Vulgarity and Politics


Is there a link between vulgarity and politics? I think there is. Three historical examples come to mind: Germany in the 1930s, the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and we might also look at Australia in the 2000s under Howard and the Liberals.

In1933 the year that Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and Dachau was opened as a detention camp for ‘undesirables’ an 18-year-old Englishman, Patrick Leigh Fermor, decided to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Turkey. Much of Fermor’s time was spent in southern Germany, where he was generally met with great kindness and generous hospitality.

Fermor’s account of his travels, A Time of Gifts, was not published until 1977, so he had ample time to reflect on Hitler, Nazism, the decay of Europe and its descent into war and barbarism, and particularly the darkness that descended on Mitteleuropa. But curiously except for his four days in Munich, and then three weeks in Vienna Fermor, who is more interested in the medieval world of Breughel, Dürer and the Thirty Years’ War, doesn’t spend a great deal of time discussing Hitler, the ubiquitous Brown Shirts and National Socialism. However, there is one episode concerning politics worth noting.

In Stuttgart, Fermor is befriended by two German girls (both students) with whom he stays for several days. He is invited to a party, which the girls do not wish to attend, but can’t get out of. The host is wealthy and an admirer of Hitler. Here is Fermor’s description of the house:

The house was hideous – prosperous, brand new, shiny and dispiriting. Pale woods and plastics were juggled together with stale and pretentious vorticism, and the chairs resembled satin boxing gloves and nickel plumbing. Carved dwarfs with red noses stoppered all the bottles on the oval bar and glass ballerinas pirouetted on ashtrays of agate that rose from the beige carpets on chromium stalks I bet [the host is]a terrific Nazi, I thought. I asked the girls later, and they both exclaimed ‘And how’, in vehement unison.

Another example of historical vulgarity concerns the Soviet city buildings, put up in Moscow and Warsaw in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Stalin decreed an ‘official’ style and this resulted in hideous, gigantic, ‘ice-cream cone’ structures, some of which are, unfortunately, still standing. These buildings were overbearing and vulgar monuments to the Soviet military and doctrinal power of the day.

Thanks to Scratch.

And as a final example, I recently drove through the outer suburbs of Melbourne. And there it all was: the world of the heavily mortgaged, manicured, ostentatious, gabled, columned home. This is the world of the air-conditioned supermarket, of McDonald’s, Hungry Jacks, Pizza Hut, Gardenworld, mobile homes, fibreglass boats, the personal trainer, the giant Kenworth rig, keep fit centres, discount shopping, the vast carpark and the freeway. Food To Go. Jumboburgers. Caravan City. Jesus Will Save You.

These are the suburbs of the Hillsong Church and kooky religions. These, I think, are ‘Howard’ or ‘Costello’ areas.

With only minor changes, Fermor’s description of the house in Stuttgart in 1933 could easily apply, some 70 years later, to a nouveau-riche home in one of Melbourne or Sydney’s outer areas.

This is the 2000s equivalent of the kind of suburb Barry Humphries lampooned in the 1960s and 1970s – the suburb of Sandy Stone and Edna Everidge. The suburb of 2000 is driven by interest rates and fear of the terrorist; the suburb of 1950 was also driven by fear of the communist’s threat to our ‘Way of Life’. Both suburbs are intrinsically vulgar. But, I suppose, the 1950s suburb has been softened by the patina of time and fashion.

The modern McDonald’s suburb, with its garishly painted children’s playground and Disney-esque architecture, does, I think, represent what might be called ‘Howard’ values. The people who live there are more concerned about the cricket results than the fate of David Hicks in Guantánamo Bay, or the implications of Ruddock’s anti-terror legislation.

The McDonald’s suburb represents a ‘challenge’ to the Labor Party. But to the extent that the McDonald’s suburbanite is concerned with interest rates and economic prosperity, it is difficult to see what Labor can do about it. It seems that, for a long time yet, the Liberals will be the ‘natural’ ruling party.

While John and Janette Howard embody what might be called ‘respectable suburban values,’ there is a link between the Liberal Party and the ostentatious display of money and power – which is basically what vulgarity is all about.

But vulgarity is by no means limited to the Liberal Party. The lines are now blurred and it is difficult to tell one Party from another.

There was a time ¾ before the air-conditioned supermarket and the 4-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee – when vulgarity was the symbol of the conservatives and their newly acquired money. Australia had no hereditary aristocracy, and the politics of the Left was about decent living and working conditions, about social reform and human rights.

Not any more.

It is now about mortgage rates, power, fear and vulgarity.

Recommended reading:

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts

Robin Boyd: The Australian Ugliness

Michael Cannon: The Land Boomers

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.