Who was Lenny Bruce?  And, why should we not forget him?


Sacco and Vanzetti, Clarence Darrow, the Scopes trial and the trail of the century in 1932 with the kidnapping trial of the Lindberg baby which led to the creation of a federal crime against kidnapping, Eugene V. Debs, why Jimmy Hoffa was involved with the Mafia that murdered him, the Rockefeller family and the Ludlow Massacre...American history is filled with people and events that help us to understand who we are and why we behave the way we do as individuals and as a nation.


If you are going to understand human behavior, if you want to know why a person chooses to do one thing rather than another, then you MUST understand the history of our nation.  We are all to varying degrees products of our culture, of the vital events that are occurring while we grow up.


If you are working with an elderly client you have to understand how the roaring 20s, that followed our victory in WWI, may have influenced the way they think...the 20s with bootlegging, the growth of "acceptable" crime, the excesses of a decade that helped lead our nation into the depression era of the 30s when banks failed and people discovered that they could not trust any type of capitalist organization---neither formerly trusted employers nor banks could be counted on any longer.  But, the voice over the radio, the voice of our President, told us that we could trust him, that we could trust our government, and his fireside chats told us that all we had to fear was fear itself.  FDR was the only President ever elected to that office four times, which then led to a law limiting the President to two terms in office.


Then came the 40s and WWII, a time when we became the greatest nation, the nation that saved humanity from Hitler and Hirahito, the nation that created the Atomic Bomb.  From that point of greatness we plunged into the cold war with communism where people dug bomb shelters in their backyards, where every child in America was taught to crawl under his desk at the sound of the siren and face away from the windows in anticipation of an atomic bomb going off.  It was the era of the uptight, the CONFORMIST, The 1950s of Eisenhower as a do-nothing-but-golf President, which was what the public wanted, and the late 40s and early 50s era of red baiting, blacklisting, and the Unamerican Activities Committee of Congress harassing some of our finest artists because of a paranoid fear that the commies were undermining our system.


Out of this era of fear and do-nothing cautious conformism grew the desire to change, and we awoke from the 50s into the 60s with the civil rights movement, some of the greatest liberally oriented films ever made, (e.g., Kazanzakis' book was made into the great film ZORBA THE GREEK in 1964), and poverty was identified and labeled as unacceptable in large measure because President Kennedy read Michael Harrington's THE OTHER AMERICA and helped alert everyone to the tragedy of poverty.  But, then, as we were beginning to feel that we could really enjoy life once again, we had a series of assassinations---Martin Luther King, Jr., President Kennedy and then his brother Bobby, Malcolm X and other African American leaders, and Lenny Bruce.


So, in order to understand who you are, who anyone is that you as a social worker are trying to understand, you have to know the cultural and historical events that were occurring while that person was developing their values, their philosophy, and their ways of behaving that are powerfully influenced by the way they think.


So, who is Lenny?  Bruce was "murdered" in 1966, over 30 years ago, by the conservative establishment that felt he was too threatening to their values.  What did he do that made the system come down on him so hard?  He got up in front of people and told them the truth, nothing more, nothing less.  And, he did it in nightclubs like the "hungry i" in San Francisco where the audiences loved him and laughed as they learned.  Lenny was the greatest comic of this century!  Bob Hope and all the rest of the rich and powerful comics were amateurs compared to the professionalism of Bruce.  Hope made you laugh and forget the facts and he became rich.  Bruce made you laugh and think about the facts and he got murdered.  (Tells you volumes about American society!)  Enrico Banducci, who owned the "hungry i" said of Bruce: "He was a sweet, peaceful and beautiful man.  We used to go sailing on the bay and Lenny would sit and write poetry about love and beauty---and about his own frustrations.  I don't think he was a comedian, really, I think he was a preacher" (Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1966).


Of himself, Lenny Bruce said: "People should be taught what is, not what should be.  All my humor is based on destruction and despair.  If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I'd be standing in the breadline---right back of J. Edgar Hoover."


So Lenny Bruce was a stand-up comic.  But, why in the world would the system want to destroy him?  Because he told the truth?  Yes, but it was more than that, it was the way he did it---with ferocious honesty.  As a comic his medium was words and he stripped our souls naked with his words and used every word, not just the socially acceptable words, to get us to pay attention and understand how those words were keeping us oppressed.


Lenny was into EMPOWERMENT and he understood how words helped to keep us chained in conformity, unable to express the most wonderful dimensions of our personality.  What were we unable to express?  OUR SEXUALITY!  Lenny used all the words you will not find in the standard dictionary, the words that describe the reproductive organs and acts of human beings.


"Lenny Bruce believed in free speech with a passion that was often masked by the jokes he told.  He was a social satirist; one of the boldest and one of the best" (WASHINGTON POST editorial reporting the death of Lenny Bruce, August 5, 1966).


"One of the most brilliant social satirists and a moral conscience second to none" (Ralph J. Gleason, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE).


"His gospel was freedom, sexual freedom, racial freedom, religiosity freedom, cliche freedom, hate freedom---in short, happiness through truth" (Jerry Tallmer, EVERGREEN REVIEW).


Much of what Bruce satired is still off limits today.  For example, 30 years after his death, we still as a nation won't admit the truth about Cuba.  Bruce said: "I'm gonna leave you with a nice thought to depress you.  I've been thinking about this, and I want to share it with you---the Bay of Pigs.  See, Castro---see, I'm a little closer to him than you are.  You know, propinquity: I used to go to Havana a lot---Havana was a delightful place for tourists.  Tell you what a bad guy Castro is.  Since Castro came, you can get no narcotics, no abortions, and there're no prostitutes there.  He's really screwed it up for vacationers.  That's right.  He's really an asshole, this guy" (p. 96).


"'Well, maybe marijuana's not BAD for you, but it's a stepping stone.  It leads to heavier drugs---heroin, etc.'  Well, that syllogism has to work out this way, though: The heroin addict, the bust-out junkie that started out smoking pot, says to his cellmate: 'I'm a bust-out junkie. Started out smoking pot, look at me now.  By the way, cellmate, what happened to you?  There's blood on your hands.  How'd you get to murder those kids in that crap game?  Where did it all start?'........'Started with bingo in the Catholic Church.'.......'I see'" (pp. 148-9).




Lenny Bruce kept trying to open people's eyes to the facts, to what was really going on in our sick society---the racism, the distorted politics, the sexual oppression.  What is so challenging about Bruce's legacy is that it demands of us that we become aware of just what is going on in our society.  That we don't just buy into the distortions sold by politicians and Capitalists.  That is one of the reasons that graduate social work education is built on the foundation of liberal arts.  We expect that you understand the economics and politics of your nation and the literature and art that helps illuminate the theories you need to learn.  Due to the complexity of the knowledge base, it is sometimes helpful to keep in mind the various key ideas and key developments of our society.  Below are some of the key developments that you should be aware of...just some of them!








WARS---Revolutionary, Civil, Wars Against Native Americans, Spanish American, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and lots of mini-war interventions by the American military around the globe.


ORGANIZATIONS---Big Business, Big Crime, Big Government, Agribiz, Global Economy, Massive Credit Card Growth, the Business Franchise Movement, and the Mutual Funds & Stockmarket and loss of control of corporations.


MASS COMMUNICATION---books, the telegraph and the ocean to ocean railroad system, vaudeville and Mae West, newspapers and yellow journalism, Radio and the recording industry and rock-n-roll, the automobile and freeways, movies, TV, the commercial jet, the Internet, and the future of 500 channels on your TV.


If you are to understand the difference between Clinton and Dole, you have to understand that they grew up in very different historical eras.  Yes, the differences go beyond that.  You have to also understand that they came into life with different endowments, they experienced very different families and sub-cultures, they had dramatically different life experiences---however, the history of their times left indelible marks on them each and the experiences they each had were significantly influenced by the history of their times.


Dole is a product of WWII and the GI Bill and an era of greatness in America that included a tremendous growth in government including the creation of a massive college system that has allowed the average American the opportunity of going to college---which was until then an experience reserved for the few who were well off.  Dole is a product of watching the Korean war and the impact of the cold war on our nation.  He was a strong supporter of Nixon and the Vietnam war.


Clinton is a product of the glamour and hope that was the 60s, the era of Kennedy and pot, of avoiding Vietnam, of change, change, change!   He believes that things can happen magically, as they once seemed to happen in the Camelot of the Kennedy Presidency.


Therefore, to understand them, to understand any client you might have in the future, and to understand yourself, you must be aware of the history of your country and how it has influenced the way you think and act.







When I was growing up we banned books like D.H. Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER and I was only able to buy Henry Miller's TROPIC OF CANCER and TROPIC OF CAPRICORN in 1960 when I left the United States and bought them in Europe.  Remember, people were very uptight sexually. President Kennedy was messing around with Marilyn Monroe and the press kept it a secret.  Everyone knew Rock Hudson was gay, but, no one made it public until he did towards the end of his life when he was dying of AIDS.  Beautiful films like THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS were rated X to keep them away from the very people that would most benefit from them.  In Europe we had bikini's and topless ladies at the beach and poolside way before such things were tolerated here. 


Recently, Demi Moore got $12 million for acting as a stripper, so, in some ways, we have changed.  However, we are still way more inhibited sexually as a nation and that is not in our best interests.  I'm likely to get into trouble if I were to quote you some of Bruce's satire filled with words that are considered "unacceptable" in "polite" society.  Therefore, I recommend that you read the book that the above quotes are from (THE ESSENTIAL LENNY BRUCE, Edited by John Cohen, N.Y.: Ballantine, 1967), or go and see the excellent movie about Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman and entitled LENNY.


LENNY stars Dustin Hoffman and came out in 1974.  Smoky nightclubs, drug abuse, and obscenities abound in Hoffman's portrayal of the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce, whose use of street language led to his eventual blacklisting.  Perrine is a gem as his striper wife.  Adapted from the Julian Barry play, this is a visually compelling piece that sharply divided critics upon release.  It is directed by Bob Fosse.  It was nominated for Academy Awards for best actor, best actress, best adapted screenplay, best cinematography, best director and best picture but won none of the awards.  At the Cannes Film Festival, however, Perrine won as best actress and the national Board of Review Awards identified it as one of the 10 best films of the year.  The competition for best film was tough that year.  LENNY was up against THE GODFATHER, PART TWO, CHINATOWN, AND THE CONVERSATION. THE GODFATHER WON OUT AS BEST PICTURE.