Home > Critic-At-Large > Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs

Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-02-20


In 1979, the great rock critic Lester Bangs took a lot of heat from punk fans for writing "The White Noise Supremacists," a blistering attack on the racism prevalent on the American punk/new wave scene. The essay, which appeared in The Village Voice, was a deeply personal, impassioned manifesto against what Bangs perceived to be a pervasive and ugly trend. Bangs loved punk music, adored the Clash, but he was dismayed by how effortlessly the punk credo could devolve into fascism, and he hated that racist language was being used as a nihilistic pose by some New York punk bands. He called out artists integral to the punk scene Iggy Pop, Legs McNeil, Nico, the Cramps and denounced them for the overt racism he found in their music and interviews with the press. Punk was just starting to get a toe-hold in American pop culture at the time, and many fans felt betrayed by Bangs essay, thinking that he was smearing an entire genre by highlighting the actions of a noisy, tiny few.

Bangs was unaffected by the criticism. It's obvious that he relished the chance to talk about race and prejudice in a direct, honest way. Bangs tees off on the punks, all right, but he also tees off on himself, and the confessional nature of the essay Bangs awareness of his own racism makes it remarkably compelling. "You don't have to try at all to be a racist," Bangs says. "It's a little coiled clot of venom lurking there in all of us, white and black, goy and Jew, ready to strike out when we feel embattled, belittled, brutalized. Which is why it has to be monitored, made taboo and restrained, by society and the individual."

In the essay, Bangs admits that he used to employ racial epithets in his writing without realizing their impact. It's almost inconceivable today, but in 1974, Bangs used the "n" word in a Cream magazine article about David Bowie's "soul" phase, and though the intent wasn't malicious, Bangs still admits to cringing when he revisits the article. At the time, he thought he was using those loaded words for shock effect, like Lenny Bruce, in a manner that would defuse them of their potency by speaking them aloud. But later he realized his mistake: "No matter how harmless your intentions are, there is no reason to think that any s--- that comes out of your mouth is going to be understood or happily received. Took me a long time to find it out, but those words are lethal, man, and you shouldn't just go slinging them around for effect."

Bangs died in 1982, which is a shame, because had he lived he might have become one of the few writers capable of writing intelligently about the current state of hate speech in America. As passionate as he was in 1979 about the reprehensibility of racist talk, I can't help thinking that he would probably be confused by 2010 standards. Bangs wish did come true hate speech is, indeed, taboo but I wonder if he'd ponder the curse "Careful what you wish for" when he saw the results. In the thirty years since "The White Supremacists" was published, we've overcompensated so greatly in correcting publicly-agreed upon notions of "tolerant" speech that any frank discussion of race, gender, or any tricky subject is virtually impossible. And while I'm happy that virulent, ugly epithets are taboo, I can't help thinking that too many advocacy groups have become so zealous about potentially damaging language that they're starting to look a bit ridiculous.

I watched the celebrated "That's so Gay!" PSAs featuring Wanda Sykes and Hilary Duff, and I had to wonder how comfortable most people (including gay Americans) are with the notion that those three words constitute hate speech. It seems like such a silly thing to attack, those three words. Perhaps I'm being wholly insensitive, but people have become so easily offended that their focus is getting all screwed up, and they're choosing the stupidest of battles. I think the common good would be better served by devoting money and resources to prosecuting gay bashers to the fullest extent of the law and forget about the speech patterns of inarticulate teenagers. There's a "Sticks and Stones" thing that comes to mind here.

Another public service ad, this one from the radio, attempts to show the destructiveness of using an anti-Semitic slur, but the commercial absolutely baffles me. In the ad, a group of friends are out on the town, and when one guy lends another guy an unexpectedly large amount of cash, the guy responds to the generosity by saying, "Wow. Are you sure you're Jewish?" A stony silence follows, and then the group soundly rebukes the offender for his racist comment. The point of the ad is that you have to attack racism everywhere, even amongst your friends.

Again, I know I'm an intolerant, Aryan supremacist, but I have a hard time finding the insult here, especially since I've had nights out with Jewish friends who basically made the same joke. It is a radical notion to express these days, but I firmly believe that racial humor does not have to be inherently racist. The greatest comedian of all time, Richard Pryor made a career out of racial humor, and his landmark concert movie from 1979 remains the smartest examination of race relations on film. It's hard to imagine him making the movie in 2010, though. The correct police would be all over him.

My favorite Onion headline, "Black Neighborhood Terrorized by Ask Murderer," is a perfect example of racial humor. The joke, obviously, refers to the African-American dialect, which pronounces the word "ask" as if it were "axe." There is no derision, no condescension, just a tacit understanding that yes, the races are different, and yes, the speech patterns are different. Of course, the Onion was slammed for its insensitivity, but to the magazine's credit, they refused to apologize. It's as if they were telling everybody, Please. Knock it off with the offended face.

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