The Sad Death of a Dangerous American
The only good thing about George Carlin's death on Sunday at the age of 71 -- and there is no good thing about George Carlin's death on Sunday at the age of 71 -- is that he has already given us such a rich body of thought, analysis, observation and truth that it will take us the rest of our lives to work through it all -- and even then, we probably won't be able to absorb or act on even a percentage of what he's said.
For example, before you put that Obama sticker on your car, think about why Carlin believed the American educational system can never be improved: "The owners of this country -- the big wealthy business interests that control things -- they've got the politicians; they're just put there to give you the idea you have freedom of choice; you don't. They own you. They own everything. What they don't want is a population of citizens capable of critical thinking... It's against their interests."
Carlin, bless him, was dangerous. Yes, it was Lenny Bruce who set him free, and yes, at the same time Richard Pryor was doing the same thing in a different area. But these three giants told giant truths to an America that didn't really want to hear them.
"It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it," he said.
Carlin was fearless about religion.
On God: "Something is wrong. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty. crime, torture, corruption and the ice capades. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. This is not what you expect to find on the resume of a Supreme Being. It's what you expect from an office temp with a bad attitude."
On abortion: "Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers... How come when it's us, it's an abortion, but when it's a chicken, it's an omelet?"
Which led him to the One True Commandment: "Keep thy religion to thyself."
Carlin was proud to play the jester -- to be the only person at court who could tell the king when he was making an ass of himself. In his last long interview, with Jay Dixit of the Psychology Today website, he talked about being a young comedian and recognizing himself in the writing of Arthur Koestler:
"The jester makes jokes, he's funny, he makes fun, he ridicules," Carlin said. "But if his ridicules are based on sound ideas and thinking, then he can proceed to the second panel, which is the thinker -- (Koestler) called it the philosopher. The jester becomes the philosopher, and if he does these things with dazzling language that we marvel at, then he becomes a poet too. Then the jester can be a thinking jester who thinks poetically."
Carlin had a poet's gift for language.
"He worked over an idea like a diamond cutter with facets and angles and refractions of light," Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent New York Times tribute. "He made you sorry you ever thought you wanted to be a comedian. He was like a train hobo with a chicken bone. When he was done there was nothing left for anybody.
Carlin credited his Irish heritage for this gift, and told Dixit that his grandfather, a New York City policeman "wrote out Shakespeare's tragedies longhand just for the joy it gave him."
Because he loved words, like George Orwell before him Carlin hated euphemisms. He knew that when we hide the truth behind language (including "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," which led to the U.S. Supreme Court voting against the First Amendment) we would be lied to until our pockets are empty and we are all in our graves.
He recognized that Americans have become afraid of words, and because of this fear, are turning themselves into robots. He knew that we need those seven words, and many other, sometimes hateful words -- the "N" word, the "K" word, the "C" word, all the words -- out in the open where we can all see them, talk about them, criticize the ideas behind them, and scorn and reeducate the people who have those ideas.
As he pointed out, the words themselves aren't bad -- they're just words. It's the thinking behind them that must be addressed. To the end, Carlin rejected the idea that he was an angry man.
"I'm just very disappointed and contemptuous of my fellow humans' choices," he said.
Damn, I'm going to miss him. We're all going to miss him.