George Carlin, one of the most important social critics of the last half-century, is dead. Carlin, like he was for millions, was a formative influence on my youth, and via the collective youths of multiple generations, the national consciousness. He will forever be remembered for being part of the wave of comedians that turned simple humor into biting social commentary — the children of Lenny Bruce.
It strikes me that, in many ways, Carlin had turned himself into a modern Socrates, always questioning our words, thoughts, and actions, and finding himself disappointed in the lack of reflection in the rest of us. Carlin acknowledged this in perhaps his most important routine:
“I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I uh, I think is important. I love, as I say, they’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have really.”
The Seven Words routine was a milestone not just because Carlin managed to highlight the dilemma at the core of the modern condition, but also because it gave us a landmark Supreme Court case on freedom of speech that highlights how dangerous words can be to the guardians of mainstream mores, FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation. Carlin’s monologue, played on Pacifica Radio in NYC, engendered a dispute as to what constituted decent speech on broadcast media — and the Court decided that the population needed to be protected from hearing those “deadly” words spoken by Carlin, who had done so in an effort to help us enlighten ourselves about the power of speech.
Justice William Brennan, writing in a stinging dissent from the majority on that decision, stated that: “because the radio is undeniably a public medium, these actions are more properly viewed as a decision to take part, if only as a listener, in an ongoing public discourse.”
Censorship of language is an attempt to silence this public discourse, to stifle thoughts, actions, and ideas. George Carlin understood this perfectly well.
Carlin was concerned with pointing out how we, as a society, have started using euphemistic language as a way to avoid dealing with tough concepts. This is a corollary — and perhaps more dangerous than the official censorship — to the FCC’s abrogation of speech on TV and radio: self-censorship. In one of his books he noted:
“I mentioned several reasons we seem to employ so much of it [euphemistic language]: the need to avoid unpleasant realities; the need to make things sound more important than they are… but no matter what the purpose, the one thing euphemisms all have in common is that they soften the language. They portray reality as less vivid. And I’ve noticed Americans have a problem with reality; they prefer to avoid the truth and not look it in the eye. I think it’s one of the consequences of being fat and prosperous and too comfortable.”
Of course, the easy political examples are those we’ve been familiar with for a time now: George W. Bush’s “enemy combatants,” the “homicide” bombers, collateral damage. Carlin was adept at pointing these out along with the more common expressions we use between friends and colleagues. Religious, political, and cultural hypocrites were not spared his withering gaze — I once noted how a portion of his audience left during one of his anti-religious diatribes at a concert of his that I attended.
So what, then, is Carlin’s legacy? At the end of another of his famous routines he said that “the planet is fine, the people are fucked.” He was amused with our capacity to, essentially, kill ourselves off as a species. He said that:
“… it amuses me. Because it means the system is beginning to collapse, beginning to break down. I enjoy chaos and disorder. Not just because they help me professionally; they’re also my hobby. I’m an entropy buff.”
We are inundated with food yet prices are rising and people starve; we are awash in oil and prices have never been higher; we are aware of the effects of human-caused global warming and most of us choose to do nothing except complain about the weather; our government openly lies and violates Constitutional rights and all we do is shrug. Carlin’s choice was not to simply laugh at the downward spiral we were all on (by our choice); that is too superficial a reading of his humor. He was deeply concerned by the stupidity and violence we do to each other through laws, morals, and simply not acting.
His legacy, I think, is that our understanding of speech, of words, and our constant questioning of their meaning and use is our only outlet to discovering potential truths, to exposing lies, and perhaps building a world that’s a little nicer to live in, or at least, a little more amusing. It is, perhaps, a call to action, to understand that he was bitterly disappointed in how passive most people are in the face of injustice. In that respect, those of us who are political activists, or even those of us who are just trying to make small changes in our lives, could learn from Carlin to keep thinking and to be the gadfly that won’t let things rest, to tell the truth about the world in which we live.
Carlin, of course, put it best:
“Here’s the Secret News:
All people are afraid.
No one knows what they’re doing.
Everything is getting worse.
Some people deserve to die.
Your money is worthless.
No one is properly dressed.
At least one of your children will disappoint you.
The system is rigged.
Your house will never be completely clean.
All teachers are incompetent.
There are people who really dislike you.
Nothing is as good as it seems.
Things don’t last.
No one is paying attention.
The country is dying.
God doesn’t care.