If one were charged with coming up with a one word description of contemporary American culture I think vulgar might well be the right word. I say this not so much as a condemnation but more as a description, although I do think that by and large the changes that have brought this about, perhaps inevitable, are probably more undesirable than desirable.
Vulgar is an interesting word in that it has two different kinds of meanings, somewhat distantly related. First it means something to the effect of generally used, applied or accepted behavior, something usual, typical or ordinary, something relating to the common people. Second, and what you perhaps understand more commonly, it means offensive language, lewd, or profoundly indecent, morally crude, undeveloped, or unregenerate, basically “lacking in cultivation.” I will suggest that over the years these two somewhat different kinds of meanings have more and more blended into one as our culture has changed, thus leading to the description of our culture as vulgar.
Vulgar is an old word that first appeared in the 14th century. The term vulgarity apparently first appeared in 1579. It is obvious that the distinction between the “common” people and others had to do with the difference between commoners and the landed gentry, those who owned the property and had money as opposed to ordinary people who were “common,.” the distinction between those who enjoyed a more “civilized” life and those who did not. The terms culture and civilized were synonymous, culture with a capital “C,” that is, implying a way of life that was more gentile, of a higher quality, and in general superior to the more “vulgar” lives of commoners. It was the kind of life concerned with proper place settings, etiquette, silver, servants, and leisure, all allowed them by virtue of heredity, ancestry, and tradition. And it was, of course, from their point of view. It was probably even shared by those who were commoners, peasants, serfs, and those not blessed with noble lineage, property, and money. This was a genuine “class” culture, with those at the top representing a clearly defined upper class and those at the bottom a lower, more vulgar, class, less enlightened, less educated, more “coarse,” lewd, crude, rough-spoken, and, indeed, lacking in cultivation and Culture.
This situation no longer applies to American culture. We no longer have an “Upper Class,” in spite of claims nowadays of class warfare. What used to be class warfare is now something else, specifically a clash between the rich and the poor. There is no genuine upper class anymore, or if there is it is very small and probably located in very small pockets in the Northeast. The rich now do not constitute a class but are, rather, a conglomerate of people who came into their money not by inheritance, lineage, or tradition, but, rather, by unusual talents, innovations, hard work, sometimes even criminal enterprise. They do not share in the traditional upper class ethos that existed previously, culturally they are not very different from the rest of the members of the society from which they emerged, being rich does not make them “Upper Class,” they bring their culture with them. They constitute what we now describe as the “nouvea riche.”
The result of this is not that our culture has moved upward towards are more gentile upper class style, but rather has move increasingly toward a more common denominator. I think it is undisputable that if you consider where literature, art, motion pictures, and above all, television has taken us in recent years it is clearly towards a more, shall we say, “uncouth,” “uncultured,” less “cultivated” way of life than we enjoyed in the past. Our language itself has suffered from this coarsening of culture. We have become a nation of sex and violence junkies to the point where things that were once considered unspeakable, even unthinkable, have become commonplace, normal rather than shocking and unmentionable. Vulgarity has become the norm rather than the exception. That which was once considered beneath the dignity of “civilized” people is now routine and shared by all. In some cases it appears the rich can be even more “coarse” than those less fortunate, conspicuous consumption has reached unprecedented levels, millions are paid for the basically valueless baubles of the famous, hundreds of thousands even for used baseballs or other mementoes, thousands for shower curtains, toilet seats, and whatever. Vulgarity is now often considered a privilege of the rich and famous, notoriety a plus, wealth a virtue, empathy a weakness, welfare a sin, honesty for “suckers,” decency unnecessary, charity for losers, capitalism a gift of the gods. Such is the world we have chosen for ourselves. Good luck.
The universe may have a purpose, but nothing we know suggests that, if so, this purpose has any similarity to ours.