Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Unpardonable Lenny Bruce

by NORMAN SOLOMON

No doubt Lenny Bruce would have laughed with at least a tinge of bitterness if — like millions of Americans — he picked up a newspaper the day before Christmas 2003 and read that he’d been “pardoned” by the governor of New York for an obscenity conviction.

In their own time, people who are stubbornly ahead of it usually get a lot more grief than accolades. And decades later — in this case, 39 years after Bruce’s bust for a nightclub performance and 37 years after his death — the belated praise from on high is predictably insufferable.

The New York Times lead sentence on Dec. 24 called Bruce “the potty-mouthed wit who turned stand-up comedy into social commentary.” Actually, far from being “potty-mouthed” in an emblematic way, Lenny Bruce was a Fool in the Shakespearean sense, jousting with a society dominated by various aspiring Lears — and quite a few Elmer Gantrys.

Most people who can remember Lenny Bruce have their favorite moments. I think of when he took the opportunity, on a network TV show, to “play” a dollar bill as a percussion device, snapping it in front of the microphone. Or his bits, taped and then captured on record albums, satirizing the entrepreneurial zeal of evangelical moralists. He anticipated the unctuous likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and, yes, George W. Bush.

Lenny Bruce lampooned hypocrisy, yet he avoided the earnest fervor that dulls the teeth of much would-be biting humor. Bruce may have occasionally lapsed into sermonizing, but he was not pious. The 1974 movie “Lenny” strayed when actor Dustin Hoffman wasn’t quite able to portray Bruce’s righteousness without preceding it with the hyphenated “self.”

Bruce was a consummate mimic who spent many hours fiddling with tape from his on-stage routines. As an instrument of enormous versatility, his voice was orchestral in scope.

Protracted struggles with judicial repression for saying “bad” words made him obsessed with absurdities in law books. For Bruce, legalistic labyrinths culminated in August 1966 with a morphine overdose, two months short of his 40th birthday.

We ought to note that his last two years spanned from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through a period of rapid military escalation in Vietnam, with U.S. troop deployments mounting into the hundreds of thousands.

On a noncommercial radio station about 30 years ago, while the war was still raging, I used to air an obscure record that featured some of Bruce’s final performance. He did a bit he’d presented many times before, reciting (with a thick German accent) a poem by the radically humanistic Trappist monk Thomas Merton — a meditation on the high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann.

Here are words I’ve often remembered over the course of three decades:

“My defense: I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?”

Such questions are still too hot for mainstream media to handle. We may congratulate ourselves on how risque the words and images are now, in mass media, but the lasting power of Lenny Bruce’s caustic humor has nothing to do with four-letter words. Today, naughty language and sexual images are big media sellers. The tacit taboos are in other realms of expression.

Though it wasn’t then the propaganda mantra that it has recently become, President Johnson referred to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Vietnam as “terrorists.” These days, President Bush is fond of applying the “terrorist” label to people violently resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Naturally, as one of the home-front politicos eager to boost the latest war, New York’s Gov. George Pataki could not resist combining the announcement of his pardon for Bruce with a plug for the sanctification of present-day militarism under the guise of combating terrorism. “Freedom of speech is one of the greatest American liberties,” Pataki declared, “and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

But the question that Lenny Bruce kept voicing from the stage, meanwhile, still hangs in the air: “Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them?”

NORMAN SOLOMON is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy in San Francisco. He is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You. (Context Books, 2003).

 

Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where he coordinates ExposeFacts. Solomon is a co-founder of RootsAction.org.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail