Next Friday marks 10 years since George Carlin died. His absence is felt more keenly than ever.
Ask most people what Carlin’s trade was and they’re likely to tell you he was a comedian. But Carlin’s astringent routines transcended comedy. Like his hero, Lenny Bruce, Carlin used stand-up as a vehicle for social criticism. And his criticism was as clear-eyed and incisive as any offered in the last 50 years.
In George Carlin’s world, there were no sacred cows. He would skewer the powerful, the politically correct, and the blissfully ignorant, oftentimes jabbing all of them in the same breath. He was driven by a fierce disdain for orthodoxies of all types.
If there were ideas you weren’t supposed to express — criticisms of what he regarded as the U.S. government’s penchant for waging unnecessary war, for instance — Carlin would voice them, loudly.
If there were words you weren’t supposed to say — Carlin’s most famous bit, one that landed him in legal textbooks, involved seven words you aren’t allowed to say on television (or print in newspapers, for that matter) — he said them.
Many people say that George Carlin would not have been successful in 2018. His language wouldn’t be shocking today — our standards in that area have dropped precipitously in the years since Carlin’s death — and his willingness to criticize behaviors and people across the whole of the political and social spectra might have made him unpopular with the many people who have decided to take and maintain a position independent of the facts.
So, according to those people, it’s hard to imagine that Carlin’s “shtick” would play as well today as it did 30 years ago. I don’t agree, because I believe social critics like George Carlin are more important than ever.
In today’s world, we are confronted with a deepening sense of division. We are told not to believe the other side, that this side — our side — has the answers. The other side is wrong. In fact, the other side is dangerous.
We are presented with that divisive narrative everywhere we look — TV, social media, Washington — with different groups jostling with one another to gain our attention and take control of how people view the issues facing our world.
At the center of nearly every Carlin routine was that very idea: control. Who and what are controlling us, and how are they doing it? Carlin frequently homed in on the big manipulators, those that are virtually impossible to escape: the government, advertisers, religion, the media.
But what linked all of them? What common tool did all the manipulators use? Carlin’s answer was language.
“By and large,” Carlin once said, “language is a tool for concealing the truth.” But Carlin also believed that language was a means of exposing the truth. Many of his monologues, which resembled spoken word poetry when he got revved up, effectively deconstructed popular lies by examining the words, and the choice of words, on which they are based.
But rather than attempt to censor the language of those he disdained, Carlin understood the importance of language, the value of ideas, and the need for endless skepticism. He used his platform to shine a light on the odd, the absurd, and the frustrating.
Listen to his monologue entitled “Advertising,” in which Carlin showcases his mastery of the English language by riffing on marketing lingo, and you’ll see that all the sales pitches with which we are inundated are variations on the same theme — give us your money, in return for which we will give you something you don’t really need or want.
In another famous bit, Carlin tackles the concept of “bad” or “offensive” words. Building on a famous Lenny Bruce routine, Carlin spends several minutes reciting nearly every slur, epithet, and derogatory term available. The point? “They’re only words, it’s the context that counts,” Carlin said. “It’s the user, the intention behind the words, that makes them good or bad.”
According to Carlin, euphemisms, the words meant to make things seem more important or shield us from harsher realities, are equally bad. Enemy soldiers are “neutralized,” not killed. Toilet paper is now “bathroom tissue.” Innocent children killed by bombs dropped abroad are “collateral damage.” Torture is now “enhanced interrogation.” And my favorite: “Poor people used to live in slums. Now, the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities.”
Euphemisms serve to keep the truth at arm’s length. How can a person grapple with the realities of war or the pains of poverty when the words often used to describe those conditions have been selected because they tend to obscure the underlying realities?
Impolite but essential questions were Carlin’s speciality. By drawing his audience’s attention to difficult topics, Carlin was doing his part to get more people moving against the orthodoxy, considering complex questions, and questioning means, ends, and causes.
The void left by Carlin’s death — he would have hated if I wrote that he “passed away” — has grown larger in recent years, in part because no one has stepped up so far to take his place. No other comedian, television commentator, blogger, author, or otherwise has come close to cutting through the nonsense with the clarity of George Carlin.
Carlin’s art was based on relentless skepticism. He believed every idea should be challenged, and he was willing to make the commitment that skepticism on such a scale required.
For many people, the struggle to distinguish between fact and fiction, to know what is true, grows only more difficult. To deal successfully with the problems attending this struggle, we need, among other things, powerful and principled social critics working to help us deal incisively with ignorance, hypocrisy, and stupidity.
To me, it is clear that we need someone with the wit, wisdom, and insights of George Carlin to help us sort things out. But that’s a tall order, given the intelligence, the courage, and the stamina needed to play the role.
Not surprisingly, Carlin was both modest about the requirements of the role and optimistic about the likelihood of successors.
“When you’re born in this world, you’re given a ticket to the freak show,” Carlin once said. “And when you’re born in America, you’re given a front row seat. But some of us get to sit there with a notebook, and I’m a notebook guy.”
We need more notebook guys, and quick.
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