Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Senator Quayle, I knew George Carlin, and he was no Tim Russert (thank God)
Perhaps I am in the unappreciative minority, but I seriously consider the loss of George Carlin to be a more important passing than the death of Tim Russert (see Waldo, I was listening [reading?]).
Russert contributed to the incessant 24/7 political news cycle that has become more and more depressingly shallow as it becomes wider and wider.
George Carlin--to an extent that modern comedians from Jay Leno to Steve Colbert have failed to advance--taught us all to have more of a sense of humor about our sacred cows.
George Carlin (in a way that no one of his contemporaries except possibly the early Richard Pryor or the Firesign Theater) taught us that ridicule of our morals, our religion, our enemies, and our most sacred beliefs is not only a good thing (and funny), but is also a necessary component of a functioning democracy.
Here's what George taught me:
I have a friend (in this case not Waldo) who drops by here from time to time, who is a professional colleague. Several years ago he converted to Seventh-Day Adventism in what was not a death bed conversion, but more aptly described as a marital bed conversion. For those of you who don't know, Seventh-Day Adventists, aside from missing the Saturday morning cartoons because they are in church, don't eat meat, eggs, or the small white boxes that Chinese take-out arrives in.
My friend, however, follows the ancient Biblical prescription (it's in his Bible; it's just in pencil) that "chicken consumeth in a Subway restaurant uponeth a sandwich when eating with a colleague and thy wife is out of towneth is not considered to be meat in the eyes of God."
One day I found him at the office photocopier squinting over a document with incredibly fine print.
"Ah," I said. "Near-sightedness. First symptom of egg-white deprivation."
You are not allowed in our society to make fun of people's bizarre religious habits, any more. And George let us know in our pomposity that this is a bad thing.
This cultural cowardice about religious humor actually keeps us from examining important questions about the impact of religion. Atheist authors like Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) generally lose their readers--even potentially sympathetic readers--because they write about religion with the fanatical, joyless fervor of Cotton Mather with a wedgie.
Nobody wants to read them (except equally devout and humor-challenged atheists) because they are tedious and boring.
You can't even make fun of Islam or terrorists these days, despite the fact that there is a lot of material out there, and the even more pertinent fact that it might have a positive impact on our conflict with Islamic extremists. Dean Ing wrote a prophetic SF novel (Soft Targets) about 25 years ago, in which he argued that the best way to deal with terrorists in a free society is to subject them to public ridicule.
Think about it for a moment. We're seriously taking off our shoes in airports (and I'm here to tell you there has been NO upsurge in the sale of Odor-Eaters) because a bunch of guys whose idea of a good time is f**king goats in a cave in Tora Bora have declared a jihad against the greatest nation in the world where every eleven-year-old boy with internet access can find pictures of Britney Spears with no underwear before she porked up.
So yeah, these nineteen guys (who spent their last months stuffing ten dollar bills into the g-strings of transvestite stripers while praying five times a day in the general direction of a big black rock in a city with no air conditioning) managed to hijack four planes and kill a lot of Americans.
What did we do? We made them into some kind of fearsome, mystically powered evil ninjas who could materialize anywhere and by blowing up their feet could bring us to our knees.
What should we have done? How about we point out the fact that these guys were geeks and losers, and that if any of them had ever had the moxie to get laid they'd have known that they should have picked a religion that promised you seventy-two experienced, double-jointed nymphomaniacs instead of whining virgins who still have veils over their faces for reasons I think we all know.
And if this offends you, in the spirit of George Carlin, I have two words for you.