Legendary comedian George Carlin was born in New York on May 12, 1937, which would have made him 80 years old today had he not died in June of 2008, shortly before Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Long before that election, however, Carlin had soured on the political process and given up on the idea of voting. According to the Nation, the last vote George Carlin says he ever cast was for George McGovern to beat Richard Nixon in 1972. After Nixon, whom Carlin described as a member of a human sub-species, defeated McGovern overwhelmingly, Carlin’s views on politics would take a cynical turn that followed him his entire life. Luckily for us, his views made their way into his comedy routines and we can learn a lot from his wisdom.
In his 1996 stand-up special Back In Town, George Carlin expressed a brutal truth when he explained why he generally doesn’t complain about politicians.
“Now, there’s one thing you might have noticed I don’t complain about: politicians,” Carlin said. “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. F**k Hope.'”
Rather than focus on the particular problems with individual politicians or political parties, Carlin opted for an indictment of the problems inherent in our entire society. It wasn’t just about politician ‘A’ taking bribes to pass law ‘B,’ but the entire social reality that makes it impossible to not have such selfish, corrupt politicians in the first place. George Carlin rightfully saw that, as he said, politicians don’t just “fall out of the sky,” but rather are cultivated in the social sphere of which we are all a part. He recognized that, by our commitment to ignorance and lazy thinking, we not only allow such a political reality to prosper but literally become the substrate on which it thrives.
According to Splitsider, George Carlin elaborated on his view of politics in the 2005 special Life Is Worth Losing.
“Forget the politicians. Politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t,” Carlin said. “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 have the judges in their back pocket, and they own all the big media companies, so they own and control just about all the news and information you get to hear. They’ve got you by the balls.”
Later in that same special, Carlin said what has become one of his most famous and sadly accurate quotes.
“It’s called the American Dream, ’cause you have to be asleep to believe it,” Carlin informed his audience.
Nearly nine years after George Carlin’s death, his political observations are more succinct than ever. While George Carlin did not explicitly offer any way out of the mess we’re in, perhaps we can learn something from his commitment to expressing biting, difficult truths about society. Too often people shy away from difficult truths for comforting narratives. George Carlin saw this for what it was, and he was not afraid to say it. Happy birthday, Mr. Carlin.
[Featured Image by Kevin Winter/Getty Images]