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."