Vulgarity Isn't Praxis

The dirtbag left is a left for dirtbags. Like the name says, the dirtbags identify themselves by their crudity and nastiness; they are a left dedicated to the proposition that insult comedy can be praxis. The dirtbag vanguard Chapo Trap House is a podcast which "cheekily" references a Mexican criminal kingpin and a drug culture stereotypically associated with African-Americans, neatly insulting multiple marginalized groups at once. The dirtbag left wants to offend and shock the bourgeoisie; they want to drag civility through the muck and fart in its general direction. Revolutionaries must first piss in your cereal before they can storm your ramparts. To be truly free you must drop your pants in public.

The fullest statement of the dirtbag left ethos is Chapo host Amber A'Lee Frost's 2016 article "The Necessity of Political Vulgarity". In the essay, Frost argues that "'being mean' not only affords unique pleasures to the speaker or writer, but is a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded." Frost certainly demonstrates that she takes pleasure in meanness. But she ignores the ways in which that meanness can backfire against those she claims to help. When you call for the left to take Trump as a model, you've catastrophically lost your way.

Frost doesn't start with Trump; she starts with the French Revolution. Much of her essay is a celebration of the scurrilous pornographic pamphlets which ridiculed royalty before the Revolution. Marie Antoinette was a favorite target; she was portrayed fucking an assortment of men and women, and was regularly referred to as Austrichienne, or “Austrian bitch." 

France outlawed these pornographic pamphlets, suggesting that the nobility saw them as dangerous. Historians, too, have argued that the vulgar propaganda was effective. Frost quotes scholar Lynn Hunt, who says that the pamphlets had a role in "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."

What Frost elides here is that executing the Queen is not quite the same as inspiring the revolution. She also ignores the bulk of Hunt's book The Family Romance of the French Revolution. In that volume, Hunt argues that revolutionaries cast the monarchy as decadent and feminized; they saw themselves as restoring male virtue and authority. But when revolutionary virtue is seen as male, the revolution is going to be sexist—and sure enough, the sexist attacks on Marie Antoinette were followed after the revolution by sexist attacks on revolutionaries like Madame Roland and Olympe de Gouges. Those women, like the Queen, were executed. Vulgar sexism may have targeted Marie Antoinette first, but it was eventually used against revolutionary women like Amber A'Lee Frost as well.

This isn't an isolated example. Vulgar sexist smears are a staple of genocidal propaganda across history. The Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew made the false claimed that Jews were responsible for the vast majority of prostitution worldwide. Like the French Revolutionaries, the Nazis were leveraging sexual disgust against their enemies. 

Vulgar propaganda dehumanizing and sexualizing Tutsi women was also an important spur to the Rwandan genocide. Tutsi women were presented as sexual teases who were inaccessible to Hutu men. The genocide saw these vulgar ideas acted out in systematic rape and sexual torture. Hutu men repeated propaganda while engaging in rape: "You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us." "We want to see how sweet Tutsi women are." Vulgar words and images eroded the social norms which demanded that people treat each other with respect and humanity. The result was horrific sexual violence directed at marginalized people.

Frost sees vulgarity as a way to overthrow hierarchies. But she seems oblivious to the ways in which those in power use vulgarity to wield that power more nakedly and more cruelly. She excitedly praises Trump because he uses "the galvanizing power of vulgarity." "His braggadocio and dick jokes appall the traditional right," she gushes. "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." Tump she insists is honest, and the honesty is clarifying.

But this is like praising Hitler for honestly exposing the anti-Semitism of the conservative German establishment. Trump's vulgar attacks on Mexicans, immigrants and Muslims don't make those groups safer. On the contrary, Trump's open racism has inspired expressions of hatred throughout the country, and has given ICE agents permission to harass and brutalize immigrants without restraint. Trumpism encouraged Nazis to march in Charlottesville, where they beat people and murdered one woman. And of course part of Trump's "vulgarity" is his history of actual sexual assault and sexual harassment. As with Hutus in Rwanda, crude sexual language for Trump is inseparable from actual abuse of women.

Frost does acknowledge that vulgarity is not always useful; sometimes, she says, it's just a safety valve. But she neve addresses the way in which violent and cruel rhetoric can physically endanger the marginalized. She says the left needs to set about "Reclaiming vulgarity" from Trump, but she is indifferent to the dangers of allowing Trump to spout vulgar racism, sexism and hatred without opposition from the left. She acknowledges that vulgarity is potentially politically effective, but the only response she can offer to Trump's inflammatory rhetoric is admiration, and a snickering cheer that William Buckley would be displeased.

"Vulgarity is the language of the people," Frost declares. But Trump is not "the people." He's a wealthy piece of shit who inherited a fortune. The Hutu power brokers who spread vulgar propaganda weren't "the people" either, and Wall Street brokers aren't exactly known for their unfailingly polite manners. The fantasy of stuffed shirt effeminate wealthy pearl clutchers opposed by virile brave cursing truth tellers is in fact a fantasy—and a dangerous one. Once you've convinced yourself that vulgarity is a sign of authenticity, then anyone who uses vulgarity becomes an avatar of the working class. Racist and sexist language become virtues in themselves, and rich assholes can garner praise from the left just by being abusive. If the language of assholery is your gospel, all your heroes will be assholes.

Frost herself has demonstrated the corrosive effects of glamorizing vulgarity. She is a member of DSA's Medicare for All committee. When the committee was criticized by disabled DSA members for failing to address their concerns, Frost quickly tossed civility aside, and went on the attack, accusing her interlocutors of being "wreckers" and careerists, and "threatened to cut out disabled comrades entirely" according to a DSA petition calling for her removal from the committee. 

Frost's refusal to treat critics with respect or kindness isn't an accident; it's part of her ethos. For the dirtbag left, civility is a sign of bourgeois weakness. Real leftists are like Trump: loud, angry, swaggering, unaccountable. You don't make change by listening to marginalized people and forming communities of caring and solidarity, according to the dirtbags. You make change by using crude invective, and dehumanizing your enemies. Those enemies including, apparently, disabled comrades who want to be included in your healthcare campaign.

Civility can of course be used against the left—often in ways that don't have anything in particular to do with vulgarity. ESPN suspended Jamelle Hill for saying that Trump is a white supremacist. Calling racists "racist" isn't vulgar, but it's often seen as uncivil. 

The left should be willing to speak uncomfortable truths. But one of the uncomfortable truths it should be willing to speak is the truth that words matter. In a world swarming with free speech absolutist anti-PC pundits like Jonathan Chait, Jonathan Haidt, and Steven Pinker, it's hardly dangerous to praise angry rhetoric. If you want to tweak the status quo, insist that some words should go unsaid.

The left needs to work for all the marginalized, which means that it needs to unite a broad range of despised, stigmatized communities. These communities are often the target of vicious slurs and dehumanizing propaganda. They need to be assured that they are welcome; they need to be treated with respect and solidarity. The dirtbag left looks at Trump with longing; they want to steal his vulgar virility. But Trump's supposed vulgar virility is insepararable from his fascism. The left should reject both.