The Persecution of Lenny Bruce

Aquarian Weekly 12/4/02 REALITY CHECK

RESURRECTING DIRTY LENNY The Legal Persecution of Lenny Bruce Dissected – Part One

Thirty-seven years ago, Lenny Bruce, comedic talent, potty mouth, satirist, contrarian, blasphemer and grandstand martyr for the first amendment died in relative poverty, a broken and hounded victim of free expression. The evidence of his destruction at the hands of a frightened culture is compiled and preserved as never before in a new book entitled Lenny Bruce Arrested in 1961“The Trials of Lenny Bruce”.

For my money, this is one of the most important books you will read this, or any year, whether you care a lick about Lenny Bruce as a person, an artist or an icon. It is important because it is the most detailed account of what fear and a bruised American psyche can do to the ambiguously delicate concept of freedom.

But, really, why should we care about some hipster junky whose nightclub act spiraled him into ignominious demise almost half a century ago?

This is a question best answered by law professor, David Skover, who along with co-author, Ronald Collins has created the definitive study of one of the most curious and pertinent battles for the constitutional right of political and social dissent in American history.

“Lenny Bruce sacrificed his career, his fortune, his very life for the American principle of freedom of speech,” Skover, a law professor at Seattle University, told me on a recent visit to New York. “In many ways Lenny embodies the first amendment, and whatever his failings as a human being, and there were many, he possessed the courage to speak his mind by the light of his own truth and with the force of his own voice. And however much that personal truth offended those who endeavored to silence him, Lenny’s battles, both legal and cultural, made it possible for others to be like him without having to end up like him.”

“…Lenny’s battles, both legal and cultural, made it possible for others to be like him without having to end up like him.”

Ironically, we are on the precipice of an era not unlike the late 50s’, early 60s’, when Lenny Bruce burst on the cultural scene. For the first time since the ultra-conservative Eisenhower administration our government is under a Republican majority. And not unlike the burgeoning Cold War of yesteryear there is once again an atmosphere of national lock-down with enemies laying in wait to erase our way of life. The effect is a renewed sense of innocence, a desire to hide from the harsh realities of war and hate and greed that batter our sensibilities daily. We long to be insulated, blanketed in sweet dreams of red, white and blue comfort.

Yet in the bizarre odyssey that is human nature, this craving for innocence can likely degenerate into ignorance.

“The fact that we are in a potentially more repressive speech environment than we’ve been in for many years is certainly disconcerting,” Skover remarks when asked about the similarities of his subject’s trials and today’s air of political correctness. “It’s important to remember that Lenny Bruce paid our dues to understand that the first amendment exists to protect political dissent in times when it is not a popular stance.”

Fear.

Since the tragedy that was 9/11, the American psyche has been damaged. You can feel it in the air, see it on the news, hear it in our politicians, listen to it in our music, discuss it with our neighbors; this rush to suppress anything that might not ring of solidarity to nation and God and apple pie. Protect ourselves, our children, our heritage, our freedom by not uttering truths better kept hidden. At first it is an expected backlash from a national tragedy, an exercise in healing, but history teaches it’s natural for the body politic to become comfortable with such reactionary tactics at the price of individual freedom.

Freedom.

Now there’s an interesting term. Lately, we like to toss it around as an excuse for self-righteous patriotism, racial profiling, waging war or trading in our civil rights to avoid leaving ourselves vulnerable again.

Fear.

Freedom.

No artist or commentator in the history of this nation broached the core of those two subjects better than Lenny Bruce. Certainly many carried the torch in bygone centuries, William Hogarth, the 18th century political cartoonist or the 19h century satirist like Mark Twain to name two, but in the modern light of a media-crazed latter 20th century, no one bore the brunt of our personal freedoms than a painfully flawed, but brilliantly courageous Jewish kid from Long Island.

By declaring his mission to expose the guise of phony respectability through a series of comedic routines liberally laced with rousing vulgarities and penetratingly brutal language, Bruce created a dangerous persona poised to skewer such taboo subjects as race relations, political vagaries and the sanctimony of organized religion. “Dig the lie”, Lenny defiantly blurts out on the book’s accompanying cd; a well-stocked collection of interviews, clips from Bruce’s most notorious bits, commentary from his contemporaries and recollections from the litany of attorneys who aided in his defense against social persecution. Of course, the “lie” being anything that emerged from Lenny’s fast-paced rhetoric as finely crafted hypocrisy.

When asked of Bruce’s cultural and legal legacy, Skover is adamant; “The very point of our work on this book is that although Lenny Bruce is a little known name in free speech law because none of his cases ever made it to the Supreme Court, his social relevance and courtroom dramas changed the first amendment environment in a very practical way.”

Unlike most historical records aimed at a particular audience, “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” is a living, breathing testament to our times, the American times, no matter what generation. It’s concentration on how the law may be manipulated to silence significant social commentary with neatly wrapped accusatory terms such as obscenity, blasphemy and national security, is paramount to preserving our own rights of free expression.

Skover cites that the obscenity standards, under which Bruce was arrested in four U.S. cities, including New York, are virtually identical today. “We have come a long way culturally from Lenny’s time, but even though it is inconceivable today that someone could be busted in a nightclub for uttering offensive ideologies the letter of the law has not budged.”

NEXT WEEK: Part II – More with the co-author of the “Trials of Lenny Bruce” on Bruce’s resounding warnings for our time.

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