The death of comedian George Carlin came as a shock. Not because I knew him personally, but as a visceral reaction to the end of an era, the era of my childhood. I am a baby boomer, born in the 50’s and coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s. Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll: that great cultural leap off of the cliff like a horde of burnt out lemmings. This was the age in which dogma was criticized and overthrown: mass protest brought the Vietnam War to an end, women’s liberation, and civil rights stepped to the forefront of public consciousness. A vigilant media, tired of the lies of Richard Nixon, effectively brought his Presidency to an end. The state was staggered with body blows and sent reeling against the ropes.
George Carlin owed his livelihood to his unique ability in skewering the dogma of conventional wisdom on prime time in front of millions. We all knew what he was against, and as such he was one of us, a David throwing rocks at Goliath. As a man of little formal education, which is to say he did not have a PhD from an important school in an important discipline, Carlin was able for more than 40 years to identify the big lie and how it masquerades behind the mask of scientistic and legalistic façade. Dogma to Carlin was a dragon to be slain whenever and wherever it reared its noxious head.
The first step to solution of a problem is identification, and George Carlin was a master at identifying many of them. Carlin used humor as his primary tool in ironic perception, and with that lever he pried open many a mask over the façade of conventional wisdom. His cultural role was not to solve problems, but to identify them. No matter how bad things were he could always bring a smile and a laugh as one of the benighted speaking his mind regardless. He kicked political correctness right in the teeth while Bill Maher was still wearing diapers.
My favorite Carlin quote came from a monologue I watched in the 70’s one night at a friend’s house after a multi-hour skull-cracking study session in Angell Hall.
“I love people, I hate groups. People are smart, groups are stupid.” ~ George Carlin
These simple words embodied Carlin’s philosophy of opposition to the status quo, the conventional wisdom. He rarely articulated who the enemy was, since his audiences knew it a priori. For baby boomers it was clear who it was, the man, the establishment. His philosophy embodied all that economic freedom and individual liberty enshrine. For Carlin individuals were sacrosanct and groups to be despised.
Individuals provide mankind faith, science, culture, music and philosophy. Groups take it away with lies, deception, theft and murder. While an avowed atheist he was, paradoxically, a man of deep faith. Faith in the ability of the individual to create meaning in life, despite one’s brief duration of life, despite the opposition of the privileged and the powerful. He stood on their stage and spat right in their eye.
Carlin knew that groups exist to imprison the individual, to place them in castes, to assign them limited possibilities, to dull their senses into acceptance of the inevitable, to use rape as the powerful desire. He recognized that in groups we find the bestiality of primitive man ascendant to run roughshod over the benighted masses. The cowardly hide behind groups as protection against being held accountable for their deviant behavior. During his professional career he saw Richard Nixon pervert the mantle of the leader of the free world for cynical personal ends. In the last decade of his career he saw the draft-dodging duo of Bush II and Evil Dick Cheney reincarnated as Nixon gone wild with an unlimited budget (4 trillion dollars in fresh debt for the unborn) and a façade of legitimacy to maim, crush or kill anyone desired.
Carlin railed against war, poverty, racism, sexism, how the privileged dupe the commoner in order to fleece them. He had no answers for these problems; only a firm conviction that group dynamics keep these perversions alive across the generations. The answer lies, where it has always lain, in the politics of Eighteenth Century Jeffersonian Democracy, that is to say, in the individual.
The world is a grayer place without George Carlin in it. Still I take comfort in the image of George Carlin standing with St. Peter in front of the pearly gates keeping the assholes out.