Let’s Talk Politely About Vulgarity

C.S. Lewis, the Christian literary critic, was no friend of humanists — Erasmus and the scholars of the Northern Renaissance who promoted public education and the free schools that produced, among others, Shakespeare. Lewis disparaged even Christian humanism, claiming it “created a new literary quality — vulgarity.”

Well. Harrumph.

Vulgarity today means uttering bad words, often about sexual organs, or acting obnoxiously in public or private. But as Governor Al Smith used to say, “Let’s look at the record.”

The first use of “vulgarity” in printed English came in 1579, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defined it as “the commonalty; the common people” — the lower class.

Vulgarity is derived from “vulgar,” which occurs in the 1430s, from medieval Latin, when it meant “the common language or usual language of a country,” if you can believe the O.E.D. And who ya gonna believe these days but the O.E.D.?

“Vulgarize” appeared in our language in 1605, meaning “to act in a vulgar manner; to become vulgar.” So: Being vulgar has a bad thing to be for at least 400 years.

“Vulgarization” appeared in 1656, when it meant “the action of making usual or common; the process of rendering familiar or popular; general dissemination.”

But way before then, in 1609, the word “vulgate” appeared, referring to a Latin translation of the Bible. This word dates back to the fourth century.

So when Shakespeare was alive, 450 years ago, “vulgarity” meant the language of the common people. And for the next 400 years, critics, capped by C.S. Lewis, badmouthed Shakespeare for “allowing” vulgar language in his plays — for letting common people speak — on stage, yet.

Now the United States of America — the leading light of the world for two centuries, in political philosophy, military and intellectual power, science, freedom and the arts, and in — belatedly — human emancipation, has elected a vulgar man as our president.

Trump is the triumph of the vulgar: not of the common people, or the uneducated, but of all their worst impulses. Allow me to quote a few Republican, or formerly Republican columnists about him. Kathleen Parker called him “a foul-mouthed, race-baiting misogynist … a revengeful brat.”

The right-wing militarist Republican Max Boot wrote that Trump “represents the worst of America. As he showed again this week, he is petty, vindictive, insecure, self-centered and utterly bereft of dignity, honor or grace.”

George Will, of all people, renounced his membership in the Republican Party, asking what they planned to do about this abomination.

We have heard the Republican Party’s response: Nothing. They are not going to do a goddamn thing to rein him in, so that he, rather than they, can take the blame in November, and two years later, for his abortion of our Constitution: for repressing the votes of black folks, legal immigrants and Latinos — above all, of the poor — so that Republicans can try to hold on to what they are making, more and more each day, their pitiful jobs.

In describing the last days of the Roman Empire, Sir Ronald Syme wrote: “Courage and integrity perished, but the time-servers came through.”

I need not rehearse what White House employees say in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” already No. 1 on the bestseller lists, before its publication date, appropriately, Sept. 11.

And amid this onslaught of tawdry, depressing reality, Democratic Party leaders have shown, time and again, in both houses of Congress, that they are spineless, mealymouthed cowards.

But we should register to vote for them anyway. Because look at the other guy: His thousands of famous tweets can be reduced to three statements:

“They hurt me!”

“It’s not fair!”

“They’re lying!”

To sum it up: The President of the United States is a congenital liar, a fake, a brat, a weak man, willfully ignorant, a crybaby and a psychopath, and a conspirator in felonies.

Under the headline “The Religion of Whiteness Becomes a Suicide Cult,” Pankaj Mishra wrote for The New York Times last week of Trump’s “emotional incontinence.” A fine phrase that accurately describes our president’s reaction to any criticism, from anyone.

He pisses on them. That’s all he knows how to do.

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