ForeWord Magazine has this to say about Robert Grudin’s new book, American Vulgar

published by Shoemaker & Hoard (510-595-6334)

This author takes aim at everyone—the Bush administration, the everyday Americans who elected him, the corporate honchos, the media establishment, and academics. He puts America under a cultural microscope; and he does not like what he sees. But Grudin’s not merely a sage chronicler of vulgar times. Rather, he examines American culture and provides a breathtaking and insightful historical and philosophical interpretation of vulgarity.

Grudin’s preface lays the groundwork immediately by outlining how “A War and a Killing” exemplify American vulgarity. He examines how these two events [the Iraq War and the Laci Peterson murder] were presented, how the media and related corporations capitalized on the fascination and voyeurism, and how Americans have doomed themselves to more of the same by being so predictably lucrative. And, he succinctly defines his most important operating ideas. As Grudin sees it, vulgarity is not simply any crude or coarse action; rather, “an action is vulgar when it is at once ignorant, harmful, and popular.” And, the opposite of vulgarity is “consciousness,” which he describes as “the ability to be alert to important things and literate in them.”

Grudin is well prepared for an exposition on American politics and culture. A professor of English until 1998 at the University of Oregon, he has published widely in scholarly circles, and has written essays and commentaries for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is the author of a trilogy of philosophy books, including The Grace of Great Things, and recently released a novel titled Book, A Novel. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1992–93 and is the author of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Humanism.”

While Grudin is tough in examining many facets of American vulgarity, he is especially hard on today’s politics, and points to the current administration of George W. Bush with frequency. Grudin does not ignore the complacency of the American public in this vulgar mix, either: “As Americans are free to elect their governments and express their views, so too are they free to indulge their own ignorance and enrich the clowns, quacks, and hucksters who help them do so.”

Grudin’s thoughts on liberal education are especially well considered and as such are compelling reading not just for academics, but for anyone concerned with the educational system in America. His idea of forming a national “Task Force in the Humanities” is thought-provoking for both the political junkie and the educationally-minded reader.

American Vulgar is a timely look at the effects of vulgarity on American society and provides a stimulating roadmap for recognizing and cultivating social consciousness as an antidote to vulgarity’s demeaning and dangerous effects.

Review by: Chris Arvidson

ForeWord link

For a Grudin interview see: San Diego Reader

Excerpts from Part One of American Vulgar

Preface: A War and a Killing...............................................4

“During the second half of March and until the middle of April, 2003, the American viewing public doubled in size as television cameras brought a live war into their living rooms. Attention flagged only slightly as Baghdad fell and the Coalition turned its attention to less important cities in the North, but when these too surrendered, it was clear to media executives that their newfound market share might be subject to serious erosion. Accordingly, decisions were made in high places, correspondents hopped on planes, and all of a sudden, completely new images danced on the daytime screen. These images were no longer of a war that killed thousands and changed international history. They were now of a woman named Laci Peterson, once young and pretty, whose headless body had been found in San Francisco Bay.

“The switch from honorable reportage to yellow journalism was dumbfounding. Journalists missed no opportunity to pander to the baser instincts of their constituency: to the voyeurism that had been so gainfully exploited in the Simpson murder case, to the ghoulishness that makes millions of dollars for horror movies, to the zest for violence that draws large audiences to televised contact sports and crime dramas. Though it was never shown graphically, Ms. Peterson’s headless corpse became a national product, boosting ratings and selling ads. The TV channels made money. But they vulgarized their viewers in the process.”

PART ONE: Vulgarity and American Culture........................7

Chapter One: The Domains of Vulgarity....................................8

“What is vulgarity? Synonyms like “grossness” or “baseness” only beg the question: what makes an action vulgar, gross or base? My working definition is as follows: an action is vulgar when it is at once ignorant, harmful and popular. And vulgarization is any process in which public awareness is stifled in the interests of state power or private profit.“I must add to this that the ignorance involved in vulgarity is compound. To act vulgarly we must be ignorant not only of other people but of ourselves, not only of the nature of our action, but of its ramifications in the world at large. To act vulgarly we must, with the aid of willing marketers, politicians and priests, indulge our own ignorance in large, mutually supportive groups. Vulgarity reaches full bloom when it becomes established practice and takes on the look of law. It then becomes something worse than ignorance: a kind of communal depression.”

Chapter Two: Waste and Wisdom..............28

“In the economics of the human spirit, every activity creates some sort, or sorts, of product: sleep produces refreshment, stress produces fatigue, study produces skills, etc. The results of some actions are positive, while others result in loss. Considering American vulgarity along these lines, we find that its product is waste: a waste that is not only economic and tangible but also cultural and intellectual.”

Chapter Three: Polite Vulgarity: American Complacency and its Suppliers.....38

“...Appropriately, it [America] cast into the cold the thrice-tried George H. W. Bush in favor of a charming Southerner who spoke fluent Purse and Tummy. Clinton was reelected in 1996 partly for the same reasons, and partly because his Republican opponent, Sen. Bob Dole, ran a timid and unimaginative campaign.

“Then the party began. While Africa seethed and Afghanistan festered, Americans turned to their dot.coms and their dim sum. While Osama bin Laden fine-tuned his detonative skills in New York, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Americans were into mutuals and microbrews. While the same bin Laden deconstructed the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, lit professors in the States taught deconstruction and other theories that denied all objectivity and all value. And if you grew tired of being a deadbeat yourself, you could turn on the most popular sitcom of the decade: Seinfeld, a series that dwelt, ad nauseam, with a group of deadbeats.

“But such diversions were not enough. Americans needed some real action. And so, as Al Qaeda drew up its own list of exciting surprises, Americans headed to the box office to watch Clint Eastwood in A Perfect World and In the Line of Fire, Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory and Lethal Weapon: 3 and 4 and Arnold Schwartzenegger in True Lies and Last Action Hero. But even these thrilling movies, and the suspenseful novels of Stephen King, Anne Rice, John Grisham and Michael Crichton, the wonders of television, and the adrenalin rush of extreme sports, were not enough for a growing number of Yanks. Americans in greater and greater number complained to their doctors about depression. Many expressed the sense that they were not finding enough meaning in life. These complainers were duly medicated. Drug sales soared.”

Chapter Four: Vulgarity, Inc.;

“Information Slavery. In 1993 I attended a seminar that included a senior executive from one of America’s top insurance companies. I happened to tell him that I sometimes wrote articles for another major insurer, in an in-house magazine that dealt with quality-of-life issues. He replied, with an air of seasoned wisdom and solid experience, that he could think of no reason why an insurance company should try to educate its clients.

“Remind you of anybody? Distrust of communication is characteristic of executives. Some withhold information in the belief that this strategy will empower them. Some have no conception of the positive influence of lucidly-conveyed information. Some are so congenitally secretive that they are phobic to talk and writing (it was said of a West Coast department head that “He kept secrets even from himself”). Most importantly, some – I fear more than some – are unable to handle information in the first place. They have reached their top positions by making sales or cutting deals or motivating staff, but nowhere along the line have they picked up legitimate analytic skills. When a considered decision is necessary, they rely on guesswork and impulse, and then dream up a plausible rationale.”

Chapter Five: Vulgarity and Nature..............................68

“Growth is not just a cultural obsession. Growth has become a theoretical model for economists, executives and even civil servants. The idea is that economic entities, be they towns or corporations, cannot remain robust unless they keep growing, and that this growth imperative has no chronological limit. The Growth People are no amateurs either. They can cite factors and crunch numbers. But what they cannot do, apparently, is confront the dangers implicit in their model and their imperative. They would do well to note the teaching of the forest. They would do well to remember that the most dramatic example of unimpeded growth in nature is cancer, which kills its host and, necessarily, itself. The most colossal and preposterous of all vulgarities would be a civilization that, in the course of its busy, growing ways, paved over its environment and destroyed its only source of sustenance.”

On related issues, see David Sirota's blog, Working for Change.