Lenny Bruce and Dave Chappelle Are Right, Of Course, and Justice Harlan Concurs

In case I am so old that I know stuff you don’t know, Lenny Bruce was a ground-breaking comedian in the 1950s and 1960s. One of his themes was this. Words themselves contain nothing wrong. There are no bad words; just bad people, bad connotations. Words acquire bad connotations through censorship; eliminate censorship and you eliminate the state of mind that says words have to be censored. Remove the taboo and no one will care. Then the word will lose its harmful potency.  Click: Dustin Hoffman channels Lenny Bruce.  

It is not very difficult to connect Lenny Bruce to today’s word-smithing comedians. It is a short line that travels through Richard Pryor (click: Pryor on Fire), George Carlin (click: The Seven Dirty Words) and brings us smack dab to the most articulate person in America today, Dave Chappelle.

If you want the unvarnished truth, listen to Chappelle.  Click: 8:46.

It has always struck me listening to Chappelle that almost every other word out of his mouth is nigger. Nigger, this; nigger that. There are black niggers and maybe even more so, white niggers. In Dave Chappelle land the world is chock full of niggers.

Now truth be told I am white. But I have been a nigger, and I will tell you about that later. But what I observe is that black people seem to use the word nigger a lot more than white people. Yet we are told by everyone, don’t use the n-word. It is so taboo, we can’t even say what it is that we can’t say. Wow! I guess niggers in America are like Voldemort in Hogwarts. Just can’t say the word. Hmm, is it like if you don’t say the word, they don’t exist? Not sure. We’d all sure be better off without them niggers.

I have always thought that saying the word nigger was like saying the word “kike.” I can say it because I am a kike, I am Jewish. Not that I say it a lot, but from time to time, I say it. I think being a kike is like being a nigger, except maybe only being 25% of a nigger.

Words are interesting. Here is an example. One Saturday morning, I was on line in my friendly Dunkin Donuts in my upper middle-class, predominately white suburb, waiting to get my ice coffee. After fumbling in my pants for some change, I looked up at the person in front of me. And I didn’t see the person, all I saw was the back of the person’s t-shirt. And the t-shirt said in large letters, “Go Fuck Yourself.” Well, who needs an ice coffee for a jolt of java, when you read something like that.

I looked around in the store, and it was just me and whoever inhabited that shirt. So I deduced it was I who was to go fuck himself. That was strange, because I hadn’t done anything that warranted such advice. At least I didn’t think so. So after weighing the pros and cons of what I did next, I did it. I said to whoever was inhabiting this t-shirt, “Excuse me, but why should I go fuck myself?” And believe me, that took a lot of balls to say.

The inhabitant of the t-shirt turned around, and much to my relief, she was a she. So, adopting a fairly stereotyped attitude, I felt relieved, knowing I could probably kick the shit out of her if this went south. Since I am writing this, you are correct to assume it did not go south. She simply explained that this was a t-shirt from the 80s and she got it at a concert of one her favorite bands. And that I should not take the message personally. I was relieved. She got her donut, I got my iced coffee, and we parted ways. And I did not go fuck myself. Instead I went home and mowed the lawn.

But being a lawyer type person, I got to wondering the big lawyer question. Was it legal for this person to wear a shirt that told me to go fuck myself. And that was interesting. Because the answer is, and I think rightfully so, and which is one of the few things these days that makes me proud to be an American, absolutely YES. No less of an authority than our Supreme Court has said you can tell someone to go fuck themselves, and you can’t be put you in jail for saying that. Lenny Bruce would be so happy.

I won’t bore you with the details, but in 1971 nine old white guys (ok, for accuracy one was black, but they were all old for sure), known as the Supreme Court, decided that it was O.K. for Paul Cohen (I’ll bet he was a kike) to wear a t-shirt that said, “FUCK THE DRAFT.” It is interesting how this case got before those nine old men.

One fine day, Mr. Cohen was minding his own business and wearing this t-shirt in sunny California.  It was a time of rebellion, of social upheaval, a time when freedom of speech was being exercised by those who felt repressed.   Sound familiar?  California was ground zero.  The streets were safe; but Mr. Cohen made a mistake, he walked into a courthouse, of all places.  At the time, California had a law (probably still does) saying that a person could not incite violence. And that if a person did incite violence, that person could be arrested. So after walking into the courthouse wearing his t-shirt,  Mr. Cohen  was arrested. On what grounds? Good question.

The police arrested Mr. Cohen on the grounds that he was going to incite violence against himself  by wearing a shirt with that message. Wow, got to love them cops!  Those predecessors to the Minnesota four thought they were good Samaritans by arresting Mr. Cohen and saving him from the violence that would inevitably rain down upon him if he continued to wear that t-shirt in a courthouse: a building devoted to the preservation of civil liberties, including our freedom of speech, where many cops roam the corridors looking to extinguish any hint of unrest before it escalates, and, apparently, also looking for terse, thought-provoking t-shirts, expressing a minority viewpoint.  

Yes, clearly violence was imminent and inevitable in that courthouse that day. So the California police did what had to be done to protect Mr. Cohen from himself and from the righteous indignation of those who surrounded him.  They arrested him, because as we all know, jail is a safer place than the sidewalks and courthouses of sunny California.  They got him to trade in that violence-inciting t-shirt for the pacifist orange jump suit and expected gratitude and love in return. But gratitude and love did not flow from Mr. Cohen to those policemen.  Quite the opposite.

Mr. Cohen did not agree with the benevolence bestowed upon him by the California police. In fact, his response was to sue them and the state of California. After snaking its way through the courts, his case finally landed on the desks of our Supreme Court justices.  In a closely decided decision (5-4), Justice Harlan wrote the opinion for the majority.  Harlan first questioned the purported motivation California articulated to justify the arrest of Mr. Cohen.

In one of the more plain English statements ever authored by our Supreme Court, Justice Harlan wrote, “Give me a fucking break. I wasn’t born fucking yesterday. This case has nothing to do with inciting violence or California giving a rat’s ass about the safety and welfare of Mr. Cohen. This case is all about censorship, plain and simple.” Very memorable lines.

And then the Supreme Court held that fuck was a perfectly fine word to say. The Court held that California’s attempt to prevent Mr. Cohen from wearing a t-shirt, that had that perfectly fine word emblazoned on it, was a violation of our First Amendment. Justice Harlan wrote some words that resonate today. He wrote:

For, while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. Indeed, we think it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.

Much linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force.

Finally, and in the same vein, we cannot indulge the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process. Indeed, governments might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views. We have been able, as noted above, to discern little social benefit that might result from running the risk of opening the door to such grave results.

And Lenny laughed.

Interesting footnote to this opinion.  It was one of the last opinions Justice Harlan wrote, as he died later that year.  Justice Harlan’s grandfather was also a Supreme Court justice.  He was known for his vast transformation as a jurist.  Born in 1833, initially he opposed abolition and owned slaves.  However, later in life, he did a 180 and championed the causes of blacks and was known as a vigorous defender of freedom of speech.  Grandpa Harlan may be most noted for not for any decision he wrote, but for a dissent he authored.  He wrote the lone dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court case that blessed separate but equal accommodations  based on color, thereby giving segregation the Supreme Court seal of approval.  It is often cited as the most deplorable decision rendered by the Supreme Court with respect to hindering social progress.  Justice Harlan was the lone voice of social conscience on that Supreme Court.  I suspect Grandpa Harlan would have been proud of the decision his grandson wrote. 

What does this have to do with Dave Chappelle and the niggers of the world?  This.  I believe that the impetus to suppress use of the word nigger is really a front for white people who want to fool themselves into thinking that they have not systematically abused blacks in America. That if the word nigger is not used, then niggers don’t exist, which means that white people have not turned black people into niggers. Just like life in lovely Hogwarts, if the denizens of Hogwarts don’t say the word Voldemort, then he must not exist. If only life were that simple.

How superficial can people be? Nigger is not a color of skin. It is a political reality. Undoubtedly a reality that correlates highly with color of skin, but not exclusively with skin color.   I suspect 98% of all blacks are niggers.  I don’t think the Obamas are niggers.  But just because 98% of all blacks may be niggers, doesn’t mean 98% of all niggers are black.  Nope. 

How about native Americans?  I bet they feel like niggers.  Banned to the outskirts of our economically thriving communities, living in ghettos we euphemistically call “reservations.”  What is being reserved for them?  One nice thing we reserve for Indians is the freedom to not pay state excise tax on cigarettes.  Indians can buy all the healthy cigarettes they want on reservation property and not pay excise taxes, thereby encouraging, at least financially, increased smoking.   That’s nice.  Then we throw Indians another economic bone and say, in addition to smoking cigarettes,  we reserve for you the right to gamble all you want while puffing away.  That’s healthy and promotes good values.  Why stop there?  Why not throw Indians another economic bone and say that we will pretend reservations are like Amsterdam and reserve for you the right to conduct prostitution on reservations.  That’s healthy too.  Without legalized prostitution, the only viable role model for Indian children is the gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, and he’s a kike.  Instead, how about granting Indian reservations the economic opportunities other distressed areas receive?  Click: Opportunity Zones for Tribal Development.  Do you get the sense that maybe certain people wish Indians, like niggers, simply didn’t exist?  I do.

Nor should you think that the attempt by an oppressive majority to render invisible the results of its oppression and atrocities is limited to linguistics.  Far from it.  Who insisted that the remains of concentration camps where millions of kikes were slaughtered be preserved from demolition?  Not the Germans, you can bank on that.  It was the surviving  kikes who by luck of the draw were not gassed.  It was they, who were most affected by German atrocities, who said to the world it would be easy to pretend that over one-half of our population was not decimated by Hitler.  But we cannot let the world forget what occurred.  Because if we let you off the hook now, and if we pretend our ancestors were not slaughtered, we will be slaughtered again.  And again.  Amnesia and suppression are tools of oppression.  If oppressors can’t rewrite history, then they will make it so history can’t be accurately described.  Museums that remind us about the holocaust are the historical equivalent of calling certain individuals niggers.

I was a white nigger for four days when I  was incarcerated for four days. Just like a black person, I was incarcerated not for what I did, but for what a system assumed I did because of the class of person I was identified as.  In my case, I was identified as a male, and I was incarcerated for actions typically associated with males. I was the victim of me-too run amuck. No one listened to my side of the story. I was repeatedly told the system is not engineered to listen to my side of the story. My side did not exist. I had no opportunity to defend myself. I was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. It didn’t matter what I did or what I said I did.  As Ralph Ellison put it, I was an Invisible Man.

I was a screen onto which the pathological projections of others were cast. I just happened to be a convenient object onto whom others could project their fears, their prejudices, their insecurities. And by singling me out and pointing a finger at me (as opposed to themselves) and many others like me, they were able to expunge themselves of their social biases, by saying, we protect our society from the likes of him; therefore we are good, he is bad. In other words, they, our institutions, acted just like the Minneapolis police. I was the object of society attempting to exorcise itself of its bigotry.  I was treated like a black person, and for four days, someone had a chokehold on me. For four days I was a nigger. It was not fun. I don’t think Lenny was laughing.

Do not make this mistake.  Do not let the masters of the universe, those who control, those who suppress, play the “We’re all niggers card,” as if we are all in this together.  Not true.  It is a ploy to make you, who have empathy, fall for the mock plight of those who have no empathy.  It is a ploy designed to make you believe that everyone who suffers is a nigger, and surely we all suffer.  It is not true.  No, being a nigger is binary.  Either you are a nigger, at a certain moment in time, or you are not a nigger.  When I was in jail and the slave-master jail warden put those handcuffs on my wrists so tight that my wrists bled, causing me to ask him deferentially, as all slaves must supplicate before their masters, if perhaps he could loosen the grip of those handcuffs, and he replied he was just doing his job following standard police protocol (as was officer Chauvin, or so he thought), make no mistake about it, I was a nigger and my master was not.  

Lenny Bruce tried to tell us 60 years ago: if you want to rid the world of social injustices, you have to give a name to those injustices. In fact, you must not only name the injustices; you must say the words that contain those names. And Lenny kept saying, the more you say the words, the less powerful they become.  What’s the first step in finding a cure for a new disease? Give the disease a name.  If you want to get rid of the diseased conditions in this country that create niggers,  black, red, and white niggers, niggers of any color, then call a nigger a nigger. 

Don’t suppress use of the word. Call a spade a spade. Eliminate the prejudices that give rise to conditions that create the word. Tell those who oppress people of any color, those who create the niggers in this world, to go fuck themselves.  Or better yet, tell them to just stop fucking niggers.  They can fuck themselves all they want.  Remember the words of Justice Harlan, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”  Lenny will laugh.  Justice Harlan will defend you till the cows come home.  Then get yourself an ice coffee.  You deserve it.

Copyright 2020. Peter Kelman. All rights reserved.
Mr. Kelman is a practicing attorney and a professor of business law at Northeastern University. www.kelmanlaw.com.