Tuesday, October 4, 2011

George Carlin Isn't Helping

As Occupy Wall Street looms larger in the national discourse, more people you know on Facebook will probably try to explain its significance to you in increasingly counterproductive ways.

Cartoon panels of rewritten David Caruso CSI: Miami one-liners are only a week away, while today we can rest easy knowing that people who watch South Park have looked at the extreme claims of Wall Street and the moderate claims of the protestors and are ready to call this one straight down the middle. These people might be your friends, or they might be David Brooks or any of the Washington Post's editorial staff.

One person who will probably crop up on your Facebook wall ad nauseam to explain things is George Carlin, who's been dead for over three years, but he just called it, man. What Carlin saw was that rich people frequently have more in common with other rich people than with poor people who share similar social or religious values. He also saw that our government has been captured by monied interests. Far out, dude — that's where he saw this coming. Don't take my word for it, click this:

"Nobody seems to notice! Nobody seems to notice! Nobody seems to notice!"
— Autodidact slapping himself on the back for making a discovery every progressive economist, political scientist and labor historian has been discussing since 1984.
Forthcoming comments aside, I really like a lot of Carlin's work, but, like a lot of people who care about serious junk, I'm disheartened by conversational and cultural appeals to his authority. For one thing, he hasn't any, and the pithy ideas credited to him date well past the point where they were widespread in the discourse. Crediting him for new ideas is like crediting the Pilgrims for starting America: the story only works for schoolchildren. Which brings us to the other problem: selling ideas with Carlin's image carries with it the baggage of the sort of person who thinks Carlin is revelatory.

The big ugly lesson that Carlin imparts — and that much of his audience doesn't notice for reasons that are all too obvious — is that the direst element in permafucking the American political system is an electorate so complacently undereducated that "I NOTICED SOMETHING!!! AND I'M ANGRY!!!" rants on topics that academics, activists, third-party politicians and even bought-and-paid-for newspaper hacks have written about for at least a decade passes as genuine insight.

There's a reason why Carlin and Bill Hicks and other evangelizing comics appeal enormously to people just discovering pot and grate on the ears of actual adults: it's the sort of stuff that has the illusion of breaking new ground if you haven't walked on very much of it. (It also explains why they appeal so much to Libertarians.) It has all the virtues of sounding like wisdom without forcing on the audience any of the bother of search, examination or struggle. It's the Jaded Realist's Starter Kit for people too young to be legitimately jaded yet or too contentedly dumb to be much in danger of grappling with reality.

If Carlin was correct in believing that he was dropping fresh knowledge at his fans, then he was complicit in the biggest part of the problem, because he was preaching at the problem. Not only that, but he simultaneously sold that problem the smug belief that it was both personally blameless and already aware of the key to any possible solutions: the will of wryly-sneering clued-in realists, "People like us, in this audience!"

Carlin (and this goes as much for Hicks) was a funny guy when not consumed by his own epiphanies, but he was also a smart one: he realized that, for his "big ideas" to seem novel, a large portion of the people receiving them couldn't have had much chance of deducing them on their own. At the same time, none of those people would buy CDs or large-print aired-out bathroom books if his message contained its most effective judgement: "Laugh all you want, but if any of this seems new to you, you're probably the exact same people who elected, funded and were duped by this shit-stupid travesty in the first place."


  1. I think you projected (somewhat inaccurately) a motive to Carlin's work that was possibly/probably never intended.

    I never considered that Carlin thought his work was truly new and groundbreaking. It's that he can present an idea eloquently and with humor, in a way that it can bring these ideas to a larger audience.

    As smart as Krugman or Lakoff or Chomsky or might be, getting the undereducated populace to actually *read*, digest and engage in a dialogue surrounding their works is nearly futile.

    So your point in regards to the masses is probably a good one... but like any good movement, you have to have foot soldiers. Sometimes it's best that your foot soldiers don't know that they're cannon fodder.

    I don't believe Bill or George either one believed they had transcendent knowledge. I believe they were presenting material to a wider audience, for reasons that mostly don't even matter... as long as it isn't self-aggrandizement

  2. The best comedy is not the jokes that reference concepts you've never explored, but the ones that frame your previously held opinions in a humorous, often aphoristic manner. I love Carlin and Hicks because they agree with me, rather than agreeing with them because I love them. While I do think there is a significant portion of the youth involved with the movement who may well fit into your description, I do feel (or maybe just hope) that it is the minority.

  3. I think you're off in your criticism of Carlin. It's true; Carlin's material involves the age-old gripe that a few rich people have gained undue control over resources. This is not a fresh observation. And you're also right that academics and politicians have already covered this ground in a much more detailed manner.

    But they weren't able to deliver the message as effectively as Carlin. Carlin was able to boil down the essential point and deliver his message in a humorous way that they could reach millions of diverse people. He is far more effective of delivering this message to someone that identifies as a Republican, for instance, than a leftist politician would be able to do. Or Chomsky, for instance, who does a beautiful job of explaining his thoughts in a complicated manner (his complications enrich his message, unlike man.

    Plus, why does an observations or point have to be fresh? Anyway, Carlin's points are extremely relevant today, even though they are not "fresh." Inequality and the division of wealth in this country is more skewed now that at pretty much any time in the history. These concerns have existed throughout time and George Carlin articulates this message to modern audiences better than any politician I now.

    And I'm an adult that also reads and watches "serious" discussions of politics--I just think Carlin nailed the concept much better than academic eggheads because his humor and succinctness is far more effective than a "serious" argument. His anger is also warranted. I prefer his anger to the resigned defeat of academic leftists.

  4. I was gonna say that you killed it -- virtually everything here is bang-on -- but I've got to nag you for contrasting "actual adults" against "people too young to be legitimately jaded." No call for that, dude. There are a lot of intellectually sophisticated teens, and a lot of old geezers waving around copies of Atlas Shrugged.

  5. Before Carlin was HBO huge, my brother got one of his records in one of those 8 for a penny deals. We planned our listening session with a trip to the store early on a Saturday morning to buy snacks before. We were pigging out on Coke and Doritos the first time we heard him deliver the line, "Fuck 'em, let 'em get their own Doritos."

    I doubt he thought he'd been the first adolescent to pig out on Pepsi and Doritos. Indeed, the whole point of the tale was to relate.

    Likewise, I don't think he thought he was the first to observe that one might believe his "own farts smell O.K."

    He had fans because of his deft delivery of observational truisms. That some find him politically relevant has nothing to do with his intention or beliefs about himself.

  6. I mainly dislike how their biggest fans ignore that 60% of Carlin's material was wordplay, or 60% of Hicks's material was dick jokes. Yeah, maybe their most lasting material was the Big Picture stuff, but at heart they were... Gasp... COMEDIANS! They liked puns and sex and ridiculing hecklers. Treating them like holy prophets does their careers a profound disservice.

  7. I had never heard of Carlin when I was younger, I always listened to Lewis Black. Jaded realist starter-kit indeed.

  8. I agree with a lot of what you're saying about Carlin--the bit you posted has 0 jokes in it. It could only get by on an audience thinking he's a bold truth-teller. I still cut Carlin some slack because he was legitimately groundbreaking in his field.

    Hicks, I don't think deserves the slight. His vitriol was too articulate and well-written to ever feel like demagoguery trumps humor. I don't think there's a minute of "Arizona Bay" or "Rant in E-Minor" that goes more than 30 seconds without a laugh.

  9. @notcoachtito

    I thought the only reason anyone liked Carlin was his wordplay....well, that was them only reason I liked him. He rarely, if ever, provided any fresh new insight, but he did a fantasticjob of packaging his stuff, which is why I am such a fan.

  10. Shorter everyone except Evan:

    You pretty much got this one all wrong, Mobutu.


  11. You know, on the subject of comedians, I always thought Jerry Seinfeld got a bit of a raw deal as a stand up. Yeah his material wasn't exactly groundbreaking, but he really did an excellent job of packaging his stuff. He could really present the modern problem of airline peanuts eloquently.

    As smart as Anthony Bourdain might be, his culinary thoughts, especially as they relate to airline peanuts, are probably out of reach for large swaths of the populace.

    Not to digress into nostalgia, but I was reading something Anthony Bourdain said about Paula Deen whilst eating a Smithfield ham. I can't remember what it was but I'm sure it was covered by a Jerry Seinfeld joke that I can find on Youtube.

  12. "your wrong saying that you knew what carlin meant. that's really wrong, to say that you knew what he was trying to do. what he was REALLY trying to do was....."

    i know george carlin better than people who might make george carlin seem bad. you don't know anything, because the shit i want to be true is stronger than stuff

    carlin fans are basicaly the Tool fans of comedy. (no surprise they love bill hicks) "lots of people 'dont get it', but i do. they're not really fans. when he was telling people to think for themselves, i was following him and thinking for myself before you did"


  13. i'm not a marxist, but it's relatively easy to make the case that he identified the consolidation of power and concentration of capital in a ruling class as far back as the 1840s. i know bringing up marx is glib and out-of-fashion intellectually, but the material is there. in which case, carlin isn't just a few decades dated, but nearly 200 years.

  14. I fall into that eggheaded academic group, and yeah, that makes me laugh. I end up dealing with a wide array of non-academic industrial types, and I struggle with getting the message of the moment across so that the point of discussion is received and digested, albeit in a form that is not precisely correct at times. This drives my younger colleague crazy but I point out that glazing over someone's eyes is not effective communication. Getting them to realize the whole story is more nuanced and detailed, resulting in them reaching for more, is. So without further blahbbity blah, I agree with the above comments about delivery here coming in an effective package.

  15. I agree with what most other people have said. Yeah, a few intellectually and culturally shallow (or, at least, inexperienced) people are going to hold tight to this mantra of "thinking for oneself" only after hearing Carlin say so and then wait with baited breath for Carlin's next piece of advice. But is that Carlin's fault? Or Hicks' fault? If anything, the fact that it needs to be said, or that people need to be reminded, just proves them right.

    People will post this on Facebook and on blogs because it comes from a figure who still has some cultural cachet AND because Carlin framed the sentiment as eloquently as anyone else. Put those together and you probably create a little bit of a monster, but that doesn't make the statement deserving of a jaded eyerolling.

  16. Carlin wasn’t an academic, he was a comedian. Don’t look to an economics treatise for humor and don’t look to a comedic routine for class struggle wisdom. If using Carlin’s rants to connect with some disenfranchised has a serious drawback, it is that he is not here to give it his imprimatur. Who else can step forward to fill his shoes?

  17. "Carlin wasn’t an academic, he was a comedian. Don’t look to an economics treatise for humor and don’t look to a comedic routine for class struggle wisdom. If using Carlin’s rants to connect with some disenfranchised has a serious drawback, it is that he is not here to give it his imprimatur. Who else can step forward to fill his shoes?"


  18. I think people who are saying this is unfair to Carlin are missing the point. To the extent that George Carlin is being appropriated as a symbol by people posting his rant to Facebook and other places, his life, career, and work largely become irrelevant. His intentions become irrelevant.

    If people are going to use his words and his image to take all of the chaos and anger and clashing beliefs behind this movement and distil them down to a point easily digestible by outsiders, then what matters is how effective that point is. Also, whether his use as such is going to do anything to advance the agenda of the 99%, whatever that is.

    And at that level, "George Carlin isn't helping" is a valid complaint. Because he's not.

    If the Occupy Wall Street movement is going to go anywhere, if it's ever going to move from direct action to organized change, then at some point it's going to have to move past what has happened to what must be done. It's going to have to adopt a platform, because if they don't do that themselves you can be damn sure there's someone ready to do it for them.

    That's largely what happened with the Tea Party movement, which was ostensibly founded on pretty much the exact same premise (Wall Street and the government are colluding to fuck us.) and in the early stages looked remarkably like where we are now. But it ended up advocating something in line with the status quo once it was co-opted by the same monied interests it should logically be fighting. (And also due to an inability to question the received knowledge of conservatism even though the situation it was angry about should have come as proof that its premise was flawed.)

    The fact remains that a social networking post is not a revolutionary act. It's at best a prelude, a call to arms. And Carlon isn't really calling anyone to arms. He's just saying "You're getting fucked" and leaving it to the listener to decide what to do about it. We need to move past easy shit like that.

  19. Until the American populace as a whole becomes more aware of the things that George Carlin and Bill Hicks talked about and doesn't treat it as some big revelation, we need more people like them. We're not there yet.

  20. Sorry, AngrySportsGuy, whoever that Anonymous guy above you was, he just schooled this shit. That's what real school looks like. Without HBO's shit-stupid faux-urban background and only a one night stand.

  21. Anonymous October 6, 2011 8:24 PM said it well, for sure, and the thing I would like to add that's been missing from the post and the thread is that Carlin was a product of the late 1950s/early 1960s, which means that the stuff that he was saying in the 1960s/1970s -- which became the core of what he said after -- was precisely voicing this kind of revelation: "Wall Street and the [corporate-controlled] government are colluding to fuck us." This realization was almost entirely missing from mainstream American culture ca. 1967, when Carlin entered the period of his career where he began articulating this clearly & confidently.

    What's mostly missing from the post and the thread is any kind of historical context for what Carlin did. That some can sit here in late 2011 with the privileged position of being able to belittle Carlin's role* in the larger culture means that we've attained a certain place where people can take for granted such foundational work. It doesn't serve us or any kind of movement trying to expand knowledge or democracy to lose sight of those who laid the groundwork from which we can move forward. Excessive post-modern cynicism and dismissiveness is certainly fun, at times, but, like masturbation often can be, it leads to the same ends: Nothing of substance.

    For those who are critical of Carlin, including Mobutu, I would urge that you step outside of your own intricately-crafted navel-gazing world and try to understand these things in their historical context. It's amazing how much clearer things can get.
    * I don't pretend that Carlin was any more influential than he was, whatever that was, but he was certainly more influential in our broader culture than Mobutu or any of the other commenters on this post was, or is, or ever will be.

  22. lmao "this realization was almost entirely missing from mainstream American culture" "historical context" "foundational work" "laid the groundwork"

    oh my god i'm crying

  23. ahahaha the guy who wrote that will never, ever see a naked woman that doesn't end in .jpg

  24. God damn, why isn't everyone as educated as me?? Can't believe my dad posted that Carlin link, how [i]embarrassing[/i]


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