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Review - Obscenity as a Weapon

On Friday November 23rd, Berkeley was treated to Peter Byrne’s presentation on the career, life, and death of American standup performer Lenny Bruce. Bruce was a highly influential and controversial personage, fondly recalled by many artists, comedians and fans today. He is also rather obscure to large numbers of others, many of whom might in fact have preferred to forget him.

Peter delivered in a relaxed tone, half reading, half informally expounding. Periodically a clip from Bob Fosse’s 1974 film Lenny was projected, to demonstrate, via actor Dustin Hoffman’s performance, the ideas and experiences that Bruce lived and worked into his shows. The session closed with an actual excerpt of an appearance Lenny Bruce made - miraculously, it would seem - on a mainstream broadcast television program.


Born Leonard Alfred Schneider during the Great Depression, we learned of his mother’s career as an entertainer in the now mostly forgotten era of Vaudeville entertainment. This had an enormous influence on young Alfred. But most crucially, we are plunged into the turbulent USA of the fifties and sixties, the period during which the Lenny Bruce persona took form. It was an epoch which, arguably, he had an impact in shaping.


The US had been experiencing unprecedented world dominance and prosperity. The horror of WWII was followed not only by pax and order, but also by an extraordinarily outsized confidence in the American Way of life. As it so often goes, this peace, strength and self-assurance was accompanied by a dark undercurrent. The Cold War, global entanglements, and social and racial unrest on the homeland were cleaving the society. There was on the one hand a fervently conformist mainstream and on the other an increasingly exuberant counterculture. Bruce thrust himself wholeheartedly into the latter. A kind of searchlight shined mercilessly on society’s ills, he was soon notorious, reviled, glorified, criminalised and canonised as a champion of anti-hypocrisy. Ironically, heroism itself was yet another idea he rejected as simplistic. He saw it so often projected onto undeserving individuals, in order to satisfy an artificial need to see complex moral questions in black and white terms.


Bruce’s basic premise was not complex. It boiled down to this: society was sick and drenched in hypocrisy. People were liars, insincere, blind to their blindness. He saw himself as the doctor, and the necessary cure was to apply shock therapy. His frontline of attack was the use, and the prohibition, of words and topics that the forces of oppression deemed out of bounds. The very concept of obscenity was a destructive and illegitimate construct. It had to be subverted, overthrown.


Naturally, the forces of law and order, decency and the status quo soon closed in on Bruce. He was arrested, re-arrested, convicted (for public profanity), jailed, deemed an undesirable alien, and in general harassed for most of the latter part of his career. He doubled down, using these events as fodder for his routines. He delighted his audiences as he mockingly welcomed police agents monitoring his club appearances. But his furious recounting of his pending law judgements and obsession with legal details began to grate on the nerves of even his most devoted fans. His shows became ponderous, wearying. Everyone, sooner or later, would be alienated by Lenny Bruce.


Eventually his livelihood became a continual struggle. His employers too shared the risk of being sanctioned and outlawed, and offers for work grew scarcer. He and his wife saw their work and personal lives deteriorate further and further. By then full fledged heroin addicts, they descended completely into marginalization, the lower depths. Bruce died in 1966 from a drug overdose.


During the question and answer period that followed, Byrne was asked if the complete freedom of speech that Bruce advocated could also be harnessed to propel hate speech into public discourse. One answer is that Lenny Bruce held that words, once they are prohibited, are endowed with great destructive power, but they can be divested of that power when not proscribed. He dramatised this in one unnerving, and unforgettable skit.


This reviewer holds a viewpoint of qualified disagreement, ie: unconvinced that mere repeated chanting of forbidden words depletes them of their venom. Nor is it clear that abandoning taboos against racial slurs would help defuse racially tense moments between children in a schoolyard, or crazed adults in a factory or street argument. Every utterance is a complex combination of context, intents (both hidden and explicit), assumptions about listeners’ sympathies, and other factors. Few people in the U.S. haven’t observed scores of situations in which forbidden or frowned on slurs were shouted with intense hatred, with clear desire to do harm, and to rally others to the cause of doing harm.


It is also true that stigmatising certain words usually does not extinguish danger. And it has indeed provoked a backlash at the tyranny of so-called Political Correctness and Identity Politics. I would submit, however, that putting all the blame on these is also at best only a partial diagnosis. That PC and IDP have mushroomed out of control is a given. But they emerged from a sincere impulse, and a necessary one, to right wrongs. Should we also bemoan, on the grounds of free speech violation, and the oppressive nature of PC/IDP culture, that it is today more or less generally stigmatised to suggest publicly that our society should gas Jews as a solution to current day problems? Some say, unflinchingly, yes!


I can’t offer a solution or comprehensive conclusion. This debate seems destined to be an unending one.


The reviewer also respectfully disagrees that our world today has regressed totally into a phase of self-censorship, self-gelded humourlessness. Yes, the same list of words are still banned on national media by, for example, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. But it is also true that many alternative media channels now exist which do carry uncensored content. One can hear unlimited amounts of fully unrestrained chatter on cable TV, social media and in Hollywood films. These did not exist before the turbulent years, and are the result of both technological change and changes in audiences who are today inured to the formerly suppressed language. Some rue this state of affairs, many do not, and may even welcome it as a breath of fresh air. The con faction includes both hyper-correct, leftish leaning, fervent PC police and religious fundamentalists - odd bedfellows! What would, what do many 60’s free speech advocates think of today’s landscape?


To close, enjoy this clip of Richard Pryor on the famous Saturday Night Live weekly comedy show. (That is - if you can understand the 70’s U.S. colloquial racial slurs) Quite deliciously, it illustrates that « nigger » can be said by different people, of different backgrounds, in different contexts, to mean utterly different things.

- Will Douglas, November 28th 2018

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