Friday, March 3, 2017

George Carlin, Comedic Nihilist, 1937-2008

 Always a comic genius, George Carlin improved over time, achieving a philosophical depth rare in the comedy world. Where once he playfully wondered why there were no perfectly round frozen peas, by the end of his amazing comic career he had retained a mass audience while commenting critically on war and peace, wealth and poverty, and how the owners of the private economy "do what they want" with the rest of us. There was no other comedian with similar range and courage.

Where he ended in life, admittedly deeply cynical, he was far funnier and far more profound than the Danny Kaye type character he modeled himself after at the beginning of his career. As an analyst of dishonest language he had few peers and no superiors. One must turn to literature to find anything like Carlin's penetrating gaze. Perhaps only James Baldwin achieved anything like a Carlinesque appreciation for American euphemism. Both men believed affluent white people instinctively turned to dishonest speech to conceal their sins. Where Baldwin was the more brilliant, Carlin was funnier.

Carlin's political radicalization emerged from the Vietnam War, one of the most destructive and criminal invasions of a blood-soaked 20th century. As U.S. political culture turned increasingly reactionary in the decades following the end of that war, Carlin became deeply cynical, though still explosively hilarious. He conceded that he was a "wounded idealist," but insisted that the human race had squandered its unique evolutionary gifts (the ability to think in time, discern cause from effect, coupled with an opposable thumb) and was headed for extinction sooner rather than later, a prospect he encouraged one and all to be entertained by and "enjoy." As for politics, he considered the people as culpable as their leaders, and characterized Americans in particular as greedy, dumb, and bereft of constructive idealism.  U.S. culture was nothing but a "freak show" that tried but couldn't hide the "circling of the drain" of a dying species.  Politicians were a reflection of the "garbage in, garbage out" relation with the citizenry, and the decent people who might lead the country in a more hopeful direction were all "down at the mall pulling their wallets out of a fanny pack to buy a pair of sneakers with lights in them." He suggested that instead of "politicians suck," we adopt the slogan "the public sucks."

Unfortunately, even Hitler had more sense of reality than that. Keenly though he realized that immense concentrations of private wealth were the key political problem, Carlin never thought of the slogan "capital sucks." He criticized greed, corruption, corporations, and "owners," but never capital, whose concentration has now reached levels that threaten the survival of the species. For Carlin this was nothing more than grist for his comedic mill. He urged one and all to simply give up, "become spectators," and be entertained at mass suffering unto human extinction. Hopefully he didn't act on that, especially towards his daughter, but if he did, he was a moral monster ideologically worse than Hillary and Trump and GW and Obama put together.

Carlin rhetorically asked, where are all the decent people ready to lead the U.S. in a different direction? His "wounded idealism" kept him from seeing that they're all over the place, like on Legalienate blog, but also in many other places. Obviously, there are decent people all over the world struggling to put profit in its place and have a broader and humane set of values infuse our institutions. They may not succeed, but if they fail it will be anything but a laughing matter.

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