The Necessity of Political Vulgarity

To deny the importance of vulgarity is to reject the revolutionary tradition…

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Many were surprised to see the notoriously centrist Vox.com run a glowing profile of a revolutionary socialist quarterly. In leftist circles Vox is generally derided for its bland liberal politics, so when it published a lengthy examination of the popular socialist magazine Jacobin, a hatchet job seemed more likely. But astonishingly enough, Vox covered Jacobin fairly, even generously, in a piece flatteringly titled “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas.”

For a publication inherently antagonistic to capitalism, Jacobin felt downright reasonable to Vox writer Dylan Matthews. Matthews described it as the “leading intellectual voice of the American left, the most vibrant and relevant socialist publication in a very long time,” leaving one to wonder how Jacobin’s frequent allusions to violent revolution sat so comfortably with such proudly pragmatist liberals.

One answer is that, however radical Jacobin’s political program may be, the magazine is committed to maintaining civility and sobriety in its tone. As Matthews explained:

The long-term goal might be a revolutionary working class, but for now [Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara] is most passionate about trying to get more uniques than the New Republic or FiveThirtyEight. He has little patience for left-of-center writers who go out of their way to make enemies, saying of Gawker, “It’s less mean and snarky than it used to be. I don’t like that kind of mean internet humor. … Being mean as a way to fight the power is kind of ridiculous.”

“Being mean” is an interesting aversion for an impertinently revolutionary magazine that sells posters of guillotines and regularly invokes the specter of Soviet communism. Are not guillotines a bit—dare I say—“mean?”

What Sunkara is talking about here is much more specific than “mean,” a rather vague word that he pairs with “snarky” (behead the kings of course, but don’t dare snark against them!). What he is actually talking about is vulgarity, the crass, ugly dispensation of judgment with little to no regard for propriety. Vulgarity is the rejection of the norms of civilized discourse; to be vulgar is to flout the set of implicit conventions that create our social decorum. The vulgar person uses swears and shouts where reasoned discourse is called for. Someone like Saul Alinsky for example, might be considered vulgar, for considering protest tactics like his famously unrealized “fart-in” at the Rochester Philharmonic. (One might question the efficacy of a flatulent protest during a symphony, but it is certainly the sort of vulgarity that cannot be ignored.)

It is understandable for a magazine aspiring to respectability to eschew vulgarity in its pages. To poach the New Republic’s readers may require poaching the New Republic’s restraint in tone, and one does not impress Vox by childishly taunting the bourgeoisie.

Yet to dismiss vulgarity as a tool for fighting the powerful, to say that being mean is “ridiculous,” is to deny history, and to obscure a long and noble tradition of malicious political japery. In fact, “being mean” not only affords unique pleasures to the speaker or writer, but is a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded.

Vulgarity has always been employed in revolutionary rhetoric, perhaps most notably in the propaganda leading up to Jacobin’s own beloved French Revolution. Forget snark, the pamphleteers of France were all too happy to satirize and smear the upper class with the utmost malice. Clergy, royals, and anyone else in power were slandered and depicted visually in all manner of crass and farcical political cartoons.

Of all the public figures subjected to such vicious derision and gossip (often highly inaccurate gossip at that), Marie Antoinette was singled out for especially inventive and vicious taunting. True to French tradition, the slanderous pamphlets, called libelles, were fond of wordplay. For the Austrian-born Antoinette, they coined Austrichienne, meaning “Austrian bitch,” but also resembling the French word for “ostrich.” Thus, layering a visual pun upon a verbal one, one artist actually portrayed Antoinette stroking a massive, ostrich-like penis, complete with legs and a saddle. Mounted upon the penile steed was progressive royalist Marquis de Lafayette, who sympathized with the peasants but was eventually denounced as a traitor by Robespierre (revolutionaries tend not to be terribly fond of diplomatic fence-straddlers). In another of the ostrich-themed cartoons (it was evidently a series), Marie actually bared her own genitals to the phallic beast and its rider. It’s a stunningly vulgar image, and without a doubt, quite nasty and mean. One couldn’t imagine a Beltway professional depicting the ruling class so crudely today; even the most offensive of right-wing political cartoonists haven’t yet dared to explore the satirical possibilities for giant ostrich-dicks.

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There was also no requirement that a piece of anti-royal propaganda be clever or punny in order to be published. Quite a few of the cartoons regarding Marie were the sort of pure tabloid sensationalism that would make Gawker blush. Likely owing to the rumor that the King suffered from sexual dysfunction, leaving his wife to wild bouts of promiscuity, Antoinette was often in flagrante delicto—sometimes with Lafayette, sometimes the king’s brother—the Count of Artois, and sometimes even with different ladies of the court and her close female friends. These pornographic little pamphlets showed various stages of undress, ranging from a hand up the skirt to full nudity and sexual contact. Cartoonists enjoyed drawing Marie in orgies with both men and women, and the King’s own sad and scandalized penis often made an appearance.

The line between farce and rumor was often blurred by the flip ambiguity of the libelles. It can be difficult to discern today what was speculation and what was just a joke, but some of it was clearly very elaborate parody.

Take the 1789 libelle, L’Autrichienne en Goguettes ou l’Orgie Royale (that’s The Austrian Bitch and her Friends in the Royal Orgy), which is written as a play. In this ribald little piece of fan-fiction, Louis XIV’s brother has cuckolded the impotent king and sired the royal heirs himself:

Characters:

Louis XVI

The Queen

The Count of Artois

The Duchess of Polignac

Bodyguards

The action takes place in the apartments.

Guard: To arms, there comes Her Majesty.

Another guard: There will be an orgy tonight. The female Ganimede is with the Queen.

Another guard: Artois, the beloved one, there he is between vice and virtue. Guess who the vice is.

Guard: You do not need to guess. I can only see that this God is multiplying.

Scene II

The Queen (to Madame de Polignac, who steps aside to let the Queen go): Come, come in my good friend.

The Count of Artois, slightly pushing the Queen and pinching her buttocks: Come in too. What a nice bottom! So firm!

The Queen (whispering): If my heart was as hard, wouldn’t we be good together?

The Count of Artois: Be quiet you crazy woman, or else my brother will have another son tonight.

The Queen: Oh no! Let’s have some pleasure, but no more fruits.

The Count of Artois: All right. I will be careful, if I can.

Madame de Polignac: Where is the King?

The Queen: What do you worry about? Soon he will be here to annoy us.

Charming, no?

It’s important to note that libelles like these were highly illegal—just as illegal as the writings of Voltaire or Rousseau, or any explicitly political tract deemed guilty of “heresy, sedition or personal libel”—and that they were sold right alongside their more serious-minded counterparts (under the counter, of course). Illegal pamphlets had to be printed outside the country, producing dozens of printing presses just outside French borders. Hundreds of agents smuggled pamphlets through a secret network to reach the tabloid-hungry French masses. In order to stem the tide of banned pamphlets about Marie Antoinette in particular, the French government actually sent spies to England to buy up the entire stock before they could make it France. It’s therefore not particularly difficult to argue (as many historians do) for a causal relationship between nasty political porn and the revolution that followed, especially when the pamphlets posed such a risk to produce and obtain.

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Historian Robert Darnton noted in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, his fascinating book on the illegal pamphlets and their illicit circulation, that primary documents indicate that booksellers themselves did not distinguish between the intellectual and the prurient, saying, “We consider [Rousseau’s] Du Contrat Social political theory and Histoire de Dom B pornography, perhaps even as something too crude to be considered literature. But the bookmen of the eighteenth century lumped them together as ‘philosophical books.’”

So if nasty little libelles weren’t that much of a threat to power, why suppress them and punish possession with imprisonment as you would revolutionary philosophy? And for that matter, why would a French citizen risk their freedom for a cartoon of Marie Antoinette enjoying an orgy if there wasn’t something satisfyingly transgressive in the insolent and forbidden consumption of vulgarity?

Historian Lynn Hunt, author of both Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, and The Family Romance of the French Revolution, also holds hard and fast to the significance of meanness and vulgarity in a revolutionary context, saying of the libelles, “There’s a disagreement about this among historians, but I have argued and others have argued that this was a part undermining the aura of the monarchy and making it easier in the end to arrest the king and execute him—and especially to execute the queen.”

One lesson of the French Revolution, then, is that rudeness can be extremely politically useful. There are arguments to be made over who constitutes a valid target, but when crude obscenity is directed at figures of power, their prestige can be tarnished, even in the eyes of the most reverent of subjects. Caricature is designed to exaggerate, and therefore make more noticeable, people’s central defining qualities, and can thus be illuminating even at its most indelicate.

And evidence abounds for the galvanizing power of vulgarity in our own time—just look at the appeal of Donald Trump. Trump has successfully undermined opponents through the use of innuendos and crudities, and has turned the political process upside-down by gleefully undermining its dignity.

Of course Trump’s willingness to be disgusting has been alienating to those who like their politics to come with a sheen of respectability. He so revolted the punctilious and proper conservatives at the National Review that he inspired an entire “Against Trump” issue of the magazine. His braggadocio and dick jokes appall the traditional right; he would have made William F. Buckley’s eyes bulge (although what didn’t?) and he gives Peggy Noonan a traumatic case of the vapors.

But Trump’s vulgarity is appealing precisely because it exposes political truths. As others have noted, Trump’s policies (wildly inconsistent though they may be) are actually no more extreme than those of other Republicans; Trump is just willing to strip away the pretense. Other candidates may say “national security is a fundamental priority,” whereas Trump will opt for “ban all the Muslims.” The latter is far less diplomatic, but in practice the two candidates fundamentally mean the same thing. We should prefer the honest boor, as polite euphemism is constantly used to mask atrocities.

This candor is also the fundamental reason why Old Money types have always detested the arrivistes. The nouveau riche with their gaudy tastes, their leopardskin carpets and solid gold bathroom fixtures, upset the balance of things by giving the game away. They make wealth look like something nasty and indefensible. Douchebags in Lamborghinis fundamentally undermine the self-conception of the upper classes, which is that they are the appointed stewards of taste and judgment against the vast uncultured hordes. But since the rich of all flavors are a monstrosity and a cancer, it’s the flashy, obnoxious kind of wealth that we should hope for, the kind that tells no lies and is more obviously despicable. Civility is destructive because it perpetuates falsehoods, while vulgarity can keep us honest.

In fact, there are times when political vulgarity is not just useful, but vital to convey the passion of messaging. In 1968, a 19-year-old anti-Vietnam protester was arrested in a courthouse for wearing a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft,” leading to a major Supreme Court decision protecting freedom of speech. In 1988, N.W. A. released “Fuck tha Police,” a song that instantly became notorious for the bluntness of its confrontational, profanity-laden lyrics.

In both cases, the vulgarity was an unmistakably clear response to political circumstances. The Vietnam war was a moral obscenity of the highest order; there was no polite way of expressing the appropriate depth of revulsion. N.W.A. were saying what every black person had wanted to say for a long time, in the only words strong enough to even begin to communicate the truth. The depravity of the atrocious acts committed by the powerful far exceed the depravity of any swear words one could use to describe those acts. The death and brutality of Vietnam didn’t just deserve an f-word or two, but warranted every last curse that could be spoken by the human tongue. And as the 18th-century French knew, monarchy is the real barbarity; it was the libellistes who were the true allies of the Enlightenment.

To maintain its potency, vulgarity should certainly be the exception rather than the rule. And there will always be Jacobin and its kin for the more genteel set. But there are certain people to whom one must be mean, certain circumstances in which one must be crude. A politically effective propriety means knowing when to use one’s manners, and when to tell an ostrich-themed dick joke.

And of course, vulgarity isn’t inherently subversive. Even when politicized its effects are often mild and mostly cathartic. When anonymous Twitter trolls deluge establishment journalists with bon mots like “I will eat your ass like McRib,” it may not be particularly revolutionary. But it is not at all unprecedented; it’s not even particularly shocking if you know a little history.

The left will always need its journals and polemic and academic writing, but there are times when it is both right and proper to terrify the bourgeoisie with your own feralness. Reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility. Vulgarity is the language of the people, and so it should be among the grammars of the left, just as it has been historically, to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful. We cannot cede vulgarity to the vulgarians; collegial intellectuals will always be niche, but class war need not be.