If Youth Knew, If Age Could 11 — Morrow’s Fantasia: My Tomorrow’s ‘Tomorrow’
Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019), and Short Reflections on American Secularism’s History and Philosophy (2020).
Here we talk about Lenny Bruce and Paul Krassner.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: My friend and colleague, Paul Krassner, died last year. He published The Realist with luminaries including George Carlin and Lenny Bruce in it. In honour of his life and work, I will comment on Bruce and then Krassner for individuals who may not know them, as I believe in the renewal of their core legacies for the current crop of the young:
Getting caught in what should be, as Lenny Bruce articulated, is a terrible, terrible lie given to the people long ago, there only is what is, and the rest is a fantasy. This seems true to me. How can the false selves and idealized selves of youth lead a young person astray, by their own inability or outright dismissal to take heed of the real and act on it?
Dr. Herb Silverman: I have fond memories of Lenny Bruce, whom I worked with on February 11, 1961, at Town Hall in Philadelphia. I never actually met Lenny, but I sold soft drinks before his performance and during intermissions. I made about six dollars that night, and Lenny made considerably more.
I started my selling career in 1958, when I was 16, and continued until I graduated from Temple University in 1963. I mostly worked my way through college by selling refreshments at sporting events, and occasionally at Town Hall. Other performers I “worked” with at Town Hall include Pete Seeger, Ray Charles, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary.
Lenny Bruce’s performance was special for me. I didn’t even know who he was at the time, but I was pleasantly shocked to hear an adult, let alone a performer, use the word “fuck.” Youth today certainly aren’t surprised to hear the F-word in ordinary conversation, but the 1950s and early 1960s were a different world. Lenny Bruce’s battles against censorship, including jail time, are now mostly won, but he was a pioneer whom I am proud to have “worked” with.
In his performance, Lenny said, “There are no dirty words, only dirty minds.” He also criticized religion, the first time I heard such criticism from a performer. He said, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
As you indicate, Lenny Bruce said this about lying, “ Let me tell you the truth: The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.” Along those same lines, Lenny also said, “If you believe there is a God, a God that made your body, and yet you think that you can do anything with that body that’s dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer.”
In particular, young people can be led astray by believing lies they are told about God and religion. (Here I use the word “lie” loosely, meaning “untruth,” because people might not actually be lying if they accept as true their fantasies about God.) Of course, there are many ways to be led astray by lies, not just through religion. It’s important to be skeptical of claims, and you should look for evidence to back up those claims. This is especially true of claims made by politicians. It’s essential to learn how to think critically, which should be taught in school starting with kindergarten.
Jacobsen: When I asked Krassner in an interview with him, “What advice do you have for youth?” He replied, “Try not to take yourself as seriously as your causes.” I still miss him. When a young person isn’t tuned into themselves, able to feel, able to label the feelings, able to assert themselves and deal with the real world in a proactive, friendly, and realistic fashion, they’re significantly handicapping their fulfillment in life and trajectory. The getting to where they want to go and the feeling of how they want to feel getting missed. When connected with oneself, you can connect to others fully and authentically — organically. Why is non-seriousness about oneself and seriousness about one’s causes important as a life principle?
Silverman: Scott, you are very fortunate to have been a friend and colleague of Paul Krassner. I never met Krassner, but I have admired him since I was a child and read his pieces in Mad magazine. In Mad, and later in The Realist, I learned to appreciate political (and religious) satire.
When Paul Krassner advised youth, “Try not to take yourself as seriously as your causes,” I think he was speaking not just about youth, but about everybody — including himself. Krassner coined the term “Yippies,” a politically-active countercultural youth group of hippies. It was an offshoot of the free speech and anti-war movements in the late 1960s. The Yippies were known for street theater and politically-themed pranks, and had been called “Groucho Marxists.”
After Larry Flint announced in 1978 that he was resigning as publisher of Hustler, the porn magazine, because he had become a born-again Christian, Flint said that Paul Krassner should replace him. Krassner told People Magazine, “I know it’s bizarre, but if God told him to hire me, I ain’t going to argue about it, even if I’m a born-again agnostic.” Krassner became publisher of Hustler for six months, until Larry Flint came back to his senses as an atheist.
I think Paul Krassner summed up his philosophy nicely when he said, “We know we are all sentenced to death. People cannot become prisoners of guilts and fears. They should cling to each moment and take what enjoyment they can.” For Krassner, joy was not merely hedonistic pleasures, but remaining active in causes dear to him while keeping a sense of humor.
Jacobsen: What advice do you have for youth?
Silverman: It is difficult to come up with advice that doesn’t incorporate the advice above from Lenny Bruce and Paul Krassner. But one way the three of us are different is that I don’t do drugs as they did, though I certainly favor legalizing marijuana and other drugs. Using drugs may be imprudent, but it makes no sense to arrest people for being imprudent, incarcerating them, and then giving us taxpayers the bill to keep them locked up. Unfortunately, Lenny Bruce died from a morphine overdose. One thing that Lenny, Paul, and I do have in common is that we are all Jews who don’t believe in any gods. Perhaps that ties in with the importance of having a sense of humor.
So, my advice for youth is to keep a sense of humor while remaining active in causes you care about. Unless you can have fun when working on a cause, you may quickly tire of it. Yes, you need to work hard. But you need to find ways to enjoy your work, and your life.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.
Silverman: Thank you.