A petition to Governor Pataki from, among others, 25 First Amendment lawyers, Robin Williams, Penn and Teller, Margaret Cho and the Smothers Brothers calls on him to pardon, posthumously, the comedian Lenny Bruce, who was convicted of obscenity in New York in 1964. In fact, Bruce was probably the last man ever convicted of obscenity in New York, which was rather a distinction for him, I'd have thought. His daughter, Kitty Bruce, was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying that "I truly believe my father's soul can rest in peace with this," but is she quite sure that he wouldn't rather rest in peace as a martyr to the middle American "repression" he helped to end?
It's true that he himself believed that the taboos he violated were not only the consequence but the cause of violence and hatred. Thus in one of his routines he tried to sanitize the word "nigger" by repeating it over and over again. He thought that if people stopped treating the word as a terrible taboo, they would also find it much more difficult to learn racial hatred. Therefore, presumably, he would welcome a pardon on the grounds that it could only come in the relatively healthy condition of a society shedding its taboos -- at least the taboos he is best known for breaking.
But if, instead of dying of a heroin overdose in 1966, Lenny had lived on into our own Golden Age of freedom, in which naughty comics can say without impunity f*** and s*** on television -- on cable anyway -- he might have thought differently. For one thing the thrill of the forbidden is largely gone. To exonerate Bruce on a charge of using filthy language in public is like taking the sin out of sex -- which we're also trying to do. The whole point of Bruce's act is that it was, as they say nowadays, "transgressive." It broke the rules precisely because they were the rules. If you abolish the rules, take the illegality and with it the frisson of misbehavior away from his act, there is simply no point to it.
Bruce himself recognized this. The whole point of his act was to use the dirty words not for their own sake but so as to get himself noticed -- and arrested. He would also have seen the humor, I think, in the writer for The Times of London who deplored the Labour government's decision to legalize homosexual sex in public lavatories by saying that "I'm not a puritan…But no one can persuade me that the urge to have sex in a public lavatory is hard-wired into anyone's DNA. Cottaging was the unfortunate outcome of the twisted morality of the past." But don't you see, he would have said, it was "the twisted morality of the past" that gave the practice its special thrill -- and is therefore the reason that homosexuals want to continue with it. "Of course it's wrong," said W.H. Auden of his own homosexuality. "We must just hope that Miss God will forgive us."
If Bruce were alive today, he might also have noticed not only (as Nat Hentoff points out) that we have in the form of campus speech codes and the like a whole new set of taboos, but that breaking, or re-breaking, the old ones, once the pioneers like him were done with them, has become a commercial enterprise. A recent "Style" section front of the Washington Post, for example, celebrates a new novel by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez called The Dirty Girls Social Club. Writes Jennifer Frey,
The women in this novel call themselves the sucias, slang for "dirty girls" in Spanish, a term so loaded in that culture that the publishers sanitized the title in its Spanish-language version, fearing it would offend bookstore browsers. Valdes-Rodriguez's characters -- women in their early thirties, from varied backgrounds (Americans of Cuban, Colombian, Mexican and Puerto Rican backgrounds, all of varied skin hues) -- are designed to explode the myth that the label "Latina" describes any particular type.
"We're not meek maids," she writes in Lauren's voice. "Or cha-cha hookers. We're not silent little women praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe with lace mantillas on our heads."
A very odd way of defining the characters, you might think: by what they are not. As if anyone nowadays would expect them to be silent little women praying in their mantillas. Are there any of these left in the world? I should be glad to meet them if there are. But the dirty girls, about whom we learn little beyond the fact that they are like the author and her friends, have got Miss Valdes-Rodriguez, a journalistic bad-girl, a $475,000 advance and best-seller status.
Of course the subtext here is that Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez, and Jennifer Frey on her behalf, are trying to make capital out of the fact that the sucias are doing things that the mythical mantilla-wearing women they set up as their foils would regard as sinful. What an excitement!
"Dirty Girls fits into that category of talky, trashy chick-lit, a "Sex and the City" novel with a structure and a feel - that intimate, familiar, internal voice - that's similar to Terry McMillan's 1992 blockbuster, "Waiting to Exhale." Which, of course, is exactly what the publishers are hoping it will be: a novel that taps into the large and largely underserved Hispanic market the way McMillan did with African American readers
Hence the hype.
Curiously, there is no mention here by Ms. Frey that her own piece is a part of the hype, but the bogusly transgressive needs no apologies these days. In the same day's paper it was announced that "favorite shock-rocker-turned-reality-TV-star, Ozzy Osbourne, will perform in concert with his equally outrageous daughter, Kelly Osbourne." Hooray for outrageousness! Let's all go buy tickets. And yet no one seems to twig to the paradox. Again, the newspaper studiously ignores its own usefulness as a publicity tool in a way that it would hardly do for a politician or businessman -- because the doings of the outrageous, including those who make a handsome profit out of outrageousness, is meat and drink for them.
The same day's "Zits" cartoon strip by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman has Jeremy, the teenage boy who is the strip's hero, saying to his friend, "My parents just better watch out. That's all I have to say."
"Watch out for what?" asks the friend.
"The real me, baby!" says Jeremy. "There's no telling what depraved, whacked-out behavior I'll be unleashing on the world once I turn sixteen!"
Then the friend, walking away, contextualizes the threat by pretending that a fictional character said it: "… threatened Mister Vanilla-White-Bread-Goodtrousers," as Jeremy, calling after him, shouts: "It could happen!"
C.S. Lewis writes somewhere of his shock at the prayer of a teenage American correspondent of the 1950s who besought the Almighty to let her be "normal." Nowadays, kids seem equally anxious that they should be counted "outrageous," even if the outrage is bought off-the-shelf from the likes of Lenny Bruce, or Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, or Ozzie Osbourne. We would presumably pray not to be accounted good or polite or agreeable or (worst of all) boring -- but for the fact that we must suppose God, if He exists, to be less impressed by outrageousness than we are.