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.

  • Billy

    I don’t know about the sideshow and thanks for informing me.

    That has to be one of the best tag clouds I’ve ever seen!

  • John C. Hathaway, OCDS

    I’m a bit confused here. Would this Calah Alexander person say that Caritas et Veritate is a “crock of [expletive deleted]“? After all, in _Caritas et Veritate_, the Holy Father merely lines up what is summarized in the Syllabus of Errors:
    1. All governments have a duty to obey Truth
    2. Truth = Jesus Christ
    3. The Catholic Church = the only True Church established to present the teachings of Jesus Christ
    4. Therefore, all governments are obliged to obey the Catholic Church.
    The only efficient way to do that, as Aquinas taught, is by monarchy. Voris is right in that. The fact that that offends modernist sensibilities (or that it offends modernist sensibilities to say that modernism is bad) is someone else’s problems. I have a lot of issues with Voris’s particular style, but I’m totally with him on this one.

    As for the the defense of R-rated language, there’s a difference between referring to “sh–” as a bodily function (and, yes, it’s strange that Latin words for body parts and functions are OK but Anglo-Saxon words are all cuss words) and referring to another human being, or that human being’s arguments, as *being* excrement. I don’t care if she says “sh–” or “cr–” or “biscuits” or “excrement,” but she’s still engaging in an act that is demeaning. This is spoken to by the MPAA rules themselves, which consider the “F” and “sh” words more tolerable *if they’re used in their proper context” than if they are merely used as emotional expletives.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    If you’re mining the classics for smut, never forget Chaucer: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte, / And seyde, ‘Ywis, but if ich have my wille, / For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille’”

    There’s a lot of “queynte” in Chaucer.

    [Back then, could "queynte" be used as a synonym for "dude"?]

  • sjay

    Actually, the vision of Benedict in Caritas in Veritate is radically different from that of Voris, since Benedict sees the Church as a participant in dialogue over the nature of society with other religions and with non believers:
    “Fruitful dialogue between faith and reason cannot but render the work of charity more effective within society, and it constitutes the most appropriate framework for promoting fraternal collaboration between believers and non-believers in their shared commitment to working for justice and the peace of the human family. ” CIV sect. 57.

  • Roget Habitant
  • Christine Niles

    Pope Paul VI called monarchy “the best of all forms of government.” Perhaps in Calah’s estimation, that is also a “crock of sh**.”

    She loses credibility, not only by her vulgar language, but by her lack of knowledge on the subject.

    Voris has the backing of high-ranking prelates, including Bp. Fabian Bruskewitz and Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura. In fact, Bp. Thomas Paprocki was just a guest on Michael’s radio show last week, and last night both Fr. Pavone & Fr. Zuhlsdorf were his guests. All of these men are stalwart defenders of the faith whose orthodoxy is beyond doubt; they would never support a “demagogue.”Voris is not a demagogue, and before slandering a fellow brother in Christ people would do well to familiarize themselves with his work, which is devoted to the salvation of souls.

    Bp. Paprocki:

    While We Were Sleeping:

    The Culture Wars:

    Lots more at ChurchMilitant.TV

  • Romulus

    Before getting all spun up about one who would shut down democracy, I would need some help understanding why democracy is to be uncritically embraced as a categorical good.

  • Robster

    While I admire the intent of certain Defenders of the Faith (Bill Donohue, Michael Voris), they all too often are too shrill, and sometimes an embarrassment at times. Entertaining as attitude may be, at times it ultimately leads to a failure in communication. The core message is lost amid the reaction to the over-the-top rhetorical assertions. Indeed, the thought passes through my mind that such a loud, vulgar person is a Cloaca Maxima.

  • sjay

    Whether or not Paul VI did call monarchy “the best of all forms of government” (a cited source would be helpful), he stated in Populorum Progresso that “sovereign nations . . .are entitled to manage their own affairs, to fashion their own policies, and to choose their own form of government.” Sect. 54. In Gaudium et Spes, promulgated by Paul in 1965, it is stated “the political community can … adopt a variety of concrete solutions in its structures and the organization of public authority.” Sect. 74.

  • Manny

    Kudos to Calah; she’s a pip and a tough cookie. I can kind of agree with her on the use of vulgarity. Afterall, I grew up in Brooklyn and in my younger days (and not so younger) was known for some crass language when my ire was up.

    However, I don’t think you hit the nail on the head with Michael Voris. Yeah, he postures as if he’s the voice of the Church; yes there is an elitism there (though I don’t know if I would characterize it as popular. Cult of tradition, rejection of modernity? Well, TS Eliot falls into those catagories and lots of 20th century intellectuals who like C.S. Lewis and Evelyn Waugh dissented from the modern zeitgeist. Count me in that catagory too. I wouldn’t consider that a failing.

    Voris real problem is that he attributes the worst motives to the people he disagrees with. It’s not that they have an intellectual disagreement. It’s that the people who disagree with him are consciously leading Catholics to perdition, including unnamed Bishops, all in the name of some idol that they prioritize over Catholic values. In effect he’s saying that his opponents care more about their idols than true Catholicism. It’s a smear that one expects from politicians against other politicians over political issues. Within the context of Catholic debate, it’s uncharitable treatment of disagreement, all so he can further his posture of being some sort of authority and adjudicator.

    [Funny you should mention Eliot -- he was an admirer of l'Action Française, the far-right French monarchist movement whose founder, Charles Maurras, called the Nazi victory a "divine surprise." And remember who Ezra Pound admired.

    These are tense times. You've got otherwise respectable citizens putting out videos threatening to kill people in the event the government takes any steps toward gun control. By playing to his audiences' worst fears, Voris has done nothing but throw gasoline on every fire. Some people write him off as a blowhard or even a fraud; I have a higher opinion of him. I think he really does see the world in apocalpytic terms, and I think he's just persuasive enough to get people killed.

    You've been reading my columns for almost two years, Manny. You know by now I'm not the Southern Poverty Law Center. I don't run around half-paranoid, seeing far-right plots in my soup. But this guy? This guy's dangerous.]

  • Bryan

    The sad truth is that many people incline toward wanting monarchy, although in our current society it is more implicit than explicit. Most people might pay lip service to “democracy,” but over half of American citizens who are eligible to vote do not do so. Many who do are simply unwilling or unable to take even basic action to actually inform their decisions, so that election results might be based on policy and principle rather than emotion or personality. Look at how polarizing the presidency has become, and yet even well-informed citizens for the most part accept the growing power invested in the office.

    The US Presidency itself is becoming a monarchic office. Consider: If Hillary Clinton–or, say, Jeb Bush, for that matter–had won the presidency in 2008 and been re-elected, this country would have been 24 years with either a Bush or Clinton as the Chief Executive. How can you lecture, with a straight face, about “democracy” to a person who is 22-years old and has only ever heard of two names being the head our government? Even nominal “monarchies” like Britain don’t see that sort of concentrated power.

    And now the presidential office has invested itself with the power to assassinate American citizens, without even a pretense of due process or trial. The White House has refused to respond to Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) requests for how these decisions are made. Senator Wyden is a long-time Senator and is on the Senate intelligence committee. The White House has not even dignified his request with a response of any kind, even “no.” Just silence.

    Some “conservatives” decry these things now because a Democrat is in the White House, but all of us who lived through the Bush presidency know good and well that many of those cries will be silenced when (or if) another Republican is in the White House. Just as the “anti-war” protests ceased in January of 2009, even though Obama tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan and 3/4 of American troop deaths there have occurred during his tenure.

    Apparently too many Catholics have drank the National Religion kool-aid. And don’t be fooled, we DO have a national religion. It simply doesn’t call itself such. It is nationalism, Americanism, modernism. Americans for some reason have a profoundly misguided, transcendental faith n their country and “democracy.” But democracy doesn’t work. To the people who coined the phrase it was considered the lowest form of government. America was never intended to be a democracy. Democracy leads to mob rule, which leads to fascism, i.e. a NON-benevolent dictator.

    Remember, fascism was never “implemented” by any government by decree, in Italy or Germany. Rather, both fascist governments allowed criminal gangs and organized crime to terrorize the law-abiding until the citizenry was willing to cede total control of the nation to one party and one single leader of that party. They gained office through election; elected by a terrorized, bewildered and uninformed citizenry.

    Voris might sound radical, but he is correct. Unless America somehow drastically changes its whole national character soon in some way, if things keep going the way they are, within twenty or thirty years a benevolent Catholic monarch will sound like utopia compared to what we will actually be facing.

  • Manny


    I agree with most of what you say. Most people don’t really want to be free. And watch out, a Clinton or a Bush might still be in the White House in the not too distant future.

    I do have to disagree with you on one thing.
    “And now the presidential office has invested itself with the power to assassinate American citizens, without even a pretense of due process or trial.”

    That really is over hyped. The combatant is a US citizen in name only. He is on foreign soil coordinating military endeavors with our enemies against the country. That’s not a citizen. If an American joined the Nazi army, does that mean we would not have shot at him? Call me a consistent Conservative on that. I support it.

  • Bryan

    Manny, it might be “in name only,” but to me the appellation of US Citizen is one heck of an important name. Shrugging it all off with the sentiment that “well, they must deserve it because the President said they deserve it” is unacceptable. If it’s so obvious that these American citizens are Enemies of the State then there should be no problem going through proper legal oversight channels and a transparent judicial process. Why is a long-time Senator, who serves on the Senate intelligence committee (a Democrat even!) being stonewalled when he asks exactly how it is determined which American citizens do or do not deserve to be executed without trial or oversight? This opacity on the part of the president and “our” American security apparatus is a huge, huge issue. It is not something that can be dismissed because it isn’t happening to Worthy Citizens like you or me.

  • Manny

    Bryan, they are taking up arms against the United States. I don’t see what difference it makes whether they are citizens or not. You can turn the question around and ask how many non-citizens do you approve of executing? Executing non-citizens is just as outlawed. You’ve bought into this definition of “execution.” We are fighting a war against enemy combatants, and they are vulnerable to military action, whether through a direct sniper shot or a indirect bomb-carrying drone. It’s not an execution.