Lenny Bruce: First Amendment Hero!

Victor Pross's picture
Submitted by Victor Pross on Fri, 2006-06-02 04:15

LENNY BRUCE: A First Amendment Hero!

[re-written and edited]

(“Please don’t lock up these words”)

He was a man with a disquieting sense of humor every step of the way. He entertained America with a disturbing frankness. His words crossed the law and those in it. He became intolerable to people in power. Words were his catalyst to fame…and failure. He tore into the planks of conventional morality like a buzz-saw. His life became a hamstring of censorship, arrests, trials, persecutions, convictions and appeals. When it was over, not even the First Amendment saved him. He died convicted—a comedian condemned for his words. His name was Lenny Bruce. He was a legendary comic, social satirist, free-speech crusader and martyr to the uptight social and moral repressions of the Age of Conformity.

Lenny Bruce was neither a radical philosopher nor a thinker who plunged the deepest issues of ethics and epistemology. He was, however, a deep man in his own way. Sometimes his comedy contained a very simple moral message: “You can’t do anything with anybody’s body to make it dirty to me. Six people, eight people, one person---you can only do one thing to make it dirty: kill it.”

It was Lenny Bruce who was killed—driven to an early grave by relentless persecution. The charge: Word crimes. The very idea seems foreign to us. He lampooned popes, preachers, politicians, and judges. He wanted to expose “the lie” in life – all of those respectable cover-ups used to hide the dirty truth. His words – comical, critical, and profane – put America’s First-Amendment principle to the test: can offensive speech really be free?

Bruce could have prospered into old age had he simply shut up with certain things said in certain ways, but his personality and his sense of mission made that impossible. Employing obscenity as a miner uses dynamite to blow up the deeply impacted prejudices and repressions of middle-class society, Lenny eventually provoked the wrath of the Catholic Church, the police and a lot of people who knew nothing at all about him except that he had a dirty mouth. Arrested as many as seven times in a single city, he eventually abandoned his stage career to become a free-speech crusader, employing a score of famous attorneys in a history-making series of trials that ended finally with the defendant exonerated but the man utterly destroyed.
Philosophically, he aspired for the best in humankind (maybe), while prepared to accept the worst (definitely). In fact, he was honest with himself and others: “I am heinously guilty of the paradoxes I assail in our society.”

What is the significance of Lenny Bruce? He was a crusading comic who tore into ridiculous social taboos. He was the confrontational comic. He smashed archaic mother-in-law jokes with his own version: “My mother-in-law broke up my marriage. My wife came home and found us in bed together.” When a patron confronted Bruce telling him that he regarded that sick, Bruce retorted: I said my wife’s mother—not mine!” It was a radical head-on clash of old and new comedy, of Yiddish and bebop, of burlesque and bohemia. Bruce arrived as a one-man backlash against the tired mainstream 1950s entertainers—-the Lone individualist confronting tradition. His whole act was an impressionistic view of a seamy 1950s America, such as the funny bit on the teenage glue-sniffling fad.

Nobody but Bruce could recycle old premises and crush them into comedic gold, like his used car salesman trying to sell a car that has been damaged in a suicide pack (“There’s a little lipstick on the exhaust pipe. Jes’ wipe if off there”)
His comedy moved on from zany fun-house antics to angry rallying against hypocrisy and organized religion. And sometimes he blended serious commentary with fanciful comedy. He paid the price for speaking his mind. Lenny Bruce is the old story of the individual versus the state. Lenny Bruce fought for the right for free speech. He was called “blasphemous,” “obscene” and “sick.” He was also called “the Earl of Angst” and “the Duke of Dissent.” He was a radical, a free-wheeling Jew who employed the argot of the hipster. He punctuated his act with jive-speak (“like wow,” “man,” “dig this,” “cat”) and Yiddish (“schumuck,” “putz,” “shtup”). He was cool incarnate.

Bruce mocked the whole sentimental show-business monolith. He loathed showbiz’s desperate whoring after status, its preposterous smugness, its crybaby sentimentality, and its secret contempt for the public it fawns upon. He had broken free the of the traditional comedy cadre. “I don’t have an act,” he exclaimed,” I just talk. I’m just Lenny Bruce.” In this sense, he was a first-hander. He invented "comic realism."

One of Bruce’s most famous monologues was “Religions, Inc.” where he laid to waste organized religion. The commands of God and man could not countenance such a man. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras was cast into a dungeon when he mocked the popular gods as fanciful playthings. He also dealt with race issues: Dick Gregory, a black comedian of the times, saw Bruce’s show once. On stage, Bruce peered into the audience: “Are there any niggers here tonight?” he asked, with matter-of-fact candor. Bruce then rattled off a string of ethnic insults, trying to defuse brutal hate words like nigger, kike, wop, gook, sheenie and jigaboo. He thus stunned listeners into thinking about unthinkable things. Gregory later said, after the show: “If they don’t kill him or throw him in jail he’s liable to shake up this whole fuckin’ country.” As it played out, those events transpired.

The First Amendment was under attack. Bruce fought like a Christian tossed to the lions. "I have a right to say the things I'm saying, I'm not hurting anybody. They're just words."

But the issue here is not if one agrees with the words of Lenny Bruce—but to fight to the death his right to say them. The First Amendment is here to protect even the most so-called “offensive” words—-for if we all agreed and loved everything uttered and heard, there would be no need for the First Amendment! Without freedom of speech, we might as well fold tent and forget about this culture. Are we to ignore the Lenny Bruce story and toss him off as a mere "dirty comic" from the by-gone age of 1950s America?

In the end, it was Lenny Bruce who was judging us: “I’m not a comedian. And I’m not sick,” Bruce cried out during one of his many trials. “The world is sick and I’m the doctor. I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values.”

Lenny Bruce on the question of politics: “With the choice between communism and capitalism, I’m for freedom, man. Under capitalism, if I don’t dig company A, I can say ‘screw you’ and walk across the street to company B. Communism is like the phone company, man. I can’t say ‘screw you phone company, I’m gonna'---yeah, gonna what, putz? Forget it, man. You’ll end up with two empty tin-cans tied to a string. (‘Hello? Hello? Hello?’)

And this was said at the height of the New Left insanity. He offended a wide stratum of society. We must pay the toll to travel the roads of freedom. And Lenny Bruce did. He was his own Socratic maxim was that the unobjectionable life is not worth living. Lenny Bruce fought to liberate words. Don't hold back, don't sugarcoat, and don't be hypocritical. Speak life as it is. That was the reason and risk of his humor.
As one Lenny Bruce trial juror said: “The authors of First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if a vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance.”

He spoke about things that upset all philosophical perspectives, and came to conclusions that would leave one feeling cold. When Bruce was ribald, raunchy, irreverent, and tasteless, he was American standing on his rights. “Show me the average sex maniac,” he challenged his audience once, “the one that takes your eight-year-old, schtups her in the parking lot, and then kills her--and I’ll show you a guy who’s had a good religious upbringing.”

He was a troubled and dire man, a drug-addled foul-mouth comedian. Part of Bruce’s posthumous fame is that he died young and tragically—-found dead and naked on his bathroom floor from a drug overdose. He was 40 years-old. Said one observer: "Lenny died of an overdoes of police." When he died, it became instantly clear how enormously the nation had erred.

He was a misunderstood path-blazer, a ground-breaker--he was an alienated conservative--a "Liberal" in the old sense of the word--a satirist seeking revenge for outraged moral idealism through techniques of shock and obscenity as old as Aristophanes. To simply trash Bruce as a "dirty comic" is to miss the whole point of his "sermons”, which were ferociously ethical in their thrust.

Lenny Bruce, to his credit, did create new free speech zones for Americans. He mocked the hypocrisy of religious faiths, of political beliefs, and of puritan ethics. He was brilliantly funny. He did not shrink from stating his mind and defended his right to do so. Lenny Bruce "held his truth against all men" and he paid the price. But that’s the old story of the individual against the collective. Nearly almost forty years after Bruce’s death, he got a pardon—--forty years too late! The best epitaph would be a quote from George Pataki: "Freedom of speech is one of the great American values, 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 terrorism."

The Lenny Bruce story is a sobering example of what can go horribly wrong when citizens and others are persecuted for word crimes – for speaking their minds in their own way and by the light of their own reason.

Make no mistake about it: Lenny Bruce was a First Amendment hero.

_________________________________________________________________________________


( categories: )

La Stuttle slams the door on the unutterable scumbucket . .

William Scott Scherk's picture

Linz asks, of Phil Coates, "what's your view of Ellen Stuttle's action?"

Earlier, he had commented: "I saw that Ellen Stuttle, to her credit, has left over the issue."

I'm glad you are getting some entertainment from Michael and Kat's vast site, and glad you appreciate at least some of La Stuttle's commentary, but she last posted on the 17th; I suspect that she was fucking fed up with coddling the incorrigible 'borrower' and was indeed prepared to delete her account if the plug was not pulled on Pross. Since he has gone down the drain finally, I expect we will continue to see her commentaries there.

I had Pross on ignore for months and months; looks like some people liked the personality of the caricaturist, or cheered on the mawkish 9000 post sideshow of his blooming internet love with the gorgeous Angie, and kinda hoped he would take the fucking hint and quit borrowing without attribution. The idiot even wrote me backstage ('why are you angry with me?'). Thick as a post on the subject of basic ethics. "I have you on ignore for a reason, pinhead."

Me, in my unkind way, always assumed that there was little difference between Victor's cartoons and his plagiarized posts, i.e., I see him doing with borrowed texts more or less what he does with his people/icons.

Oops, burp, I feel a surge of benevolence coming on.

Victor, if you are reading this -- turn off the frigging computer and go have some real-world love with the lady who just flew to up to Canuckistan to be with you. Live long and prosper and good luck with your forthcoming book.

* * *

You must have an amazing metabolism, Lindsay! If I ever attempted to sustain your output of outrage (presuming it is not an act) I would be found dead in mid-bowl of Rage Flakes.

And just in case this brings on another "shirk jirk, idjit, die Ted Keer die" froth, I don't read past the first invective in your posts anymore. Life is too short and I am too old.

WSS

Irony

Peter Cresswell's picture

"> He's not here for honest debate [Peter C]
psychologizing troll ignored"

Well, there's irony for you.

PC

Lindsay, why do you keep

Kori's picture

Lindsay, why do you keep calling Philip "Phyllis"?

getting things garbled...

PhilipC's picture

Jason, I don't need to know the issue re Victor to comment on whether one can say that OL or I am indifferent to or approving of plagiarism - not quite the same issue as Victor.

> Why assume things about OUR motives

But I wasn't assuming bad *motives* - psychologizing can and often is an honest mistake where you presume only bad intentions could be possible on someone else's part. I criticized you and Linz for psychologizing about the worst possible motives for me and for OL. Which you both very clearly stated in separate posts, so it's not an assumption.

Did you miss all of that? I thought I made it very clear and it was only several posts ago.

.....

> He's not here for honest debate [Peter C]

psychologizing troll ignored

Ignorance never stops him

Peter Cresswell's picture

Jason: "Phil, if you don't know enough about this issue to comment on it, why comment on it?"

Ignorance has never ever stopped him before. Never does.

But it seems to me that in offering him information to relieve his ignorance you're wasting your time. He's not here for honest debate -- he rarely "says what he means and means what he says" -- IMO he's here only get a reaction, and occasionally to divert conversation from more productive directions.

In short, he's a troll who needs a more appropriate home.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

Phil, if you don't know

Jason Quintana's picture

Phil, if you don't know enough about this issue to comment on it, why comment on it? Why assume things about OUR motives (or VP's motives) without checking the facts yourself. You seem like a guy who reads all of these forums religiously. I apologize if I was mistaken on that.   Here is a good place to start if you want a quick update about what we are talking about.  I think this discussion and this topic are now finished.

- Jason

Jason D. Quintana is not associated with the Ayn Rand Institute -- neither as a writer nor as a speaker.

Psychologizing by you. Psychologizing by Jason.

PhilipC's picture

> No, MSK's not "deliberately in favour of plagiarism." Amoralism is never like that. It's ambivalent. And indifferent. Studied ambivalence and indifference. [Linz]

You are psychologizing about his motives. You don't allow for error, being busy, giving someone a second chance, etc.

Once again, you go immediately to the Worst Possible Motives as the only conceivable explanation.

Just like you -would- be psychologizing about VP's if you don't yourself actually have enough evidence not of copying but of intention to deceive. I don't know on this last. As I say, for ?over a year? I stop reading when it is one of his posts. And have hardly accumulated a 'mountain of evidence', as Jason's unjust, snap judgment, psychologizing post about me just suggested.

Which is why my earlier post on this thread gives him the benefit of the doubt and would continue to do so - until or unless I had sufficient reason or interest to go back and read through a huge pile of VP posts and responses.

Phyllis

Lindsay Perigo's picture

> It was an intentional act, plain as plain could be....
So you know what was in his mind?

Well, if it weren't plagiarism it had to be ESP.

I'm supposed to have been carefully reading to the end every one of his posts [despite the fact that he is a poor and rambling writer and I would certainly not bother with most of them - as I do not have time to read to conclusion most posts or most debates]? Why would you assume that?

But I don't. I do assume that when you're presented with hard evidence that a particular article is plagiarised you'll accept the verdict.

Matter of fact, Barbara identified a pretty good clue in a post I saw at O-Lying yesterday. When a piece by Victor is *not* "poor and rambling" that's the signal to look for the real writer!

And in addition to which the *site owner* is supposed to have been paying such careful attention that he couldn't possibly have let this slip AND MUST BE DELIBERATELY IN FAVOR OF PLAGIARISM?

The site owner was certainly aware of it on the first occasion, because Victor appeared at Lying as a refugee from SOLO because he'd been bumped off for plagiarism. And if I remember aright I read MSK yesterday saying he'd been working with V on this whole matter behind the scenes for months. So of course he's aware of it. No, MSK's not "deliberately in favour of plagiarism." Amoralism is never like that. It's ambivalent. And indifferent. Studied ambivalence and indifference. That's what makes it so insidious.

Or is he simply in favor of EVERYTHING THAT'S EVIL?

Good question, Phyllis!

Here's one for you—what's your view of Ellen Stuttle's action?

Linz

> It was an intentional act,

PhilipC's picture

> It was an intentional act, plain as plain could be....

So you know what was in his mind?

>...The perp has done the same thing several times since, if I'm not mistaken.

So you're not sure if it was a pattern and I'm supposed to be so sure that *I'm* not supposed to allow benefit of the doubt?

And this means I'm a -defender of plagiarism-?

I'm supposed to have been carefully reading to the end every one of his posts [despite the fact that he is a poor and rambling writer and I would certainly not bother with most of them - as I do not have time to read to conclusion most posts or most debates]? Why would you assume that?

So I'm supposed to be enough of an expert on his *intentions* to know he deliberately tries to make people -think he came up with stuff- instead of just being lazy, clumsy, or inept?

And in addition to which the *site owner* is supposed to have been paying such careful attention that he couldn't possibly have let this slip AND MUST BE DELIBERATELY IN FAVOR OF PLAGIARISM?

And why would he be in favor of plagiarism? Does that advance his website? Promote his readership? Increase his influence?

Or is he simply in favor of EVERYTHING THAT'S EVIL?

It was clear-cut, Phyllis,

Lindsay Perigo's picture

It was clear-cut, Phyllis, and we bumped him from here as soon as we were aware of it. That's what actually happened. It was an intentional act, plain as plain could be. You tried making allowances on O-Lying. The owner bent over backwards even further. The perp has done the same thing several times since, if I'm not mistaken. When I say "par for the course" I mean that's about what you'd expect at a shrine to the Brandens.

Linz

"And if I assumed the poster

Jason Quintana's picture

"And if I assumed the poster did it unintentionally (remember that plagiarism is something intentional - the dictionary says: "writing [copied] from someone else...presented as being your own work), that constitutes *defending the perp*? As though I agreed that plagiarism is OK?"

I think it has to do with the fact that you would maintain such an assumption after a mountain of evidence proving otherwise. The silly message above about what constitutes plagiarism was sent by any number of people to the person in question over the last year. This Lenny Bruce example is one of the least obvious examples that we probably wouldn't have found except for a sort of morbid curiosity.

I agree that further discussion of this here is useless. To understand the point Lindsay is making in relation to VP, MSK and OL all you only need to read through a few threads on Oliving.

- Jason

Jason D. Quintana is not associated with the Ayn Rand Institute -- neither as a writer nor as a speaker.

> It occurred several times.

PhilipC's picture

> It occurred several times. On at least one occasion you defended the perp.[Linz]

Wait a minute.

Let me get this straight.

If someone not yourself, not the owner of a site had posted something plagiarized several times out of all the thousands of posts on Solo across several years, I would be justified in accusing Solo as that being "par for the course" here? With the implication that the site owner simply doesn't care?

And if I assumed the poster did it unintentionally (remember that plagiarism is something intentional - the dictionary says: "writing [copied] from someone else...presented as being your own work), that constitutes *defending the perp*? As though I agreed that plagiarism is OK?

Because Phyllis ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

It occurred several times. On at least one occasion you defended the perp. When I was over there yesterday I saw that Ellen Stuttle, to her credit, has left over the issue. I also saw, as if I needed reminding, a cesspool of amoralism. Perfect place for you Phil.

Get Your Facts Straight, Lindsay

PhilipC's picture

> Plagiarism is simply par for the course in such a moral wasteland [OL]. It's tragic. But not amazing.

Linz, you're smearing in your eagerness to get people you don't like:

VIctor was banned for it and it is not allowed there. So how can you say it is "par for the course", which means it's the NORM?

Research and Posting - Please Be Careful to Give Credit

PhilipC's picture

Victor, this is something which is necessary even in informal venues like posting on discussion lists, since you can be quoted from them...and internet posts live forever:

If you read a bunch of books and article and simply -paraphrase- or -summarize- what you learned from them about some factual matter, some political issue or person (like Lenny Bruce) in different terms or fresh words, you don't have to give credit: Everyone knows you learned this information from someone or somewhere and does not assume you are claiming that to have come from your own head. If you write down the population of France or the three main export products of China from the CIA World Factbook or the definition of bimetallism from Webster's you don't have to say, oh, by the way I looked that up (because no one is conceivably going to think you are taking credit for divine revelation about them and no one cares where it came from and no one will get the wrong impression).

But when you are reading right of a page, a book, a website and use its exact words for anything more conceptual or unique or more substantive than dry, reportorial fact than that, you need to quote and identify the fact that you had a source.

I'm sure you probably didn't intend for us to think all the words were your own or to claim credit for them since someone could instantly google key phrases in your post and it wouldn't work (I notice you said 'rewritten and edited' but it's not clear that that does not mean editing of your own words). But nonetheless this is way too sloppy: You need to slow down, realize this is an important issue, and take the time to give proper attribution.

In some cases, this could be as simple as saying "I condensed this from x, y, and z" and then that's all you have to do..But if you use entire phrases or sentences verbatim, put them in quote marks.

Much useful research, like you did on Lenny Bruce, is a combination of a) condensation/boiling down/essentializing/paraphrasing and b) quoting verbatim the really good, well-phrased parts.

The other issue is that if a -formulation- is not your own...say you liked the way someoene compared Voltaire to a steam calliope, even if you paraphrase it or restate it, the formulation that V is like a calliope was not yours and you need to not allow someone to think you were presenting it as your own.

No it isn't!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

You were right to ban the fraudster! It is amazing that he continued that odious practice on Objectivist Lying.

It's exactly what you'd expect. "O-Lying" was never a gratuitous insult. MSK couldn't lie straight in his bed. Poor Barbara is so desperate for genuflection in the wake of PARC she'll accept it from the lowest of low-lifes such as he. Plagiarism is simply par for the course in such a moral wasteland. It's tragic. But not amazing.

Linz

Truly outrageous

Kenny's picture

You were right to ban the fraudster! It is amazing that he continued that odious practice on Objectivist Lying.

Lindsay asked for who Pross

Jason Quintana's picture

Lindsay asked for who Pross copied on this one. Here is the main source :

http://www.wnyc.org/books/6533

Reworked a bit likely with the help of a few other sources that I could probably find on Google if I wanted to unravel the whole thing.

Skover :

He was a man with an unsettling sense of humor. Uncompromising, uncanny, unforgettable, and unapologetic-every outrageous step of the way. He entertained America with disturbing frankness. His words crossed the law and those in it. He became intolerable to people too powerful to ignore. When it was over, not even the First Amendment saved him. He died convicted-a comedian condemned for his words. He was Lenny Bruce.

Pross :

He was a man with a disquieting sense of humor every step of the way. He entertained America with a disturbing frankness. His words crossed the law and those in it. He became intolerable to people in power. Words were his catalyst to fame…and failure. He tore into the planks of conventional morality like a buzz-saw. His life became a hamstring of censorship, arrests, trials, persecutions, convictions and appeals. When it was over, not even the First Amendment saved him. He died convicted—a comedian condemned for his words. His name was Lenny Bruce.

- Jason

Jason D. Quintana is not associated with the Ayn Rand Institute -- neither as a writer nor as a speaker.

THE BRUCE PARDON

Victor Pross's picture

The socially conscious standup comic dished out so much truth with his notorious bravado that he wound up in handcuffs and in front of a federal judge on obscenity charges. By poking much-needed holes in our social standards, maladjusted religious pieties, and misuse of language, his nightclub act exposed the hypocrisy and denial our society bathes in. Bruce was smart, observant, and arrived when we really needed him. 40 years later, Lenny Bruce gets a pardon for his "word crimes."

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Gov. George Pataki has pardoned the late stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce for a 1964 obscenity conviction.

http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBI...

Great Bruce Quote

Kenny's picture

"Take away the right to say 'fuck' and you take away the right to say 'fuck the government'"

Says it all!

Thank you, back.

Victor Pross's picture

Lenny Bruce is not seen as the exemplary idea of an Objectivist “hero”—but there is no question that he tipped the scales in favor of free speech, and thus of liberty. THAT, to me, commands my respect—-despite the fact that he was a deeply troubled man. He was also brilliantly FUNNY.

Lenny Bruce committed his life to telling the truth. He flashed a light on things that festered in the dark and pulled back the covers on things that needed to be exposed. His words were sharp and hilarious; they were a light in the dark of a repressed society. For all “First Amendment fans” he is a must-read and a to-be-heard performer. His story is the saddest--and funniest---American tale of a Free Speech.

A dramatic presentation of his life can be seen in a movie called LENNY which stars Dustin Hoffmen as the maverick comedian. A bio book was written by Albert Goldman called LADIES AND GENTLEMENT: LENNY BRUCE!!
____________________________________________________________________

Thank you, Victor, for

Wayne Simmons's picture

Thank you, Victor, for writing about a true First Amendment Hero.

Post-note: LENNY BRUCE:

Victor Pross's picture

Post-note:

LENNY BRUCE: "The ideas I have are now imprisoned within me, and unless this court acts, will not be permitted expression..." Even though Lenny's satire was brutal, he still had many childlike qualities. One of these was his faith that he would eventually find justice. This was evident by his appearance at the San Francisco field office of the FBI on October 10, 1965. He lodged a complaint that the courts of New York and California were conspiring to violate his rights. As the lower courts were failing to abide by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court with regard to obscenity, no action was taken by the FBI in this matter. In fact, in internal memos, the Feds referred to Lenny as a sick, obscene entertainer.

Lenny was at the end of his ropes, but his sense of humor remained, however it was in tatters: "Fighting my persecution seems as futile as asking Barry Goldwater to speak at a memorial to send the Rosenberg kids to college."

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