Sunday, December 28, 2008

Voices We Have Lost (I): George Carlin

New World Notes News
Volume 2, Number 1 -- January 6, 2009

This week in New World Notes, #46 -- January 6 & 9, 2009:

From time to time this winter, New World Notes will look back and pause to appreciate--and commemorate--some of those who died in 2008. People whose voice had helped keep us sane(r) in an increasingly insane world. People whose absence we already regret.

The list is far too long, even if we limit it to those whose whose voices would have been (or had been) at home on this program. Utah Phillips, for instance. Studs Terkel. Most recently, Harold Pinter. And the saddest loss to me: George Carlin.

A touching memorial poster. Found on Carlin's Web site a few days
after his death. An FCC obscenity complaint (largely upheld by the courts)
resulted in Carlin's famous routine, "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV."
Unfortunately, you can't say them on radio, either!
Click to enlarge.

A troublesome student and a high-school drop-out, Carlin displayed an extraordinary shrewdness of mind. He would analyze a scene and identify its key forces, key actors, key conflicts--the real conflicts, not just the most apparent ones--and find every moment in which somebody was BS'ing somebody else. Which, as he saw it, was generally the power elite and the prostitute politicians together BS'ing the average citizen.

And no, he didn't use the initials B.S. Even more than Orwell, Carlin hated euphemism. If you had two mangled legs, don't tell Carlin that you are "differently abled." Let alone, "not handicapped but handy-CAPABLE!" He'd tell you to go f*** yourself. Without the asterisks.

This was far from cold-heartedness. He felt that both society and government should help the cripples. And that nobody would lift a finger to help, so long as there weren't any cripples but only hundreds of thousands of differently-abled "handy-CAPABLES."

Carlin then (sorry: dunno when) . . .

Wish I could say, "And now." And not so long ago. Apparently 2001.

In addition to this utopian side, Carlin also had a soft, gentle side. You can hear it in this week's installment, when he talks about "the little things that bring us together." You could see it also in the gentle roles he played in children's shows. As "Mister Conductor" in the lovely TV series Shining Time Station, featuring Thomas the Tank Engine. (Ringo Starr played the same role; as did, less ably, Alec Baldwin.) Carlin also played Rufus, the kindly envoy from the future in the movie for adolescents, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

In this week's program, though, we short-change Carlin's sweet and gentle side and focus on the acerbic. In four excerpts, Carlin blasts back at religion, euphemism--hard to tell which one he likes less: probably religion--and (twice) Class Warfare.

Credit where due: elsewhere, Carlin has praised the fine education he received during a stint in a Jesuit-run high school. He credits the Jesuits with equipping him with the analytical and reasoning skills that enabled him to reject organized religion in general and Christianity in particular. The best-laid plans of mice and St. Ignatius Loyola sure ganged agley in Carlin's case!

Agitator, definitely. Was he also a terrorist?
Refer to the chart, and then YOU decide!

Ironically--like those who shaped his habits of mind--George Carlin's great predecessor also was a clergyman. In 1731, this Anglican priest--Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin--wrote what could serve well as an obituary for our own departed satirist. In "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D.," the good Dean showed how he hoped people would speak of him after his death. If Carlin had endowed an insane asylum in his will--as Swift did, in Ireland--the parallels would be exact:
  • Perhaps, I may allow, the Dean
    Had too much Satyr [satire] in his Vein;
    And seem'd determin'd not to starve it,
    Because no Age could more deserve it.
    Yet Malice never was his Aim;
    He lash'd the Vice, but spar'd the Name. . . .
    His Satyr points to no Defect,
    But what all Mortals may correct; . . .
    He spar'd a Hump or crooked Nose,
    Whose Owners set not up for Beaux.
    True genuine Dulness mov'd his Pity,
    Unless it offer'd to be witty.
    Those, who their Ignorance confess'd,
    He ne'er offended with a Jest;
    But laugh'd to hear an Idiot quote,
    A Verse from Horace, learn'd by Rote. . . .

    He gave what little Wealth he had,
    To build a House for Fools and Mad:
    And shew'd by one satyric Touch,
    No Nation wanted it so much:
    That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
    I wish it soon may have a Better.

Carlin was never was a religious man. Well, rest in peace anyway! And rest in peace, Professor John W. Tilton, who, many years ago, taught me to appreciate Swift and satire, and whom I should have thanked somewhat earlier. --K.D.

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This week's music:

  • Intro: Warren Zevon with Something Happens, "Werewolves of London"
  • Anne Feeney with Commander Cody (vocals & piano), "Preacher and the Slave"
  • Outro: Rich Wyman, "Guantanamo" (band version)

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