I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where
the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.
-- George Carlin
The last vote that George Carlin said he cast in a
presidential race was for George McGovern in 1972.
When Richard Nixon, who Carlin described as a member of
a sub-species of humanity, overwhelmingly defeated
McGovern, the comedian gave up on the political
"Now, there's one thing you might have noticed I don't
complain about: politicians," he explained in a routine
that challenged all the premises of today's half-a-loaf
reformers. "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.'"
Needless to say, George Carlin was not on message for
2008's "change we can believe in" election season.
His was a darker and more serious take on the crisis --
and the change of consciousness, sweeping in scope and
revolutionary in character, that was required to
Carlin may have stopped voting in 1972. But America's
most consistently savage social commentator for the
best part of a half century, who has died at age 71,
did not give up on politics.
In recent years, in front of audiences that were not
always liberal, he tore apart the neo-conservative
assault on liberty with a clarity rarely evidenced in
the popular culture.
Recalling George Bush's ranting about how the endless
"war on terror" is a battle for freedom, Carlin echoed
James Madison's thinking with a simple question: "Well,
if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight
fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never
mention that part to us, do they?"
Carlin gave the Christian right -- and the Christian
left -- no quarter. "I'm completely in favor of the
separation of Church and State," Carlin said. "My idea
is that these two institutions screw us up enough on
their own, so both of them together is certain death."
Carlin's take on the Ronald Reagan administration is
the best antidote to the counterfactual romanticization
of the former president -- in which even Barack Obama
has engaged -- remains the single finest assessment of
Reagan and his inner circle. While Carlin did not
complain much about politicians, he made an exception
with regard to the great communicator. Recorded in 1988
at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey, and
later released as an album -- What Am I Doing in New
Jersey? -- his savage recollection of the
then-concluding Reagan-Bush years opened with the line:
"I really haven't seen this many people in one place
since they took the group photograph of all the
criminals and lawbreakers in the Ronald Reagan
But there was no nostalgia for past fights, no resting
on laurels, for this topical comedian. He read the
papers, he followed the news, he asked questions -- the
interviews I did with Carlin over the years were more
conversations than traditional Q & A's -- and he turned
it all into a running commentary that focused not so
much on politics as on the ugly intersection of power
No one, not Obama, not Hillary Clinton and certainly
not John McCain, caught the zeitgeist of the vanishing
American dream so well as Carlin. "The owners of this
country know the truth: It's called the American dream
because you have to be asleep to believe it."
Not just aware of but steeped in the traditions of
American populism -- more William Jennings Bryan and
Eugene Victor Debs than Bill Clinton or John Kerry --
Carlin preached against the consolidation of wealth and
power with a fire-and-brimstone rage that betrayed a
deep moral sense that could never quite be cloaked with
"The real owners are the big wealthy business interests
that control things and make all the important
decisions. Forget the politicians, they're an
irrelevancy. 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
own everything. They own all the important land. They
own and control the corporations. They've long since
bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the
statehouses, the city halls. They've got the judges in
their back pockets. And they own all the big media
companies, so that they control just about all of the
news and information you hear. They've got you by the
balls. They spend billions of dollars every year
lobbying -- lobbying to get what they want. Well, we
know what they want; they want more for themselves and
less for everybody else," ranted the comedian whose
routines were studied in graduate schools.
"But I'll tell you what they don't want," Carlin
continued. "They don't want a population of citizens
capable of critical thinking. They don't want
well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical
thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't
help them. That's against their interests. They don't
want people who are smart enough to sit around the
kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting
fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking
years ago. You know what they want? Obedient workers --
people who are just smart enough to run the machines
and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively
accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the
lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end
of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears
the minute you go to collect it. And, now, they're
coming for your Social Security. They want your fucking
retirement money. They want it back, so they can give
it to their criminal friends on Wall Street. And you
know something? They'll get it. They'll get it all,
sooner or later, because they own this fucking place.
It's a big club, and you ain't in it. You and I are not
in the big club."
Carlin did not want Americans to get involved with the
He wanted citizens to get angry enough to remake the
Carlin was a leveler of the old, old school. And no one
who had so public a platform -- as the first host of
NBC's "Saturday Night Live," a regular on broadcast and
cable televisions shows, a best-selling author and a
favorite character actor in films (he was even the
narrator of the American version of the children's show
"Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends") -- did more to
challenge accepted wisdom regarding our political
"Let's suppose we all just materialized on Earth and
there was a bunch of potatoes on the ground, okay?
There's just six of us. Only six humans. We come into a
clearing and there's potatoes on the ground. Now, my
instinct would be, let's everybody get some potatoes.
"Everybody got a potato? Joey didn't get a potato! He's
small, he can't hold as many potatoes. Give Joey some
of your potatoes." "No, these are my potatoes!" That's
the Republicans. "I collected more of them, I got a
bigger pile of potatoes, they're mine. If you want some
of them, you're going to have to give me something."
"But look at Joey, he's only got a couple, they won't
last two days." That's the fuckin' difference! And I'm
more inclined to want to share and even out," he
explained in an interview several years ago with the
"I understand the marketplace, but government is
supposed to be here to redress the inequities of the
marketplace," Carlin continued. "That's one of its
functions. Not just to protect the nation, secure our
security and all that shit. And not just to take care
of great problems that are trans-state problems, that
are national, but also to make sure that the
inequalities of the marketplace are redressed by the
acts of government. That's what welfare was about.
There are people who really just don't have the tools,
for whatever reason. Yes, there are lazy people. Yes,
there are slackers. Yes, there's all of that. But there
are also people who can't cut it, for any given reason,
whether it's racism, or an educational opportunity, or
poverty, or a fuckin' horrible home life, or a history
of a horrible family life going back three generations,
or whatever it is. They're crippled and they can't make
it, and they deserve to rest at the commonweal. That's
where my fuckin' passion lies."
Like the radicals of the early years of the 20th
century, whose politics he knew and respected, Carlin
understood that free-speech fights had to come first.
And always pushed the limit -- happily choosing an
offensive word when a more polite one might have
sufficed. By 1972, the year he won the first of four
Grammys for best comedy album, he had developed his
most famous routine: "Seven Words (You Can't Say on
That summer, at a huge outdoor show in Milwaukee, he
uttered all seven of them in public -- and was promptly
arrested for disturbing the peace.
When a version of the routine was aired in 1973 on
WBAI, the Pacifica Foundation radio station in New
York,. Pacifica received a citation from the FCC.
Pacifica was ordered to pay a fine for violating
federal regulations prohibiting the broadcast of
"obscene" language. The ensuing free-speech fight made
its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rile 5-4
against the First Amendment to the Constitution,
Pacifica and Carlin.
Amusingly, especially to the comedian, a full
transcript of the routine ended up in court documents
associated with the case, F.C.C. v. Pacifica
Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978).
"So my name is a footnote in American legal history,
which I'm perversely kind of proud of," recalled
Carlin. Proud enough that you can find the court
records on the comedian's website: www.georgecarlin.com
There will, of course, be those who dismiss Carlin as a
remnant of the sixties who introduced obscenity to the
public discourse -- just as there will be those who
misread his critique of the American political and
economic systems as little more than verbal nihilism.
In fact, George Carlin was, like the radicals of an
earlier age, an idealist -- and a patriot -- of a
deeper sort than is encountered very often these days.
Carlin explained himself best in one of his last
interviews. "There is a certain amount of righteous
indignation I hold for this culture, because to get
back to the real root of it, to get broader about it,
my opinion that is my species -- and my culture in
America specifically -- have let me down and betrayed
me. I think this species had great, great promise, with
this great upper brain that we have, and I think we
squandered it on God and Mammon. And I think this
culture of ours has such promise, with the promise of
real, true freedom, and then everyone has been shackled
by ownership and possessions and acquisition and status
and power," he said. "And perhaps it's just a human
weakness and an inevitable human story that these
things happen. But there's disillusionment and some
discontent in me about it. I don't consider myself a
cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist.
But I understand the word 'cynic' has more than one
meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical.
'George, you're cynical.' Well, you know, they say if
you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist.
And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you