American Vulgar: The Politics of Manipulation Versus the Culture of Awareness

American Vulgar: The Politics of Manipulation Versus the Culture of Awareness


Robert Grudin is what might be called a lyrical philosopher. From Time and the Art of Living (1982) to The Grace of Great Things: Creativity and Innovation (1990) and On Dialogue (1996), he has tackled the traditional subjects of classic philosophy -- time and self, permission and freedom, creativity and individuality, imagination and innovation -- with a beautiful prose style in work fueled by American pragmatism and metaphysical exploration. In his new book, Grudin identifies how easily misled individuals can be by a class of professional manipulators -- politicians, marketers and advertisers, media exploiters, and the like. He demonstrates the calculated effort to diminish and demean broad national awareness, cataloging how this group has managed, in fairly short order, this project of vulgarization. Illustrating its effects in several areas of common daily life, he shows how this dumbing-down of the electorate has bred an epidemic of self-destructive ignorance.

Grudin believes that only a rebirth of individual awareness can repair this damage and in this book sets about to explore the avenues renewed consciousness may take to save individuals from the death of mass vulgarity. Although American Vulgar paints a devastating portrait, it does not leave us without hope, offering several possibilities for repair and salvation.


Robert Grudin has published in philosophy (Time and the Art of Living, The Grace of Great Things: Creativity and Innovation) , fiction (Book: A Novel, and academic scholarship (Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety). A professor for years at the University of Oregon, he now lives with his wife in Hawai'i.


I began my conversation with Mr. Grudin by asking what he happened to be doing in Berkeley this fall. "I actually came here to promote my book. We have a house on Maui, where we've lived for the past five years. I knew that an unusual book like American Vulgar was going to take some effort on my part, so I put together a couple of tours through contacts that I've built over a number of years.""Will it be good to get back home to the warmth and sunshine?"

"It will, but I won't be back there until the spring. The only way we could get out of our house there was to rent it for six months. We have a lot of friends and family in Berkeley, so we'll be spending the winter here."

Mr. Grudin shared a bit of his background.

"I've been interested in writing since age five. When I was a kid I was wonderfully supported by my family, my teachers, and my peers. Except for a ten-year hiatus in my 20s, I've been devoted to creative writing throughout my life. But, writing could not be a career course for me in my 20s, so I came here to Berkeley and got a PhD in Literature. Then I worked as a lit professor at the University of Oregon through the '70s, '80s, and '90s.

"When I was about 40, in the late 1970s, I had gotten a promotion and tenure and a brief fellowship to the Huntington Library. One morning, sitting alone in the Huntington Gardens, it occurred to me that, for the rest of my life, no one could fire me. In other words, I had achieved total freedom of speech -- at least insofar as I wanted to exert it.

"My next thought was, 'Well, what would I do if I did what I most wanted to do?' The answer to that came pretty easily. I had always been interested in the concept of time and its effect on human liberty. Over the next year, I collected my own meditations on time and liberty and that was ultimately published as my first nonfiction book.

"One book led to another. Over the last six books, I've wandered here and there, but the whole idea of human liberty has always been central. I've explored issues in creativity and communications, and I've written a couple of novels -- one about a professor who expressed himself too freely and the other about a kind of superhero who tries to save the world.

"My most recent subject is vulgarity in America and the possible antidote to vulgarity, which is increased consciousness. We thought

American Vulgar was a catchy title, but the book is really about consciousness."

For Mr. Grudin, time, creativity, dialogue, and consciousness are four aspects of freedom. The fifth, design, is the subject of his next book, which is already complete in manuscript. "You're a very busy man for someone who is supposedly retired."

"If you ever retire, you'll know that it is the time to focus your attention on something that's completely your own."

"What exactly do you mean when you use the word vulgar in your book?"

"Vulgarity needs three components: ignorance, popularity, and harm. It is fostered by people in corporations who make money from the degradation of popular taste." The fast-food industry exemplifies this notion for Mr. Grudin, but vulgarity can occur even in the most unlikely arenas.

"You can get very, very civilized -- even up on the level of NPR, and still be vulgar. NPR, like other media, has to look at the bottom line, and has limited time to explore topics. For example, when [The Da Vinci Code author] Dan Brown was interviewed on NPR and asserted that he had thoroughly researched his topics in the Renaissance, he was immediately believed. Rather than someone from NPR fact-checking or calling up a Renaissance scholar, he was taken at his word. Brown's readers went home thinking how smart they were because they now knew something about the Renaissance."

I proffer that there remains comparatively little outcry against Brown's assertions. To which Mr. Grudin replies, "Only from the Church. Regarding Dan Brown and the Church, I don't care what happens. Let them fight it out."

"Brown [based his work on] a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and that book was based on a hoax invented by some anti-Semites in France in the 19th Century. But, Brown referred to it as though it were historical gospel. Later on, when two of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued Dan Brown, they asserted that their work had been fiction. That was the only legalistic way they had to sue him. Even in the court case that he won, his scholarship was disproved."

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