George Carlin, American Radical
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I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately. -- George Carlin,
The last vote that George Carlin said he cast in a presidential race was for George McGovern in 1972.
When Richard Nixon, who Carlin described as a member of a sub-species of humanity, overwhelmingly defeated McGovern, the comedian gave up on the political process.
"Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't complain about: politicians," he explained in a routine that challenged all the premises of today's half-a-loaf reformers. "Everybody complains about politicians. Everybody says they suck. Well, where do people think these politicians come from? They don't fall out of the sky. They don't pass through a membrane from another reality. They come from American parents and American families, American homes, American schools, American churches, American businesses and American universities, and they are elected by American citizens. This is the best we can do folks. This is what we have to offer. It's what our system produces: Garbage in, garbage out. If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders. Term limits ain't going to do any good; you're just going to end up with a brand new bunch of selfish, ignorant Americans. So, maybe, maybe, maybe, it's not the politicians who suck. Maybe something else sucks around here... like, the public. Yeah, the public sucks. There's a nice campaign slogan for somebody: 'The Public Sucks. Fuck Hope.'"
Needless to say, George Carlin was not on message for 2008's "change we can believe in" election season.
His was a darker and more serious take on the crisis -- and the change of consciousness, sweeping in scope and revolutionary in character, that was required to address it.
Carlin may have stopped voting in 1972. But America's most consistently savage social commentator for the best part of a half century, who has died at age 71, did not give up on politics.
In recent years, in front of audiences that were not always liberal, he tore apart the neo-conservative assault on liberty with a clarity rarely evidenced in the popular culture.
Recalling George Bush's ranting about how the endless "war on terror" is a battle for freedom, Carlin echoed James Madison's thinking with a simple question: "Well, if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part to us, do they?"
Carlin gave the Christian right -- and the Christian left -- no quarter. "I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State," Carlin said. "My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."
Carlin's take on the Ronald Reagan administration is the best antidote to the counterfactual romanticization of the former president -- in which even Barack Obama has engaged -- remains the single finest assessment of Reagan and his inner circle. While Carlin did not complain much about politicians, he made an exception with regard to the great communicator. Recorded in 1988 at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey, and later released as an album -- What Am I Doing in New Jersey? -- his savage recollection of the then-concluding Reagan-Bush years opened with the line: "I really haven't seen this many people in one place since they took the group photograph of all the criminals and lawbreakers in the Ronald Reagan administration."
But there was no nostalgia for past fights, no resting on laurels, for this topical comedian. He read the papers, he followed the news, he asked questions -- the interviews I did with Carlin over the years were more conversations than traditional Q & A's -- and he turned it all into a running commentary that focused not so much on politics as on the ugly intersection of power and economics.
No one, not Obama, not Hillary Clinton and certainly not John McCain, caught the zeitgeist of the vanishing American dream so well as Carlin. "The owners of this country know the truth: It's called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."
Not just aware of but steeped in the traditions of American populism -- more William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Victor Debs than Bill Clinton or John Kerry -- Carlin preached against the consolidation of wealth and power with a fire-and-brimstone rage that betrayed a deep moral sense that could never quite be cloaked with four-letter words.
"The real owners are the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they're an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don't. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They've long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the statehouses, the city halls. They've got the judges in their back pockets. And they own all the big media companies, so that they control just about all of the news and information you hear. They've got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying -- lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want; they want more for themselves and less for everybody else," ranted the comedian whose routines were studied in graduate schools.
"But I'll tell you what they don't want," Carlin continued. "They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't help them. That's against their interests. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers -- people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they're coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you know something? They'll get it. They'll get it all, sooner or later, because they own this fucking place. It's a big club, and you ain't in it. You and I are not in the big club. "
Carlin did not want Americans to get involved with the system.
He wanted citizens to get angry enough to remake the system.
Carlin was a leveler of the old, old school. And no one who had so public a platform -- as the first host of NBC's "Saturday Night Live," a regular on broadcast and cable televisions shows, a best-selling author and a favorite character actor in films (he was even the narrator of the American version of the children's show "Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends") -- did more to challenge accepted wisdom regarding our political economy.
"Let's suppose we all just materialized on Earth and there was a bunch of potatoes on the ground, okay? There's just six of us. Only six humans. We come into a clearing and there's potatoes on the ground. Now, my instinct would be, let's everybody get some potatoes. "Everybody got a potato? Joey didn't get a potato! He's small, he can't hold as many potatoes. Give Joey some of your potatoes." "No, these are my potatoes!" That's the Republicans. "I collected more of them, I got a bigger pile of potatoes, they're mine. If you want some of them, you're going to have to give me something." "But look at Joey, he's only got a couple, they won't last two days." That's the fuckin' difference! And I'm more inclined to want to share and even out," he explained in an interview several years ago with the Onion.
"I understand the marketplace, but government is supposed to be here to redress the inequities of the marketplace," Carlin continued. "That's one of its functions. Not just to protect the nation, secure our security and all that shit. And not just to take care of great problems that are trans-state problems, that are national, but also to make sure that the inequalities of the marketplace are redressed by the acts of government. That's what welfare was about. There are people who really just don't have the tools, for whatever reason. Yes, there are lazy people. Yes, there are slackers. Yes, there's all of that. But there are also people who can't cut it, for any given reason, whether it's racism, or an educational opportunity, or poverty, or a fuckin' horrible home life, or a history of a horrible family life going back three generations, or whatever it is. They're crippled and they can't make it, and they deserve to rest at the commonweal. That's where my fuckin' passion lies."
Like the radicals of the early years of the 20th century, whose politics he knew and respected, Carlin understood that free-speech fights had to come first. And always pushed the limit -- happily choosing an offensive word when a more polite one might have sufficed. By 1972, the year he won the first of four Grammys for best comedy album, he had developed his most famous routine: "Seven Words (You Can't Say on Television)."
That summer, at a huge outdoor show in Milwaukee, he uttered all seven of them in public -- and was promptly arrested for disturbing the peace.
When a version of the routine was aired in 1973 on WBAI, the Pacifica Foundation radio station in New York,. Pacifica received a citation from the FCC. Pacifica was ordered to pay a fine for violating federal regulations prohibiting the broadcast of "obscene" language. The ensuing free-speech fight made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rile 5-4 against the First Amendment to the Constitution, Pacifica and Carlin.
Amusingly, especially to the comedian, a full transcript of the routine ended up in court documents associated with the case, F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).
"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," recalled Carlin. Proud enough that you can find the court records on the comedian's website: www.georgecarlin.com
There will, of course, be those who dismiss Carlin as a remnant of the sixties who introduced obscenity to the public discourse -- just as there will be those who misread his critique of the American political and economic systems as little more than verbal nihilism. In fact, George Carlin was, like the radicals of an earlier age, an idealist -- and a patriot -- of a deeper sort than is encountered very often these days.
Carlin explained himself best in one of his last interviews. "There is a certain amount of righteous indignation I hold for this culture, because to get back to the real root of it, to get broader about it, my opinion that is my species -- and my culture in America specifically -- have let me down and betrayed me. I think this species had great, great promise, with this great upper brain that we have, and I think we squandered it on God and Mammon. And I think this culture of ours has such promise, with the promise of real, true freedom, and then everyone has been shackled by ownership and possessions and acquisition and status and power," he said. "And perhaps it's just a human weakness and an inevitable human story that these things happen. But there's disillusionment and some discontent in me about it. I don't consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word 'cynic' has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. 'George, you're cynical.' Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist. And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you know?"
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.