“George Bush once proclaimed ‘God is not neutral,'” writes Paul Krassner in his most recent book, Who’s to Say What’s Obscene?, “which is the antithesis,” says Krassner, “of my own spiritual path…that God is totally neutral.” It is one of the book’s delights that the author, one of the few activists of the Vietnam war protest movement who has remained a relevant social commentator in the age of Obama, lets his thoughts flow effortlessly from politics to cosmic deliberation. In her foreword, Arianna Huffington, for whose website Krassner has written hundreds of posts, calls him a contemporary “investigative satirist extraordinaire.”
In a rare messaging lapse for one of the founders of the Yippies, Krassner’s title does the latest book a disservice. He is not rehashing the censorship battles of his younger days (Krassner was a close friend of Lenny Bruce, who was persecuted for the use of four-letter words in his comic monologues during the 1960s) but rather uses the concept of “obscenity” as a moral framing device to drive a series of free-form observations on war, drugs, sex, entertainment culture and connections between the past and the present. Krassner is not only concerned with identifying what is not obscene (in his view, pretty much anything to do with sex); he crafts a definition that instead encompasses greed, dishonesty, cruelty and murder.
On the very first page he makes it clear that his anarchic-comic moral sensibility (the word “irreverence” being his favorite shorthand) is not going to be restrained by George W. Bush’s departure from the White House. He laments that Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, supported immunity for Bush administration officials who were the architects of justification of torture and indefinite detention without trial. “Now that’s fucking obscene,” Krassner writes.
Krassner retains the soul and wit of a comedian. A large portion of the book consists of his own witticisms as well as anecdotes (and observations) on the hip comic fraternity past and present, including Chris Rock, David Chapelle, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sarah Silverman, Harry Shearer, Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl. Sometimes Krassner’s insights are in the form of quick zingers–for example, he delights in the image of Olympic medalist Michael Phelps smoking pot. But at other points he brings unusual depth to such tabloid fodder as Michael Richards’s racist outburst in a comedy club.
Even when Krassner is writing about comedy, his progressive agenda is never far off. “After the invasion of Iraq,” he writes disapprovingly, “the late-night talk-show monologues by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien–helped demonize Saddam Hussein and these hosts served as cheerleaders for the war.” Krassner notes that their jokes turned against Bush only as he declined in popularity.
In a chapter entitled “The War On Some People Who Use Some Drugs,” Krassner, a frequent contributor to High Times who is unabashedly pro-psychedelic, shares his outrage over the continued criminalization of marijuana. Later, noting the convenient memory loss under oath by Bush administration officials such as former attorney g eneral Alberto Gonzalez, Krassner slyly refers to an interview with Colin Powell from a Saudi Arabian newspaper (this Yippie knows how to use Google!) in which the former secretary of state enthuses about the widespread taking of the sleeping pill Ambien by Bushies. In response to Joe Biden’s views on medical marijuana–“We have not devoted nearly enough science or time to…pain management…. There’s got to be a better answer than marijuana”–Krassner counters, “You mean like prescription drugs, which result in 100,000 deaths per year while marijuana has caused none?” (Krassner acknowledges that Obama’s Justice Department does not interfere with states that have decriminalized pot. “States rights–it’s not just for racists anymore.”)
Krassner’s first media job after college was working for Mad magazine during the Eisenhower administration, lampooning, among others, the original “mad men” of those days, and he does not shirk his duty as a senior spokesman. In a section called “Several Dead Icons,” he reminisces about Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and George Carlin, among others, and he notes that on the thirtieth anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s performance in front of the Egyptian Pyramids, he was there on the scene and that “a bootleg tape of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis doing filthy shtick was being used for a preliminary sound check.”
Krassner also serves as protector of the Yippies’ flame. He slaps liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich for writing of Joe Lieberman’s primary-election opponent, “A former Greenwich selectman like Mr. [Ned] Lamont isn’t easily slimed as a reincarnation of Abbie Hoffman or an ally of Osama bin Laden.” Krassner pungently reminds Rich, “Hoffman was a defendant at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial, and bin Laden was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks…. When journalists link Yippies with misleading bedfellows at best it’s careless shorthand, and at worst it’s deliberate demonization. Osama bin Laden wanted an airplane to crash into the Pentagon. Abbie Hoffman merely wanted to levitate it.”
Throughout the book Krassner retains the affect of a hip elder statesman with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, reminding his readers that politics without humor is boring and that laughter without a moral compass is lame.