In Praise of Vulgarity

How commercial culture liberates Islam -- and the West

Who will ever forget the strangeness of the first images out of post-Taliban Afghanistan, when the streets ran with beards? As one city after another was abandoned by Taliban soldiers, crowds of happy men lined up to get their first legal shave in years, and barbers enjoyed the busiest days of their lives.

Only a few months earlier, in January 2001, dozens of barbers in the capital city of Kabul had been rounded up by the Taliban's hair-and-beard cops (the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) because they had been cutting men's hair in a style known locally as the "Titanic." At the time, Kabul's cooler young men wanted that Leonardo DiCaprio look, the one he sported in the movie. It was an interesting moment in fashion, because under the Taliban's moral regime movies were illegal, Leonardo DiCaprio was illegal, and his hairdo, which allowed strands of hair to fall forward over the face during prayer, was a ticket to jail. Yet thanks to enterprising video smugglers who dragged cassettes over mountain trails by mule, urban Afghans knew perfectly well who DiCaprio was and what he looked like; not only did men adopt his style, but couples were then celebrating their weddings with Titanic-shaped cakes.

DiCaprio was out of style, even in Kabul, by the time the Taliban's rules were being swept away along with the nation's beard clippings. Men were now measuring their freedom by the smoothness of their chins. "I hated this beard," one happy Afghan told an A.P. reporter. Being shaved was "like being free."

Although it's omitted from the monuments and the rhetoric of liberation, brutal tyrannies have ended on exactly this note before. When Paris was liberated from the Nazis, for example, one Parisian cadged a Lucky Strike from an American reporter, the first cigarette he'd had in a long, long time. As he gratefully exhaled, the Frenchman smiled and told the reporter, "It's the taste of freedom."

Afghan women, of course, removed their burqas, if they chose to, and put on makeup again. But some Afghan women had been breaking the morals laws throughout the period of Taliban bleakness; according to a memorable CNN documentary titled Beneath the Veil, they did so at the risk of flogging or even amputation. Courageous women had not only been educating their daughters in secret, but had also been visiting illegal underground cosmetic parlors for the simple pleasure of self-ornamentation and the assertion of self-fashioned identity that lies behind it. (See "Free Hand," page 82.)

Still other Afghans filled the air with music. The most frequently played tapes, according to press reports, featured the songs of the late Ahmed Zaher, a 1970s celebrity in the Western style. The Village Voice has described Zaher as "Afghanistan's Crosby, Presley, and Marley rolled into one," and credited him with introducing original pop compositions into the nation's culture (before Zaher, the usual practice had been to record classical verses set to traditional instrumentation). Enthusiasm for Zaher's work -- including his English-language covers of American hits such as "It's Now or Never" -- was one of the few things that the country's many ethnic groups had in common. The model of celebrity he established was later imitated by other local singers, including, notably, women.

Afghan shop windows suddenly displayed blow-ups of Indian actresses, who often pose for cheerful cheesecake pinup shots. India's films are very popular in Afghanistan, and Bollywood, as India's Hindi-language movie industry is known, lost almost 10 percent of its total market when the Taliban closed the theaters. When a Kabul theater quickly reopened, mobs of men assembled to see the only print of a Bollywood extravaganza remaining in the country. Crowds grew so large that soldiers had to intervene. For those who couldn't get a ticket, a video store suddenly opened to offer such fare as Gladiator, Police Story, and Independence Day.

Other Afghans exhumed the TV sets they had buried in their yards to save them from the autos-da-fé of electronics the Taliban staged in Kabul's soccer stadium. A few Afghans examined the homemade satellite dishes -- hammered out of old paint cans -- that were arrayed in the streets. Those who didn't have TVs anymore ran out to see what they could get from sellers who had put their black market stocks of electronics on open display. The shoppers were looking for a boom box or for any machine that would help return pleasure to their lives.

In short, the first breath of cultural freedom that Afghans had enjoyed since 1995 was suffused with the stuff of commercially generated popular culture. The people seemed delighted to be able to look like they wanted to, listen to what they wanted to, watch what they wanted to, and generally enjoy themselves again. Who could complain about Afghans' filling their lives with pleasure after being coerced for years to adhere to a harshly enforced ascetic code?

The West's liberal, anti-materialist critics, that's who.

The High Culture Sputter

"How depressing was it," asked Anna Quindlen in a December Newsweek column, "to see Afghan citizens celebrating the end of tyranny by buying consumer electronics?" Apparently, if you're somebody like Quindlen -- who confessed in the same column that "I have everything I could want, and then some" -- the spectacle was pretty dispiriting. Liberty itself descends on the land, and the best thing its people can do is go shopping? It was just too vulgar.

Pulitzer Prize winner Quindlen had given voice to the Cultural Sputter of the bien-pensant, a well-known reaction afflicting people of taste forced to live in a world of vulgarities. It's an act with a very long pedigree. Eighteenth-century aristocrats by the palaceful were appalled when professional writers first appeared. Writing in exchange for money, they thought, would be the ruin of letters. John Ruskin, King of Victorian Sputterers, couldn't stand Rembrandt because the Dutch master's paintings lacked "dignity": All those paintings of self-satisfied, bulbous-nosed burghers made Ruskin gag.

The sputter is endlessly adaptable. A notorious space-age version choked Norman Mailer half to death. He was watching astronaut Alan B. Shepard walking on the moon in 1971, when Shepard suddenly took out a secretly stowed golf club and launched a drive at the lunar horizon. Mailer was spiritually mortified. Humankind should have been humbled, literally on its knees, as it entered the cathedral of the universe; instead it drove golf balls through its windows. What's the matter with people? Give them infinity, and they make it a fairway. Give them liberty, and they reach for a Lucky. Or they go shopping.

There are a lot of sputterers like Quindlen, and they too condemn the substance of Afghanistan's national liberation celebration. Why? Because they think that cultural consumerism -- whether nascent as displayed in Kabul or full-blown as in the hedonist West -- is the serpent in freedom's garden. When culture and commerce meet, they believe, both democracy and prosperity are poisoned. As for true culture, it hasn't got a chance.

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    Did the Afghans want to sink in the middle of the ocean, too?

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    In Praise of Vulgarity

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  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    "One of the things we should do, Barber argued, is to stop defiling the world with the crass products of our cultural machine. Why should we stop? Because Barber thinks it's all "garbage.""

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    Who could complain about Afghans' filling their lives with pleasure after being coerced for years to adhere to a harshly enforced ascetic code?

    The West's liberal, anti-materialist critics, that's who.

    Seems like western liberals have more in common with the Taliban than they care to admit.

    And here I thought it was those evangelical right wing CHRISTFAGS!11!!!!eleventy!!!11! that were supposed to be the west's equivilant to the Taliban...

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    If people like Barber want to pontificate about how the greater world outside needs to follow his ideals and reject "vulgar" American cultural influence they should first learn a few non-indo-european languages to really get a toehold on those other cultures. I would say that most of the culture that is being aped around the world, being seen through a totally different cultural perspective, is not quite the invasion these alarmists rant about.

    I find it interesting that Japanese woodblock prints, universally regarded as "high culture", were discovered in the west by sailor's and ship captian's wives along the US east coast when they unpacked the crated ceramics and laquerware brought straight from Japan. In Japan those prints were seen as vulgar art - probably similar to Anime today - and used as packing material. Americans, lacking the proper instructions as to the low quality of those prints, saved and collected them among themselves.


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