately. But those voices are by no means the most engaging or colorful. Nor are they the loudest. It’s become quite easy for an ordinary schmo to cuss out a high-ranking churchman before a very large audience, as atheist blogger Hemant Mehta did Monsignor Charles Pope. In this case, the unflappable monsignor responded with great dignity, charity, and intellectual acuity. Whether or not Mehta meant to, he ended up opening a dialogue. Both pieces — Mehta’s thrust and Pope’s parry – drew plenty of traffic. From those points of view, a good time was had by all.

But encounters where high and low square off like equals are still exceptional. More typically, one nobody will take her mark against another nobody. If either of these cyphers has a gift for writing, self-promotion, or both, observers will tweet their exchange, comment on it, and share it on Facebook, affecting the sensus fidelium in a tangible way.

Yesterday, Patheos saw one of these culturally significant bleacher brawls. Incensed by a video broadcast over YouTube by St. Michael’s Media head Michael Voris, blogger Calah Alexander declared it a “steaming crock of shit.” Within hours, Patrick Madrid invited her to defend herself on his radio show. She did, and later published a blog post in which she justified her choice of words at even greater length. Where language is concerned, she argues, the lines separating the proper from the improper are mainly arbitrary:

Unless we all start saying “oh biscuits” as a society. Then, eventually, it would take on the same connotation as crap. And then you would have a radio show where someone would call in and suggest saying the neutral word “crap” instead of the offensive “biscuits.”

Calah’s right that standards of propriety sometimes wilt under close inspection. (Even Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart admitted he had a hard time defining pornography while still insisting, “I know it when I see it.”) But if the dread s-word didn’t invalidate her post, it did help to pigeonhole it as a gut response. Those are polarizing by nature — either you identify with them wholeheartedly, or you take them as proof that the user’s not worth trusting. Many of the responses to Calah’s piece fell to either side. “Calah, your honesty and frankness just might save the world one day,” wrote one reader. “Wow, you youngsters sure can be ugly,” posted another.

But if Calah was vulgar in this instance, Michael Voris, her target, is consistently vulgar in a different way. He makes his living as a full-time demagogue. An understated review in warns of his “tendency to over-simply complex cultural, ecclesiastical and theological problems, leading sometimes to the assertion of mere opinion as the ‘real Catholic’ position.” In fact, in his broadcasts, whether on the “anti-Catholic” nature of “Amazing Grace” or “earth-worshipper” environmentalists, Voris adopts a kind of Newspeak. This was the language invented by George Orwell in 1984, and and Umberto Eco defines it in generic terms as “an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax” meant to “limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” Voris’ words may have more than four letters, but they create pretty much the same effect.

Actually, Eco has Voris’ number on a few points. In his essay, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” he lists “obscure instincts and unfathomable drives” around which fascism may “coagulate.” Read through it, and you’ll find plenty of Voris tropes: a cult of tradition; the rejection of modernity; a cult of action in which life is lived for struggle.

Most relevant of all, Voris shares with Eco’s “Ur-Fascist” a “popular elitism.” To the Ur-Fascist, every citizen “belongs to the best people in the world,” but “the people are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.” To Voris, anyone can join the True Faith — or, as the title of his TV network used to put it, the Real Catholic Church. In his most infamous broadcast, he declared, “The only only way to run a country is by benevolent dictatorship, a Catholic monarch who protects the people from themselves and bestows on them what they need, not necessarily what they want.”

Tocqueville did warn that democracy could get vulgar. But when dealing with a figure who’d shut down democracy by shutting down the finer points of thinking, an ugly scream like Calah’s can really — and paradoxically — be noble. It’s certainly not ideal. When it comes to building dialogue and mutual understanding, it may not be terribly effective. But dialogue and mutual understanding have never ranked among Voris’ goals. Compared to Calah’s, his pretensions are monstrous — she only claims to be a blogger; he’s anointed himself the voice of true religion. At worst, her barbaric yawp is the lesser of two evils.

Unlike communication and (so far) the nation, the Church remains un-democratic. Fights like Calah’s and Voris’ (and mine) are nothing but a sideshow. Like all sideshows, they can be mighty entertaining. Maybe the real takeaway for Catholics who fill their reading lists with unofficial voices and sources is that opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one, and they all stink.

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