In 2016, George Carlin’s Political Nihilism Is Becoming the Only Sensible Opinion
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It seemed a great injustice to me, in the months following George Carlin’s death in 2008, that the legendary comedian wasn’t around to see his country elect its first black president. As time wore on, I realized the vague sadness I felt whenever I revisited Carlin’s standup wasn’t for the fact he died before he could see the progress we made. If still alive, he would only see have far we’ve yet to go.
Eight years after his death, Americans have witnessed the rise of a Republican nominee whose name can be found on any number of prestigious golf courses, one of Carlin’s favorite targets — “Plenty of good land in nice neighborhoods…currently being wasted on the meaningless, mindless activity engaged in primarily by white, well-to-do, male businessmen who use the game to get together to make deals to carve this country up a little finer among themselves.”
Donald Trump’s opponent is a woman who, in her public life, “mastered the art of pushing maximally against free expression without being tagged as a foe of the First Amendment,” as Reason’s Matt Welch put it earlier this year. Just as Tipper Gore and the PMRC waged war against musicians and their filthy lyrics, Hillary Clinton fought a similarly quixotic campaign against racy video games.
“There’s a lot of groups, a lot of institutions in this country want to control your language, tell you what you can say and what you can’t say,” Carlin said on 1990’s Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, its cover and title a send-up to the PMRC’s warning label. “Government wants to control information and control language, because that’s the way you control thought. And basically, that’s the game they’re in.”
So what would Carlin make of 2016 if he had lived to be 79? Fortunately, he didn’t leave much room for speculation. Not only would he stay home this November — he thought voting a deeply masturbatory practice with little bearing on reality — but a Clinton/Trump matchup and all that preceded it would only confirm his bleakest conclusions about this country and its ruling class. And he would’ve been delighted.
Near the end of 1992’s Jammin’ in New York, he asks the crowd at the Paramount Theater if the water in his glass is safe to drink. Hysteric cries from the audience suggest not. Pleased, he explains that wherever he goes, he gets the same response: Don’t drink the water.
“The thing I like about it the most is, it means the system is beginning to collapse, and everything is slowly breaking down. I enjoy chaos and disorder, not just because they help me professionally. They’re also my hobby. You see, I’m an entropy fan,” he says.
“In this country, the whole social structure — just beginning to collapse. You watch. Just beginning now, to come apart at the edges and the seams.”
I was fortunate enough to see Carlin perform at the historic State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania a few months before he died, honing the material that would comprise his final album. Leonard Bernstein famously interpreted Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as the composer’s “farewell to the world,” and in many ways, I feel the same way about It’s Bad For Ya! It contained all that which made Carlin great: his Slap-Chop application of Occam’s razor to the euphemisms embedded in our language, a healthy dollop of exasperated misanthropy, and most importantly, a merciless critique of American values — whatever those are.
Retrospectives of Carlin’s life and voluminous body of work place heavy emphasis on his “Seven Dirty Words” routine and the Supreme Court case that followed. While appropriate to an extent — Carlin himself said he was “perversely proud” to be a “footnote in American legal history” — this robs his later work of the appreciation it deserves, as it was his most devastatingly prescient.
For someone with such renown as a shit-stirrer, his material was relatively tame early on, the bulk of it wordplay that rings a bit hokey now. It wasn’t until he reinvented his image in the early 70s, abandoning his sharp suit and clean-shaven look for faded jeans and long hair to tap into the country’s burgeoning counterculture. Starting with his 1972 album FM & AM Carlin’s material would grow more subversive, more incisive with every album.
It wasn’t until 1988’s What Am I Doing in New Jersey? that we first saw a glimmer of the atheistic, anti-government, anti-corporatism slant that characterized his later work. The following album, Parental Advisory, pushed on, and Jammin’ in New York and Back in Town, further still. Now between exploiting oxymorons and fingering social etiquette — cornerstones of his act till the end — Carlin issued scorching condemnations of political correctness and the language we use, foisted upon us or one another, to insulate ourselves from the ugliest truths.
At first blush, the “Rape can be funny” bit off Parental Advisory seems like precisely the material that would have aged ingloriously in light of a renewed dialogue on sexual assault. But Carlin was a master manipulator, legendarily agile in his break-neck swings from the crude to the profound and back to the nonsensical. The image of Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd morphs into an indictment of victim-blaming, pivoting into a musing on how wet leather pants must complicate Eskimo rape, before delving into intersectionality.
“I’ve noticed that most of these feminists are white, middle-class women,” he said. “They don’t give a shit about black women’s problems. They don’t care about Latino women. All they’re interested in is their own reproductive freedom and their pocketbooks.”
If Congressional Republicans’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood in recent years wouldn’t have drawn Carlin’s ire, the debate over gender-neutral bathrooms no doubt would’ve. After all, it has all the ingredients of a classic Carlin bit: Christian conservatives like Ted Cruz conducting themselves without a shred of irony, conventional wisdom like binary gender being plopped on its head, and of course, the all-too-important scatological component. (Carlin’s material never reached to such conceptual heights that he was unwilling to make a joke about a fart “that could eat the stitching out of Levi’s.”)
“That’s all you ever hear about in this country, our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about: the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another,” Carlin said in 1992. “That’s the way the ruling class operates in any society. They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich, can run off with all the fucking money. Fairly simple thing, happens to work.”
So for good measure, he took aim at both sides of the aisle, his most varied broadside spread across Complaints and Grievances and You Are All Diseased. Gun enthusiasts? “People with missing chromosomes who ought to be thrown screaming from a helicopter.” Yuppie parents who carry their infants in slings? “You’d just like to take them out into the forest and disembowel them with a wooden cooking spoon.”
Long before the Great Recession put populism back in vogue, before the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the country yawned even wider and more precipitous, Carlin saved his most vituperative polemics for the one percent. “You know how I describe social classes in this country?” he said. “Upper class keeps all of the money, pays none of the taxes. The middle class pays all of the taxes, does none of the work. The poor are there just to scare the shit out of the middle class.”
And who would Carlin entrust with fixing this mess of ours? No one, really. This November, Americans will pick between two of the most disliked candidates in modern history, and if George were still alive, he’d say we’re getting precisely what we deserve. Politicians don’t materialize from the ether and immediately run for Senate. They are products of our families, schools, churches, and universities.
“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,” he says in a bit at the end of Back in Town, explaining why voting is a meaningless endeavor. “If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to get selfish, ignorant leaders.”
His proposed slogan, “The public sucks, fuck hope,” would have served as terrific closed-captioning for the Trump campaign. And while an ABC News poll in March found that just 37 percent of that public believes Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy, that ought not to be a problem. After all, it was her husband’s forthrightness about being full of shit that made him so appealing to the electorate: “American people like their bullshit right out in front where they can get a good, strong whiff of it.”
Life Is Worth Losing, as the title would suggest, contained arguably his darkest material, and represented a nadir in the third and final act of his career. His run at the MGM Grand Las Vegas came to an abrupt end when he harangued an audience, calling them dim-witted morons for making a vacation of handing their money to corporate interests. Not long after, he voluntarily entered treatment for alcohol and prescription painkiller addiction.
“Forget the politicians. 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,” he said. “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 have the judges in their back pocket, and they own all the big media companies, so they own and control just about all the news and information you get to hear. They’ve got you by the balls.”
American voters of modest means routinely vote against their own interests, he argues, casting ballots for elites who couldn’t be bothered with them. It’s the reason education will never improve in this country, as the ruling class merely wants obedient workers “just smart enough to work the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all the increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the second you go to collect it.”
“And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care,” he said. “That’s what the owners count on: the fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big, red-white-and-blue dick that’s being jammed up their assholes everyday.”
Citizens United and the flood of campaign cash swallowing up our political system would have only rendered him more disenchanted. But as tempting as it is to conclude Carlin would have thrown his weight behind a grassroots-funded, fellow son of New York with a platform of, among other things no doubt attractive to him, legalization, to do so would vastly overstate his faith in our fading democracy.
“As for me, I’ll be home on that day, doing essentially the same thing as you,” he said. “The only difference is, when I get done masturbating, I’m going to have a little something to show for it, folks.”
Kyle Scott Clauss lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and writes for Boston magazine. Follow along on Twitter.
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