Half a century ago, the editors of the Paris Review induced author Vladimir Nabokov to sit for a rare interview. The Russian émigré proceeded to offer a series of merciless judgments on literature, art, sociology, and psychology. None was more provocative than a word from his boyhood, poshlost (pronounced push-lost). He defined it as:

Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities . . . the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” . . . Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam is seditious poshlost . . .The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series.

At the time of Nabokov’s pronouncements, poshlost was sporadically heard in the halls of academia and on the prattle of newscasts. But all too soon, politicians, professors, and talking heads began to issue bogus profundities like park benchers scattering breadcrumbs before pigeons. Now poshlost has become the rule, rather than the exception.

Of course, authorities no longer indict the United States by comparing her with Russia—certainly not since accusations that Vladimir Putin put his thumb on the scale of the presidential election. Cuba is more likely to be invoked as a moral equivalent of the American oppressor. Doesn’t the U.S. maintain a prison at Guantanamo Bay, on the same island with the Castro regime?

Other dubious moral equivalents have been voiced by the outgoing president himself. During a 2014 address before the United Nations, Obama declared, “In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri, where a young man was killed and a community was divided.” Thus the horrors of the Syrian war and the agonies of Eastern Ukraine were equated with the fatal confrontation between a robber and a policeman in the Midwest. Just before his death, Michael Brown was supposed to have shouted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” A riot ensued and the FBI stepped in. After a thorough investigation, the cop was found to have been justified in the use of his sidearm. The deceased, apparently, never spoke those four words. But by that time poshlost had been loosed on cable TV, the newspapers, and the White House, where sensational fiction overrode stark truth.

In his indictment, Nabokov also referred to a post-war Germany and the historically illiterate who believed the U.S. had been guilty of Nazi-like crimes. Didn’t our armies bomb civilians? What about Dresden? Today, a different Germany, acutely aware of its past, welcomes thousands of Middle Eastern refugees without considering the consequences. Meantime, in the U.S., some 18 pugnacious “sanctuary cities” are ready to share in Germany’s guilt. This, in defiance of federal law; this, regardless of the dangers that unexamined immigrants might present to other city-dwellers; this, though no other nation has welcomed so many foreigners over the course of the last 240 years.

As for morally repellent comparisons to Auschwitz, animal rights extremists are always willing to oblige. The president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) stated, “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”

The parade of bêtes noir has grown exponentially since Nabokov’s era. After all, he came before the invention of Twitter, Facebook, and the 24-hour news cycle. At present, there are many shortages around the globe, but the purveyors of poshlost are about to enjoy their best year.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next