Wednesday, September 18, 2013

800 Words: Vulgarity Will Save Us All

The last thing the world needs is another person coming down on the side of vulgarity. Vulgarity is already everything to which we aspire. Even in this time of economic worldwide crisis, the majority of Americans, Europeans, even a plurality of East Asians, have all the prosperity they need. We all have so much prosperity that we view it as a prison. Most people don’t have longings for a bigger house, or more expensive car - most of them get it, but it’s just another toy which gives them little long term happiness. What we all long for is freedom. We are so hogtied by responsibilities - financial, occupational, educational, governmental, parental, familial, even conjugal, that most of us long to break these chains, or at least have a break from them for a while.

In a society beset by chaos, the longing is for order. People in a chaotic society aspire to be in an elite class privileged enough to rise above the dread of life's uncertainties. When America was embroiled in true depression and World War, the longing was for the White Picket Fence and 2.2 children. But in a society beset by prosperity, the longing is for chaos. But people in a well-ordered society want the chaos which frees them of the frustrations which responsibility entails (totalitarian societies don't count, as it's the ultimate chaos when any family member could disappear at any moment). When America had 50% of the world’s GDP, the longing among the children of such prosperity was for the primal chaos they never knew and which their parents knew all too well. They began to rebel by being more vulgar in their dress, their musical tastes, their political aspirations, and their standards of acceptable discourse. Beginning with the Baby Boomers, our country has set about the surprisingly difficult task of tearing down the postwar order. From many valid points of view, the longing to tear down the old order was self-destructive, and could only lead to a level of horrific chaos that destroys millions of lives and can even end them. But even if the longing was misplaced, it still existed. But regardless, the postwar order has just barely held into the 21st century, but it was by no means assured that it would. Five years ago, we came within a hair’s breath of of an economic tsunami that could have dwarfed the Great Depression, and the current Middle East may yet begin a chain reaction for a conflict which bears strange resemblance to World War I. As the millenial generation has come closer to this chaos than their Baby Boomer parents, perhaps the longing for chaos in Obama era youth is less than in Nixon era youth. But declined and hobbling as it is, the social order of Roosevelt and Eisenhower still exists, and it keeps us bound in obligation to a prosperity to which we still feel chained.

But is there an outlet through which we can break free of our obligations without actually breaking free of them?... a way in which the frustrations and mental detritus can free themselves from the quiet desperation of our lives?

I have no idea. That question is well above my paygrade. But I do know that our burdens would be lighter if they felt more endurable. America deals with the stress of its increasing obligations in many ways - from an increase in religious practice to a simultaneous increase in acceptable sexual practices to an addiction to creature comfort to a simultaneous addiction to causing low-level wars abroad. But none of those practices or addictions are anything more than a temporary solution to the question of how to preserve everything that’s beneficial about America, and about the first world which America still oversees, without destroying every part of it because of what’s still wrong with it. If religion could be assured to be without dogma or fanaticism or repression or intolerance for differing views, it would be a reliable outlet. If sex could be assured to be without addiction or infection or power dynamics or human complication, that would work too. But humans are hardwired to pursue their outlets too seriously - and so long as mankind has aspirations, they will take their failures as a personal offense - regardless of how many successes they attain - and long for something precisely the opposite of what they have.

But what if there’s a way to assume all the necessary responsibilities of life without feeling them so onerous? What if there’s a way to acknowledge that we hate our obligations with the fire of a million suns, but fulfill them to the letter of the dotted i while still feeling that we have not sold our freedom away? Perhaps this is as impossible as any other solution for most people, but I believe that the best chance we have to survive as a species is if we all agree together that we loathe the obligations it takes to survive, and that there is absolutely no salvation which will make these obligations less burdensome. We should therefore take as much joy as possible in being completely honest about how much we hate our responsibilities and degrade them, insult them, and be as cruel and crudely honest as possible about how much we hate the chores which prevent us all from achieving the life of which we can only dream. It may not provide the extensive happiness of true belief’s salvation, but nor will such behavior will convince us falsely that there is an escape from our responsibilities, it forces us to deal with the fact that life exists to be muddled through with incremental gains in happiness that can be lost at any moment. Such a belief would not only allow us to have no illusions about ourselves, but no illusions about others as well. It would a prison of infinitely strengthened bars, but also a kingdom of infinite rebellion, in which people can insult each other at will and expect to be insulted back in kind - yelling and cursing would be a never-ending state of life, the level of constant criticism would be soul-deadening, and the anxiety over any moment spent not fulfilling responsibilities would be overwhelming - anxiety which we'd deal with by annoying one another all the more. But since people realize that there is no escape from this inferno of responsibility, the only option is to pass on the cruelty which was administered to you unto others in a tornado of emotional manipulation and emotion-flattening insults. We purge ourselves of our bad feeling through malice, and all that’s left is the warm feeling that this life is all there is, and that the people with which we undergo life deserve better than we’ve given, and we must endeavor as best we can to be kinder and more loving to one another than we were a few minutes before. And thus will begin the eternal cycle that binds us to each other, both in love and in hate, with no escape except death.

No doubt, this is a utopia like any other, and perhaps the least desirable-sounding utopia ever conceived. And like all utopias, it’s more a reflection of the person who created it than a practical solution. For all my intellectual pretensions, I’m an exceptionally crude man, and I think anyone who spends more than twenty minutes in my company realizes that I can’t go more than a few minutes at a time without a joke in exceedingly bad taste. The taboo topic is something I’m drawn to like a bug near a light. It’s won me many friends, and it also makes dating rather difficult. But I honestly think it’s the best part of me; what saves my eccentric interests from wafting over into the realm of the insufferable (if it hasn’t already). I grew up from a family of vulgarians - no matter how intellectually knowledgeable any of us became, cursing was never criticized, dinner talk was based around conversation topics which would make most families blush, elders yelled at you and virtually expected you to yell back, and inner monologue was a luxury as frowned upon as any other expensive taste. Only people from a background of chaos and vulgarity possess the innate intellectual pretension to use books and the humanities as a means for self-improvement. The base of me is completely vulgarian, and it’s only over that base in which I grew up that I could assume the smarty-pants ethos which I scrawl around this webspace every week. My vulgarity, for all the social awkwardness it causes at times by my being too forward, is what saves me from finding other people completely unrelatable.

Perhaps this is not the ideal manner on paper in which to be raised, but against all my expectations, my family has stayed completely together while so many other American families which were seemingly more functional have broken themselves up - whether by divorce, or through the distance which their children live away from home. For all the headaches from so much yelling and drama, there must be something we all get out of each other that enables us to still weather our storms together. No doubt, part of it is a Jewish thing - only an assimilated Jew has an inner monologue. But I think it’s by-and-large true of every ‘vulgar’ culture which still holds poverty and war in living memory. In a culture of poverty, there is no thought to hold back which will gain a measurable advantage. In a culture of war, every unarticulated fear is something that can get a loved one killed. Lots of people could never understand a culture like that - Americans who’ve spent their lives around people comfortably ensconced in the middle class for generations will never understand a ‘forward’ culture in which every thought and emotion is expressed. People from such cultures as ours have their own prisons from which to escape, but it is not by shirking our responsibilities that we escape them, it’s by denigrating them.

I compare myself to lots good friends, and I see that many of them who seem to cultivate a more ‘vulgar’ image on the surface have little actual vulgarity in their upbringing of which to speak. One of my college roommates was a Pabst-swilling, Johnny Cash-listening, Marlboro Red-smoking working class dude, but I later learned that he actually came from Old Money and his older brother who went by a three-letter nickname was actually named “(Classical name) (French name) (Wasp surname)” the eighth. Another good friend has devoted his adult life thus far to spreading awareness about the burdens of race and class under-privilege, and meanwhile his uncle was the longtime headmaster of Washington DC’s most exclusive private school. In all of our cases, our presentations of a different ‘image’ from our origins might be pretension. But neither they nor I were indulging in fakery, and if anything, these assumptions of a different lifestyle should be celebrated - it shows that we’re all looking to move beyond the confines of our backgrounds to become more complex, more interesting, people. We all take on qualities which better let us assume the burdens of our origins. In each of our cases, there is something deliriously vulgar - whether in a common person’s assumption of aristocratic tastes, or in an aristocrat’s assumption of common ones - about the idea that we can possibly know what it’s like to come from a different milieu than our own. But the vulgarity of such assumptions is precisely what makes life that much more bearable for us all, and makes us that much more lively, complex, and interesting.

America was the first country consciously built upon vulgarity. It arose to eminence because its vulgar, teeming, life held no illusions about the sacredness of monarchy or aristocracy, and no illusions about the moral sacrifices it takes to become one of life’s aristocrats. In this giant petri dish, 300 million people, most of whom’s great-grandparents were considered the vulgarest of vulgar in their countries of origin, come together to infect one another with their attitudes, their criticism, their support, and their interaction. The best parts of America are the noisiest and the crudest. The biggest problem with 21st century America is not that our culture has corroded, but that it hasn’t corroded enough yet. It is only when America opens its borders to still more infection from immigrants that it will develop the antibodies to wipe itself clean of the current sepsis. And if America survives into the 22nd century, it will be because it we have maintained the lack of polish and civility that’s sustained us through everything.

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