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).

 

More articles by:

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

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
July 28, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Diana Johnstone
Collateral Damage: U.S. Sanctions Aimed at Russia Strike Western European Allies
Jim Kavanagh
Donald the Destroyer: Assessing the Trump Effect
Carl Boggs
The Other Side of War: Fury and Repression in St. Louis
Eva Golinger
There is Still Time to Prevent Civil War in Venezuela
Anthony DiMaggio
“A Better Deal”? Dissecting the Democrats’ “Populist” Turn in Rhetoric and Reality
Conn Hallinan
Middle East Chaos
Mumia Abu-Jamal
James Baldwin: Word Warrior
Gary Leupp
The Trump Revolution Devouring Its Own Children
Joshua Frank
The Fire Beneath: Los Angeles is Sitting on a Ticking Time Bomb
Myles Hoenig
It Wasn’t Russia, It was the Green Party!
Andrew Levine
Enter Scaramouche, Stage Right
Brian Cloughley
Time to Get Out of Afghanistan
Alan Jones
“Finland Station” and the Struggle for Socialism Today
Robert Hunziker
Plastic Chokes the Seas
Eric Draitser
Enough Nonsense! The Left Does Not Collaborate with Fascists
Vijay Prashad
The FBI vs. Comrade Charlie Chaplin
Jane LaTour
Danger! Men Working
Yoav Litvin
The Unbearable Lightness of Counterrevolution
Charles Derber
Universalizing Resistance: How to Trump Trump
Gregory Barrett
Two Johnstones and a Leftish Dilemma: Nationalism vs. Neoliberalism
Joseph Natoli
Choosing the ‘Arteries that Make Money’
CJ Hopkins
Intersectionalist Internet Blues
Pepe Escobar
China and India Torn Between Silk Roads and Cocked Guns
Ralph Nader
Can the World Defend Itself From Omnicide?
Howard Lisnoff
Agape While Waltzing at the Precipice
Musa Al-Gharbi
Want to Shake Up Status Quo? Account for the Default Effect
Angela Kim
North Korean Policy Must Focus on Engagement Not Coercion
Hiroyuki Hamada
Delivering Art in the Empire
David Macaray
Talking Union
Binoy Kampmark
Refugee Conundrums: Resettlement, the UN and the US-Australia Deal
Robert Koehler
Opening Gitmo to the World
David Jaffee
No Safe Space for Student X
Thomas Knapp
The State is at War — With the Future
David Swanson
What’s Missing from Dunkirk Film
Winslow Myers
There Is Still Time, Brother
Robert J. Burrowes
Biological Annihilation on Earth Accelerating
Frederick B. Hudson – Dr. Junis Warren
Robot Scientists Carry Heavy Human Hearts 
Randy Shields
Not My Brother’s Reefer
Sam Lichtman
Where are the Millennials?
Louis Proyect
Death Race: the Cruelties of the Iditarod
Charles R. Larson
Review: Norman Lock’s A Fugitive in Walden Woods
July 27, 2017
Edward Curtin
The Deep State, Now and Then
Melvin Goodman
The Myth of American Exceptionalism
Nozomi Hayase
From Watergate to Russiagate: the Hidden Scandal of American Power
Kenneth Surin
Come Fly the Unfriendly Skies
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail