Who's to Say What's Obscene?

Politics, Culture and Comedy in America Today

by Paul Krassner

City Lights, 240 pp., $16.95

Hmm. Where to begin. Paul Krassner--dedicated leftist, cofounder of the Yippies, pal to Lenny Bruce, comedian, Huffington Post blogger, pot smoker--has written what, I suppose, can technically be defined as a book. Who's to Say What's Obscene? has a front and back cover, with 240 pages in-between. It is bound. It bears the name of a publishing house. And yet, despite these trappings, it is not, really, a book.

So .  .  . what is it? Perhaps we can best define it by what it attempts to be. First and foremost, it attempts to be funny. And it is--though, perhaps, not in the way intended. The foreword by Arianna Huffington seems a logical place to begin.

She informs us that when she started Huffington Post Krassner was "just what the blog doctor ordered." American humor had lost its "bite," but Krassner has been "tilling the comedy soil and planting subversive seeds" with his "incendiary journalism" carried on in the "savory tradition" of Jonathan Swift, leading to a "bumper crop of satire," including Tina Fey's "comedy mugging" of Sarah Palin, some cartoon comedy that "draw[s] blood," and Doonesbury--yes, Doonesbury--regularly delivering a "knockout punch."

Pow! Munch! Mix! Metaphor! According to Huffington, Krassner defines his job as merely altering reality, which she insists he has done by inspiring John Cusack--yes, John Cusack--to make a reality-altering movie about the Iraq war called, uh, War, Inc. I think. Not sure. Never heard of it. As Huffington herself might say, it is from this alloy of confusion and grandiosity that Krassner himself forges the comic brew he will use to build his satire-house, or book, or thingy.

And really, it is just a kind of thingy. It's very ranty, but it's not a polemic: That would require fidelity to an ideology, and perhaps some semblance of coherence.

Krassner opens with a tirade about how President Obama is not prosecuting the crimes of the Bush administration forcefully enough, then quotes Tom Hayden, complaining that the budget for the Iraq war is more than that of the National Endowment for the Arts, then quotes someone writing about the auto bailout, then quotes a cartoon about corporate bonuses, then defends Ron Paul and Bob Barr, criticizes Dick Cheney, mentions breast feeding, says that we're being repressed, mocks late-night comedians for being too sarcastic, complains that a Boz Scaggs concert was cancelled one night because someone sent a letter with what might have been anthrax to the theater, and informs the reader that "people don't like to be lectured at."

And this is just a survey of the first seven pages.

Ostensibly, the subject of Who's to Say is the hypocrisy of our society's attempts to define obscenity. In a blurb on the back cover, the New York Times asserts that Paul Krassner is "an expert at ferreting out hypocrisy and absurdism from the more solemn crannies of American culture." And it's true! Krassner dares to mine such "solemn crannies" as gay pornography, Michael Phelps' bong hits, and the term MILF.

Really, Krassner just lists quotes and events, and never ties them together with any particular clarity or emphasis on any point. And in between the ranting (I guess this is the ferreting?) he directs most of his energy toward cursing George W. Bush, advocating smoking pot, and reminiscing about the many people with whom he dropped acid. He does quite a lot of this and, actually, Who's to Say is something of an exercise in hippie-dippie name-dropping: Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, etc.

Now, are we supposed to connect the dots to see how hypocritical and obscene we are here in the good old U.S. of A? To understand our slavery to lifeless bourgeois normality, to shake off our shackles and begin life anew? To live like, say, Paul Krassner--unencumbered by petty concepts of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, proper and profane?

In a telling passage he transcribes a memorial forum he participated in for Allen Ginsberg. The discussion turned to Ginsberg's self-proclaimed pedophilia, and after considering how interesting--not predatory or wrong, but interesting--he found it, Krassner quotes the actor Peter Coyote:

It's just so funny. I mean, as a father of two kids, I'm repulsed by the idea of pedophilia, but you know, by the same token, it's Allen.

It is true that many of Paul Krassner's ideas about drugs, sex, and obscenity have been assimilated into the mainstream culture in the last four decades, and yet he remains a fringe figure, relegated to the fever swamps of left-wing bloggerdom. When he asks Who's to Say What's Obscene?, what he means to say, as Peter Coyote suggests, is that nothing is. Most people, fortunately, still disagree.

Zach Munson is a writer and comedian.

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