essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
There’s a real possibility that George Carlin will go down as a stand up comedian. A good one, maybe the funniest man on the planet as one fan put it, but that’s all. There’s a whole lot more to George Carlin than that: a great mime; a good actor; an alarming critic of human nature – George Carlin gives high definition to the term ‘razor sharp’ when it comes to lambasting the weirdness of human nature. And to untangling the absurdities of the language we use to disguise our ignorance and omissions.
But George Carlin, more and more as he developed his cynical attitude to social humanity, became a prophet.
We’re not used to prophets. We think of them as people who tell your future. “Next week you will meet a tall dark stranger who will change your life”. They never tell you if it’s your future spouse or the Boston Strangler, guess they figure you’ll work it out at the time.
No, the prophets were writers and preachers in ancient Jewish (and other) culture. Everytime the Jews stepped out of line, started following some other god than Yahweh, along would come a prophet, remind the people what would happen. They pressed the red alert button. The Jewish people smote the Canaanites, that was OK, because they won, and god wanted them to do it. But when the Assyrians or the Medes or Babylonians or Persians smote the Jews, some of them thought, hey, the foreigners’ god is more powerful, let’s follow him. RED ALERT, RED ALERT!
Isaiah for instance warned of the threat of Assyrian expansion in the 8th century, and those warnings were emphasised during the Babylonian captivity and return in the 6th century. Jeremiah warned likewise during this period. Ezekiel, lamenting in Babylon, calls for repentance and reform. The prophets saw what we regard as political events as the effect of the breaking of the Covenant with god which made the Jews the chosen people. The people had abjured their side of the Covenant, and the major empires of the time had moved in. The people lost their freedom, their identity, and Big Brother was in charge. The prophets believed they spoke with the voice of god, and were urging restoration of the Covenant on a people who had abandoned their responsibilities and duties.
America was populated by native peoples with a strong sense of equality, and of responsibility towards the lands they lived on. Then it was populated by Europeans seeking liberty from oppression and persecution, freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs.
America had a Constitution, once, that protected the people’s liberties. But after the second world war, something happened. The country prospered, became the richest and strongest nation on the earth, and a world empire. Something was gained, something was lost. Enemies were all around, and national security became an issue. The FBI and CIA became supra constitutional. National security became more important than peoples’ rights and freedoms. At the same time the wealth of the country grew, the population increased, and big corporations were formed to exploit both these developments. The corporations formed lobbies to government, and in some cases found allies among business interests representing the underworld, which was also becoming incorporated. Sometime in the 80s, government finally ceased to represent the people. Politicians found their interests best served by alliance with corporate bodies, and these gradually amassed all the country’s wealth into comparatively few hands. Politics became just another TV show, and politicians merely showmen. Nobody knew who the men actually in charge were.
Happens all the time with empires. The Romans thought the Senate was in charge, when Marius, Sulla, Pompey or Caesar was really making the decisions. If anybody objected, they were given a handout and a free show, bread and circuses, the ancient equivalent of TV and the iPad.
In America, politicians who didn’t realise the true state of affairs met a sticky end.
George Carlin was not by any means the only one to notice this eroding of personal freedoms. He’s certainly the funniest to do so, but you feel uncomfortable while you’re laughing. Maybe it’s not the other guy, maybe it’s you! Like Basil Fawlty makes you laugh at bigotry and snobishness while realising, hey, I do that! George Carlin was funny because he despaired of social mankind. His message was, it’s too late. You’ve handed over your freedoms to people who are exploiting you, and repeating the propaganda they tell you, while you dream the American Dream (“you gotta be asleep to have it”.)
Back in January 1953 the “fictionalizing philosopher” Philip Kindred Dick wrote a story called The Defenders, later expanded into a novel called The Penultimate Truth in 1964. In the story it is World War III for most of humanity, who live in underground bunkers and labour to supply an unending stream of munitions to the brave men at the front who are engaged in a struggle for liberty. But on the surface live a privileged few wealthy folk, in an idyllic paradise, who supply graphic footage of the war to the news channels, all created in the TV studio. Here’s Philip K Dick’s answer to the question, why are we fighting? To make the rich folk richer.
The idea is an old one. HG Wells had it first (as usual). In The Time Machine of 1895 this is the ultimate end of humanity: divided into two classes, the Eloi who are few, privileged, rich and totally useless; and the Morlocks, the exploited, degraded multitude who supply the Eloi with all their needs.
The idea is even older, for it began 4,000 years ago with the development of civilization. Groups of egalitarian hunters and gatherers who had a far healthier diet, more creative leisure time, less disease and did far less damage to the planet were transformed into a civilized people, herded into unsanitary cities, specialised into groups of skilled producers of goods, managed by a privileged elite, at the mercy of the economic forces introduced by the invention of barter, then currency exchange. Civilisation created many new diseases and infections, poverty, political parties, environmental degradation, propaganda and an increase in warfare technology. And a few nice pots and paintings.
How did this happen? By the invention of Them. The smart guys, the first wheeler dealers, invented Them. The guys across the river, they’re going to attack us. We need to get organised. Build some walls around the huts, elect a leader, give him power, privileges, money and obeisance. Get on a war footing, make more spears and slings. Sounds a lot like the Cold War, doesn’t it?
In the Cold War the two greatest post WWII powers laboured to stockpile nuclear weapons. Made a lot of money for the munitions industries. But why stockpile them? Nobody could use them, but while they were accumulating a conservative government could rack up the taxes. National security. Caused a lot of paranoia. Created a lot of nuclear material we don’t yet know what to do with, can’t even figure out how to destroy it. And social issues were ignored till the sixties. Then, in the 60s, anyone who tried to address social issues in America got killed. National security. The guys across the river might still attack.
Ever wonder about the causes of war? What started WWII? The monomaniac with the toothbrush mustache? Did this guy with delusions of grandeur and weird theories of racial purity really cause the death of 100 million people, men, woman and children? Was this the guy that invented the great idea of bombing cities, schools and hospitals? Or was it American aid to Germany by multinational corporations? And the economic enterprise of the Krupp munitions empire? And the enthusiastic support of the German Army establishment? And French and British supremacists determined to keep Germany weak which motivated the German military elite to think they were fighting for their life? Let’s face it, governments and armies across the planet started WWII, because we like war, as George Carlin points out. Hitler was just a politician, to be moved around the board to the advantage of bigger interests.
What was so important about signing the Cross from right to left, versus from left to right? The Greek Orthodox Church went to war with the Roman Church over that one. Why is being a Catholic in Ireland still a threat to Protestants in Britain? It was in the 16th century, but priests and ministers still preach hate because someone gives precedence to the Pope over the Monarch. The Pope? The Monarch? Superseded powers, but still worth killing for. The money paid for Russian and Israeli armaments to fuel war in Ireland goes to finance war in the home countries. It’s a win win situation, but for whom?
Pardon me from asking, but what’s so different between Croats and Serbs? Why do the Arab peoples have to fight the Jewish people of Israel? Why can’t they both go out and fertilise the desert with water, instead of blood, like the Sumerians and Akkadians did 4,000 years ago?
Create a crisis, raise the taxes, degrade the peoples’ rights, remove privileges foolishly granted long ago. Like the eight hour day, the minimum wage, paying no more than 25% of your salary for a housing loan, housing standards, public holidays. Here come the Morlocks! One day we’ll be all living by our wits on the streets, while the empty houses we can’t afford to live in slowly decay. But the property managers will be rich, so it won’t matter.
There is a lot more to both Philip K Dick (the nature of reality, the essence of being human) and George Carlin (the absurdities of language, the evils of consumerism, the self interest of reactionary protest groups) than criticism of the ceding of our freedoms to the rich and powerful. But they both had a great precursor, a man who summed up the dilemmas of the 20th and 21st centuries with frightening acuity: George Orwell.
George Orwell had been a committed socialist in the days when European political theorists were impressed by the way Lenin had swept the decaying superstructure of Czarism in Russia away and given power to the people. Orwell and other writers proud to call themselves socialists hadn’t realised that according to Stalin, before the dictatorship of the proletariat there had to be the dictatorship of the Party. Just as Americans hadn’t realised that before the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution could be resumed, there had to be a dictatorship in the interests of national security, which was then followed by dictatorship of the corporation. The Party, the Corporation, what the heck! The political scientist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy forecast the demise of all three and replacement by the corporate state, with very limited representation. Orwell’s response to Stalinism was more passionate, an outraged fable called Animal Farm, written in 1945. The famous slogan promulgated in the book, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” more or less sums up the post war political situations, where all kinds of government were mutating into the corporate state.
In 1948 Orwell wrote a book called 1984. He wasn’t forecasting the future. He wasn’t saying what he described would happen in 1984 or any other time in the future. He thought it was happening now. And he wrote the book to alert people, because they didn’t seem to be aware. In the so called democracies the electorate sent a representative to parliament. To get elected that representative made all kinds of promises. But who was checking on his policies? No-one knew if he even had any, other than the policy of trying to get elected. And what happened to his election promises? No-one was checking if they had been implemented. They usually weren’t. No-one knew what to do to change the situation if their representative didn’t actually represent them. And then after four years everybody went back and repeated the process. Orwell saw this as a dangerous game. There’s nothing in this system to stop interested groups from taking 90% of the wealth of the country for themselves. Anyone complains, raise the inflation rate, that’ll shut them up.
Winston Smith, the central character of 1984, lives in a surveillanced society. The TV screens in each room of his house, and in all public places, are two way. Notices are prominently displayed everywhere he goes: Big Brother Is Watching. Of course there is no such person as Big Brother. He’s the fatherly, threatening Joe Stalin of poster art, no more real than the poster of Lord Kitchener. But he represents the State, and all citizens must serve the state or be eliminated. The officials who run the state are unknown persons, and that makes them more terrifying. If you’re worried about what Google knows of your internet life, you’ll sympathise with Winston Smith. Orwell didn’t know about Google, but he wouldn’t have been surprised.
In the 1984 state, war is perpetual. There is always someone to hate. It’s a ritual. Let’s kill the dirty bastards who threaten our country. While the emergency lasts someone has to be in charge. Big Brother. While the threat persists, all citizens have to make sacrifices, cede privileges.
The three writers I’m referring to are describing the same process. George Carlin sees the beginning: passive acceptance of the erosion of rights and responsibilities and substitution of these with compulsive consumerism. My vote mightn’t count, but I’ve got this cute iPad. Don’t really know what to do with it, but, hey, isn’t it cool!
Philip K Dick looks further down the track. Media dominated citizens accept everything they’re told and are kept busy while their masters reap the benefit of their efforts.
George Orwell sees it with all the terrifying implications fully realised. The state is all powerful, all the citizens merely its slaves. There is no reality, no truth, no certainty, no way to object or escape.
And 50,000 years in the future, HG Wells sees the Eloi and the Morlocks.
But hey! No need to worry! We’re just talking about some SF writers. One of them’s a socialist, know what that means, don’t you? One of them’s a paranoidal delusional with schizophrenic tendencies, can’t believe what he comes up with, can you? And one of them’s just a stand up comic, do anything to get a laugh. And he uses the most crude and vulgar expressions. Now we can’t stop hating these terrorists. Especially those Muslim terrorists. Or those Arab warlords. And that dodgy fellow in Iran. Our freedoms would become eroded. Might have chaos instead of law and order. Yes, Big Brother.
One of Orwell’s most prescient inventions is Newspeak, which is in the process of replacing Oldspeak or standard English in Oceania. Newspeak is a stripped down, minimalist language designed to control thought. Many words have been simply eliminated, like defective citizens. If there’s no word for it, the idea is, you will find it difficult to think it. One word eliminated, for example, is ‘freedom’, in the sense of political freedom. In 1984 you literally cannot say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. Not only can’t you say this, you are unable to think it. How many Americans now know their own Constitution, and what it provides for them? Newspeak has no shades of meaning, no such thing as allusion or metaphor, very little grammar, and few concepts aside from those associated with serving the state.
Along the way to Newspeak, citizens learn the art of doublethink. To use doublethink, you need to be able to use words for purposes other than their derived meaning. We already use doublethink a lot. We call it euphuism, though it bears little resemblance to John Lyly’s florid rhetorical style expressed in his 1578 book Euphues.
When men admire a woman’s breasts, the very last thing they say is “what lovely breasts you have”. They refer to boobs, bust, cleavage, norks or titties. Indirect words are also used for defecation, urination and menstruation. One peculiarity is the polite use of Latin words for the sex organs and sexual intercourse, and Anglo Saxon words for their vulgar use. Chaucer says in 1390 “Pryvely he caught her by the queynte” without any thought of a hidden meaning, but by the 16th century the word had developed its indirect overtone. Strange to find people today still reflecting a 15th century snobbery, that the Anglo Saxons were rude and uncivilised, and that cultured persons spoke Latin.
Television flourishes on the promulgation of information about unpleasant things, though the word ‘information’ is used here in a doublethink sense. To die during surgery is a negative patient care outcome. Sounds a lot better doesn’t it? An energy release is a radioactive one, a hazardous waste site is a radioactive one. Just leave out the nuclear factor and everything will be all right. Reflation, deflation, disinflation and stagflation all mean the economy’s in a bad way, in recession, but we should still vote for the people responsible. An anti-personnel bomb is designed to shred a person into a thousand fragments. Counterforce weapons are nuclear missiles, collateral damage is nuclear fallout. This is how we describe things we don’t want to think about. Doublethink. We do it every day. Just watch TV.
If reality is uncomfortable, just adjust the set.
The misuse of language is one of George Carlin’s concerns. Talking about airplane safety he is horrified to discover a near miss is really a near hit (“but then how can you trust people who consistently lie about arrival and departure times?”). The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television sketch is all about the gap between words and meaning and the absurdity of trying to control meanings by controlling words.
So, language misuse, media intrusion, lack of representation in government, growing poverty (even the rich will be poor when they own all the money) and lack of freedom are all connected.
Ezekiel, George Carlin, HG Wells, George Orwell and Philip K Dick all have something to tell us about the process of which we are inexorably a part. Are we free, or just free to be slaves?
Here’s a clue. The smile of the Buddha.
“Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free”.
©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.