I recall many years ago, when he was guest-hosting the Tonight show, George Carlin having a somewhat strained political conversation with the comedian Shelley Winters. It was during the waning of the Nixon years, where confidence in government was beginning its slide down to the Stygian depths where it rests today; the Vietnam War, and racial unrest, continued to rage on. Winters was talking about the need for change, an end to bigotry and warfare, which would be solved by electing liberal Democrats up and down ticket. She did not pause to catch a breath, and came across as well-meaning but self-important. Knowing Carlin’s opposition to the war, his parsing of “military intelligence” as “a contradiction in terms”, his troubles with government censorship of his “Seven Dirty Words”, and his clear sympathies for the Left, she kept referring in her dialogue to “liberals like us.” Carlin, patiently and politely, interrupted. “I do not consider myself a liberal. I think of myself as a polite radical.”
This label stuck in my mind, and ever since then I have often used the label to describe myself. It catches something of the truth that, while liberals’ hearts are in the right place (on the Left side), they accept too much of the received wisdom of the American republic to make the differences that they, if they are not simply being posers, want to see happen. And that “politeness” – reasonability, civility – is important, if not all-important, especially when you deal with those who confuse sneering insults with rational argument. Not a bad place to be, politically.
One should not confuse “politeness” – a basic respect for rationality and a refusal to slip into verbal bullying — with gentility: Carlin was anything but genteel. His early routines, centered on drugs and sex and clearly influenced by his idol Lenny Bruce, were raw and unconstrained. But toward the end of the 1970s, Carlin’s routines shifted from stoner humor, which was quickly getting stale, to reflections on the quirks of language, and to politics.
Carlin’s political humor has direct links with that of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver: acidic, suspicious of ideology while being fiercely partisan (even-handedness is not a virtue if what’s on one of the hands is plainly vile or asinine). Carlin in fact was an early booster of Stewart, and thought of him as an heir. But Stewart et al. are satirists: they make their point by making their political targets look foolish. Carlin was not in the business of exposing fools but in excoriating them. His targets are portrayed as villains.
Consider this now-classic stand-up routine: “The American Dream.” (Click here for the video and the transcript.)
The first thing to note is – there is nothing funny being said. At least nothing to laugh about: the audience is cheering, not really laughing. The only other comedian I can think of who deliberately tried not to be funny was the late Andy Kaufmann, whose reading of “The Great Gatsby” in its entirety left its audience angry, asleep, or long departed. But the point of Kaufman’s bit was its sheer pointlessness – it was meant not to work. (I do not share in the widespread adulation of Kaufman as a “comic genius.” His contempt for his audience was bottomless, his smugness at times unbearable. He had his moments – e.g., “foreign man” segueing into a perfect Elvis impression – but they occurred when he dropped his pseudo-Dadaist pretense to enlightened superiority and just tried to be funny.) But Carlin’s rant is meant to “work”, and it does, brilliantly. This is not satire, but polemic. This is stand-up immanent critique: eloquent anger.
“It’s called ‘the American Dream’ because you have to be asleep to believe it.” This is why Carlin interrupted Shelley Winters: his problem with The United States of America goes to the roots, and is not a matter of cosmetic improvement, as liberals tend to think. Carlin’s take on American History is far closer to that of Howard Zinn than the “vital center” historians’ consensus that the Founding Fathers were humane geniuses, with minor internal disagreements, who created “the indispensable nation”. A better take on the American republic is, as Carlin put it, that it was founded on double standards: e.g., “a bunch of slave owners who wanted to be free”. The “double-standards” trope is pure Zinn; and even if you can fault Zinn’s narrative for being one-dimensional, it is hard to dispute that about that one dimension Zinn was substantially right.
Forget the politicians,” Carlin cries: “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 have rigged the game, as Bernie Sanders often puts it. The game is rigged now because it was rigged from the Republic’s start by would-be aristocrats: whether they were rich southern Democratic-Republicans who owned slaves or wealthy northern Federalists who zealously guarded other forms of moneyed interests. And the game goes on in different guises, throughout American history. If we do not wake up, the game will forever be rigged against us, whether one’s shirt is colored blue or white.
Like Senator Sanders, Carlin was an amateur Social and Political Theorist in favor of radical and revolutionary change. He was not an America-hater, as the right-wing noise machine might make him out to be. He was a patriot in the Thomas Paine mold – one who believed that, in order to remain faithful to key hopes and ideals grounded in a specific place and time, the socio-political system might need a complete reboot. Upon emigrating, Paine quickly stopped being an American-as-colonist and became an American-as-revolutionary: he never stopped being an American. It may indeed be time for us to similarly change what it means to be American Carlin seems to say.
This seems to be where Carlin’s polemics are leading, but it is not altogether clear that this is so. When Carlin addressed his audience as “us”, just who is the “us” in question? Carlin’s political turn had more than a tincture of cynicism within it. “Us” does not really mean “us citizens”, because the citizenry itself is corrupt. In what follows, Carlin shows his anti-Zinn side: it is not a case of a virtuous demos being dominated by the “owners.” It is more a seduction than a rape:
Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians. 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.’
This is cynicism worthy of the later Mark Twain – a cynicism not just about political economy, the perfidy of the “owners”, sucky as they are. It is cynicism about an entire political culture, an entire public. Carlin’s point of view, when he gets in moods like this, was not that of membership in an “us” but in alienation from it. So roll up your Shepard Fairey designed Obama campaign poster from 2008, folks, and set it on fire. Fuck hope.
Is Carlin’s “Fuck hope” equivalent to a “fuck you” tossed toward the American people? Is his cynicism an example of Nietzsche’s “passive nihilism”, which is a bitter withdrawal into private garden-tending? Perhaps: Carlin, after voting for George McGovern in 1972 and seeing his candidate roundly defeated, never voted again, and was vocally proud of his non-participation in elections. But I think not. I think that Carlin’s political sword was double-edged: one edge aimed outward to the system of arbitrary domination we mistakenly call “politics”, and one aimed inwards toward our own complacency about it, and the warped values that lead to that complacency, such as acquisitiveness, fear, indifference, smugness, and thoughtlessness. (For Hannah Arendt, “thoughtlessness” was the political vice of the Twentieth Century, the grease of tyranny’s gears.) Viewed this way, Carlin’s bitter rants place him closer to Biblical prophets like Jeremiah than home-grown cynics like Twain. If his words hit home, they enjoin us not just to change the world but to change ourselves. For how can we accomplish the first kind of revolution without attempting the second?