When I was in high school, I got into a discussion with a couple of my classmates over the role institutions played in our lives. I had made some comment critical of government, or organized religion, or corporations — I don’t recall which — and was asked if I was opposed to all such systems. I replied that I was "distrustful of all organizations, from two-handed poker on up." This intuitive insight has stayed with me all of my life. Many years later, I would discover a man whose life-work consisted of using humor to express these sentiments.
It is difficult to find words that convey the sadness I felt upon being awakened, this morning, to the news that George Carlin had died the night before. He was the successor to the man I continue to regard as the most significant dismantler of authority in my lifetime, Lenny Bruce. To most people, Bruce and Carlin were nothing more than dealers in four-letter words; men who loved to shock the sensibilities of others. But there was a deeper meaning in their humor, and modern libertarian thinking would not have been possible without their important groundwork.
Each man understood, at least implicitly, that the authority some men presume to exercise over the lives of others depends upon the subjugated regarding their managers with an unquestioning reverence and awe. One ought never to be so bold as to offer an opinion contrary to that provided by the authority figure. More than that, one must always look upon himself or herself as fundamentally inferior to this authority. One does not dare to gaze upon the king, to whom groveling is the expected position.
Bruce and Carlin understood that there is nothing that can more quickly undermine this aura of obeisance than for those who command others to be referred to in vulgar terms. External authority is dependent upon a veneration that is quickly lost when men and women begin to think of their masters in the same four-letter vocabulary more commonly directed against other motorists or an annoying relative.
The institutional order has long understood this fact, which is why Lenny Bruce was driven to an early grave by criminal prosecutions for his daring to speak, publicly, of politicians, judges, government officials, and other authority figures as practitioners — if not the personification — of four-lettered activity. George Carlin was subjected to a more subdued — albeit equally insistent — coercive treatment for even using four-letter words. Such words can become habit-forming, as easily applied to the president as to an offending neighbor. That Bill Clinton and George W. Bush do not enjoy the kind of respect accorded George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is, to a great extent, the erosion of homage brought about by the likes of Bruce and Carlin.
The mainstream media will doubtless refer to Carlin as an "entertainer," a word that fails to account for what he truly was. I prefer to think of him in words that the late Alan Watts used to describe himself: a "standup philosopher." The media will focus almost entirely upon his "seven words you can’t say on television," as though his work consisted of little more than the outbursts of teenagers intent on shocking their parents. I do wish the man had not over-worked the use of four-letter words, but I was willing to overlook some of his language for the content that lay within it. Like the punch-line of the joke about a young boy who kept digging through a pile of manure out of a sense that "there’s got to be a pony in here someplace," there was deep substance to his routines.
There are many so-called comedians whose works consist of little more than four-letter words, but whose language is not a prelude to the kind of understanding offered by Carlin. Perhaps these younger people believe that, if they can utter a string of expletives, audiences will regard them with the love and respect earned by Carlin. But without the intellectual and spiritual depth of a George Carlin, their "humor" becomes as impotent as an unexploded July 4th firework: some initial sizzle, followed by . . . nothing.
Political systems, advertising, organized religions, corporate practices, school systems, ideologies, political and social fashions of all sorts, came in for well-deserved skewering. Prior to 9/11, he did a routine on airport security which, if performed more recently, would doubtless have earned him a visit from Michael Chertoff and his thugs. And what devotee of the new religion of environmentalism — and its global-warming sect — could withstand Carlin’s treatment of this latest racket for subjecting humanity to the control of those who fashioned themselves fit to run a planet? Before the day is over, I will get out and play part of my collection of George Carlin DVDs as a reminder of the state of mind he helped all of us to develop as an antidote for the insanities perpetrated by institutionalized thinking.
The last comment I heard George Carlin make was in a video of a book-signing, in which a young man asked him if he believed that 9/11 was an "inside job." Carlin did not offer an opinion on the matter, but only replied — in words I do not recall precisely — that it was a mistake to ever accept consensus-based definitions of reality. What better words to inscribe upon a tombstone or other memorial to this remarkable man!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.