Category Archives: George Carlin

Trash Talk

When I checked Twitter and noticed Larry Bird trending, I immediately assumed that it was connected to the Angel Reese/ Caitlin Clark debate surrounding trash talk.

I was right, and the discussions around Bird, a legendary trash talker, echoes the same racial tension that responses to Reese and Clark are exposing.

My basketball life was grounded in the 1970s and 1980s when I played a great deal of basketball—on school and rec teams throughout junior and high school as well as almost daily pick-up games in the late 70s and early 80s—and was an avid college and NBA fan.

That basketball life included being a rabid fan of Pete Maravich and Bird, and since I was a scrawny white redneck from a working class family, there were many aspects of race and social class entrenched in my basketball life.

Despite my compulsive practicing—much of that focusing on dunking and spinning a basketball on my finger—I was mostly a bench warmer on school teams; I was routinely humiliated by my teammates who were overwhelmingly Black.

In fact, on a 13-person roster as a sophomore, I was the only white guy on the team.

But probably the most important part of my basketball life, and ultimately my life in general, was playing pick-up basketball almost exclusively with Black guys throughout high school and into college (where I also played intramural basketball).

Despite my limited skills as a basketball player, I was pretty athletic, I knew how to play ball well, I was a physical player, and I talked trash. On the court and off, I was known for my gifted use of profanity.

Concurrent with my basketball life, I listened for hours to George Carlin and Richard Pryor comedy albums. Carlin and Pryor taught me the power of language while also disrupting much of my redneck upbringing that was often narrow-minded and bigoted.

I learned from Carlin and Pryor that being smart and gifted knew no race, but I also learned that individual power and autonomy was grounded in my mind and my verbal abilities.

On the basketball court, I had a great to deal to make up for since I was often the weakest pure player on the court. So I had to play hard, and I used one skill I trusted—running my mouth.

One year that stands out to me is playing intramural basketball in my first couple years of college when I was playing pick-up basketball nearly daily with members of the college team and local elite high school players. Again, pick-up gains were overwhelmingly with Black guys and a couple of my closest white friends who, like me, were very Black-guy-adjacent in their basketball and personal lives.

Looking back on these experiences, especially in the context of the reductive and racist debates raging over Reese/ Clark and including references to Bird, I am now vividly aware of the moral codes I was taught through the Black culture elements of basketball.

One of my white friends used to say to me often, “Paul, you’re going to get your ass beat,” referring to my trash talk. Notably, these moments were always about my antagonistic interactions with other white guys.

I could have, and should have, gotten my ass beat, by the way. I was more mouth than ass, and I really never monitored when the other guy didn’t understand the moral code I had acquired.

The mostly Black-guy pick-up games were intense with a great deal of mouthing. But we usually smiled, we often slapped hands or shook hands to compliment good play, and I really never expected anyone to come to blows.

Unlike white guys, as well, Black guys called their own fouls when they committed them. If you fouled guys and let it slide, you caught extra hell so there was a not-so-subtle message to do the right thing.

White guys cried and moaned about being fouled, and trash talking often teetered in the edge of starting a fight.

I am certain I learned to respect the game from Black guys, and part of that code had to do with respecting each other even as we talked trash. White guys were often petty, what I called back then “punks,” calling touch fouls, complaining, being soft.

Talking trash was as much of the game as dribbling, passing, rebounding, and shooting. But talking trash was also a sign of respect and a level of expectations.

If you talk trash, you are going to pay for it at some point.

Bird often used trash talking to gain an advantage, but Bird lost games and match ups many times over his career. I am sure many people let him know that.

Bird was very open about his respect for Black athletes, and even said aloud he took it as a sign of disrespect when coaches had a white player guard him.

There is a very complex and even uncomfortable set of lessons in the racial dynamics of the basketball world of the 1970s and 1980s, often represented by Bird and Magic Johnson but also involving Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons.

Basketball was much more physical and even violent then, but basketball in many ways (along with professional sports) represented a way for Black men to gain status in US society in ways mostly denied them.

We want to think sports is a meritocracy, and maybe it is more so than in other contexts, but the basketball world I grew up in pushed racial tensions, racism and stereotypes, and cultural norms into a stronger spotlight for me.

In 2023, I shake my head, I sigh, and I regret that white people remain trapped in the sort of pettiness I witnessed growing up—thin skinned and absent a moral code that respects all humanity.

The Reese/ Clark controversy is much bigger than these athletes, and it exposes how public discourse remains white-centered, shaping a much different narrative of Reese than Clark.

An unfairly different narrative grounded in race and racism but also extending a faux respectability politics onto Reese but excused in Clark.

There was an important camaraderie  in the trash talking of my teen and young adult years that I cherish and miss (my basketball life was quite different than my all-white golf life that had a false decorum I never felt comfortable in). Dozens and dozens of Black guys made me a better athlete and person.

Clark like Bird likely understands that trash talk has its rewards but you will pay for it.

Millions of moments like the Reese/ Clark clash happened and do happen on basketball courts around the world, daily. But theirs was on one of the brightest stages and televised.

While too many people want to make claims about the character of Reese or Clark, the truth is that the debate itself is a window into the character of everyone choosing to debate their trash talking.

Too many people, mostly white, never learned the moral codes I did, never learned the lessons of race that were gifted me in the 1970s on vinyl records and on sweaty basketball courts.

If you are inclined to chastise Reese and praise Clark, you need to take a long moment in the mirror and consider holding yourself accountable before worrying about two young women playing college basketball at the highest level.


My Open Letters: 5 May 2022

Dear 20-Somethings:

First, speaking as a person in his 60s, I am sorry for this country being dismantled in front of you, the country you are entering as the newest wave of adults.

I spent my 20s in the 1980s, the Reagan era, the lingering era of AIDS. That was not the country or world that I wanted. My youth was, in fact, a time that inspired in part Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

My youth, too, was spent with an awareness of the tyranny of the Right, the authoritarian conservative threat that was poised to slip into fascism.

But I also know, adults tend not to listen to the young—children, teens, 20-somethings. Having been a teacher across five decades, I have spent a great deal of my life with young people because I genuinely love young people.

Young people are hope.

Young people represent promises that the rest of us have failed to honor.

Over the last 20 years teaching college, I have watched as young people in their late teens and early 20s have shifted. I am not a “kids today” person; I don’t believe young people are somehow worse now than in some manufactured good old days.

I am routinely stunned at how much smarter young people are now than when I was young.

But I am also aware young people don’t vote; like me, young people are often cynical that the system will work for them.

I have never been a member of a political party.

Republicans are morally bankrupt, and Democrats are spineless. Like W.E.B. Du Bois and George Carlin, I was a non-voter for many years myself.

But the rise of Trump changed that for me. I have conceded that all we have is an imperfect system. The great paradox is that we must use the imperfect system to create a better one.

We—and by “we” I mean not just Americans but humanity—need young people to be the change we failed to be.

My students have often groaned when I turn to literature, but I cannot think of anything better than this to explain the situation before us: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats).

Can you be the best with passionate intensity in the name of a kinder world, a world where we guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness to all, instead of leveraging our power to deny, to demonize, and to hate?

Dear RNC:

You are the party of censorship.

You are the party of hate.

You are, ultimately, the party of lies.

There is no saving that party, but Republicans must not be allowed to spread that hatred in the name of righteousness.

You are spitting in the faces of the idealized Founding Fathers you idolize. You spend your time in office denying freedom to people not like you (white men).

There is no question for you. You are power-hungry authoritarians.

This is who you are.

Dear Anti-Abortion Advocates:

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

I recognize the anti-abortion movement as a forced-birth movement that is anti-women.

But I am willing to be wrong, to admit I am wrong, and to join with those of you who genuinely want to reduce unwanted births, and thus, abortions.

Criminalizing abortion and women does not reduce abortion. Criminalizing abortion and women only increases unsafe abortions and increases violence and death for women.

There are, however, kind and even Christ-like ways to reduce dramatically unwanted pregnancies and abortion:

  • Call for universal healthcare.
  • Call for fully publicly funded contraception.
  • Call for comprehensive sex education.
  • Demand that all the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are extended regardless of gender.

If you choose punishment, you are anti-woman, not anti-abortion.

If you choose punishment, you are abdicating any moral authority you believe you have.

I do not believe that the anti-abortion movement is about pro-life. I do not believe the anti-abortion movement is about babies or children.

So far, you have proven me right. Can you prove me wrong?

Dear White Women:

A majority of white women voted for Trump. Twice.

White women voted for a man on record laughing about sexual assault, a man credibly accused of sexual assault across his entire life, including a former wife.

But even worse than that, by remaining loyal to the Republican Party, white women are complicit in anti-women legislation, and an anti-woman Supreme Court.

Margaret Atwood, a white woman who has been recently criticized for her own faults, held up to the world the horror of women being complicit in the patriarchy.

It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, which Atwood dramatizes often in her novel in powerful and disturbing ways. It is a terrible thing to blame a victim, as Adrienne Rich captures in a poem:

And it is a shallow thing to demand that the oppressed rise up to change an oppressive world.

Although men are the problem, white men, white women have entrenched themselves so deeply in the power of white men that being complicit demands that white women join with the rest of us to say “No, this is not the country we want.”

Can you set aside your selfishness, your security, and do the right thing?

Dear DNC:

The world is on fire, and you want my money?

The world is on fire, and you have refused to even drive the firetruck out of the station, much less use the firehose in some sort of effort to end this nightmare.

You see the world being on fire as a political opportunity for you.

How is that different than the RNC setting the world on fire as a political opportunity for them?

I am not a “both sides” thinker. I cannot act as if the DNC and RNC are equally failing our country, failing humanity.

But the DNC is failing everything that matters.

Cancel student loan debt.

Codify Roe v. Wade.

Pass progressive legislation.

Can you act in a way that ends this raging fire, or are you content to simply shout, “The world is burning (so send us your donations)”?

I know that Republicans will aggressively continue being horrible humans, but I do not trust that Democrats are willing to do the right thing because the world being on fire creates political opportunities for both parties.

Just as Republicans are Republicans first, power mongers, Democrats seem trapped in that same conservative mindset.

Can you be Americans first, or better yet, humans first?

“Is everybody okay? Let’s get something to eat”: On George Carlin and the Intellectual Bankruptcy of the Right

In Season 4, episode 3 of Seinfeld, the show becomes a meta-sitcom. George and Jerry pitch a sitcom to NBC, Jerry, and establish what would become the short-hand way to describe the actual show, expressed by George:

George Costanza: I think I can sum up the show for you in one word. Nothing.

Russell Dalrymple: Nothing?

George Costanza: Nothing.

Russell Dalrymple: What does that mean?

George Costanza: The show is about… nothing!

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, it’s not about nothing.

George Costanza: No, it’s about nothing.

Jerry Seinfeld: Well, maybe in philosophy, but even nothing is something.

Seinfeld S4 E3

But, if you dig deeper, ironically, Seinfeld is not just a “show about nothing,” but the characters themselves are, well, let’s allow Jerry to explain (after being challenged by his girlfriend that he never gets mad):

Patty: OK, Jerry, enough. I’m not buying it.

Jerry: You’re damn right you’re not buying it!

Patty: You shouldn’t have to try. It’s just being open.

Jerry: I’m open. There’s just nothing in there.

Seinfeld S9 E3, The Serenity Now

In 2021, Seinfeld the show and Jerry are perfect metaphors for conservatives and Republicans in the U.S.—”there’s just nothing there.”

Consider a hypothetical first.

Imagine liberals and Democrats in the U.S. misrepresenting Ayn Rand or Jerry Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr. in order to claim that these conservative figures actually are leftists, or Marxists.

Sounds preposterous because that doesn’t happen. At the center of that fact is that the Left has a solid intellectual base on its own. Progressivism has a strong roll call to draw from, reaching back to John Dewey and working through Martin Luther King Jr.

Next, however, we don’t have to imagine.

Republicans and conservatives routinely appropriate by misrepresentation MLK, typically reducing King to a color-blind caricature. Just recently that conservative lie has taken on a new twist, an Op-Ed claiming that MLK would have rejected Critical Race Theory—despite the fact that the founding Black intellectuals who developed CRT identified specifically that the concepts grew from MLK’s ideology, words, and practices. See for example how MLK is anything but a color-blind passive radical:

The moral and racial bankruptcy on the Right is exposed by conservatives’ need to co-opt MLK because with them “there’s just nothing there.”

A newer grasp for liberal thinkers has been a right-wing distortion of George Carlin, who has been trending often on social media. Carlin’s misappropriation is a powerful example of the intellectual bankruptcy on the right because Carlin is complex, easy to misread, and also a perfect example of the difficulty of reducing anyone to a blunt label.

We must imagine how conservatives claiming Carlin ignore his career-long attacks on police (Carlin took great pleasure in announcing “Fuck the police” in his stand-up routines), religion, and anti-abortion activists—just to name a few areas where Carlin is clearly not conservative.

The misunderstanding from the Right, and much of the general public, exposes—as Carlin would argue—that too many people in the U.S. simply do not think critically (Carlin would possibly argue that most people can’t think critically).

Carlin was a stand-up comedian, writer, and actor, but at his core, Carlin was anti-establishment, anti-authority while practicing as an amateur linguist and implementing critical discourse analysis.

Trying to place Carlin on a political spectrum is nearly impossible, more akin to historian Howard Zinn’s own political revelation:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

To understand Carlin, you must recognize his history, one grounded in fighting censorship.

Yes, Carlin always trashed “the government,” but he was expressing a critique of corporate owned government, and not the ideal of what democratic government could and should do (Carlin often called for better public schools and health care, especially for the elderly).

And Carlin was a product of corporate-government war, the Vietnam War that provided Carlin a career of being an avid anti-war advocate.

Maybe the greatest misunderstanding of Carlin is his (seemingly) libertarian musings about individuals, often sounding like a twentieth century Thoreau. But Carlin was not a rugged individualist as much as he believed in the sanctity of the humanity of every individual and freedom for all people; in fact, Carlin was a champion for racial and gender equity before that was commonplace, and he never shied away from evoking that policing in the U.S. is racist (his voice would fit well into BlackLivesMatter) and that the U.S. was founded by slave holders (a bit ahead of his time on the 1619 Project as well).

And it takes care to listen to Carlin, not just his stand-up, by the way. In interviews, you can hear the clarity in his anger against government as corporate, not government as a democracy:

It says “we the people” in the preamble…. People who hate the government are involved in a form of suicide because government is self-government, and if you hate the government, you hate yourself.

Carlin on Charlie Rose

An even more powerful interview, however, guides us through Carlin’s essentially “left of center” ideology that was paired with his commitment as a non-voter (see W.E.B. Du Bois on not voting as well):


George Carlin: No, I don’t vote. Voting implies the consent to be governed and I — between you and me, I do not consent to be governed. I prefer to —


George Carlin: Yes, I prefer to be outside of it. It gives me my freedom. But my brother made a good point, because we were pulling for Clinton, being somewhat left of center in general.


Charlie Rose: Right (crosstalk) Clinton/Bush and you said Clinton (inaudible).


George Carlin: He [his brother] said, you know, he says, I think if there were just one cherry pie and Clinton had it, I think I’d get a piece. And I think if Bush had it, he’d keep the whole pie. And I believe that. And therefore I’m rooting for him.


Charlie Rose: And what if Perot had it?


George Carlin: He’d buy 100 more pies and I still wouldn’t have a piece. That was my addendum to what my brother said, but I pull for Clinton because people are going to invest hope in him and I think people — I think the — I think being on this planet, one of the first things people would say — if we were all dumped down here, let us say there were only ten of us.


Charlie Rose: Right.


George Carlin: And we dropped into this planet already formed, one of the first things we would say would — after a moment or two would be, Is everybody okay? Let’s get something to eat. And that should be the first thing any society said: Is everybody okay? Let’s get something to eat. And we don’t, because we have this private property thing, property. Property rights over people’s rights. And I just think that competition got the upper hand over cooperation. 


George Carlin: The verge of failure that we’re on is because two wonderful qualities that made us a successful species, cooperation and competition, are way of balance now. Competition is everything. Cooperation happens after a flood. Happens for a few days. Everybody goes back to

George Carlin: And we need — we need to get that balance back. If we can get that balance back, there’s hope.


Charlie Rose: Some sense of community values.


George Carlin: Communitarian ideas (crosstalk) —

Carlin interview, Charlie Rose 1992

“Communitarian ideas.”

Carlin mentions to Rose that he loves any individual he meets, but he remains leery of organized groups, like churches or political parties.

Unlike the character of Jerry, there is a lot there in Carlin. Not perfect, but a lot.

And the “there” in Carlin is attractive to the hollowness of conservatives, morally and intellectually bankrupt.

Someone trying to appropriate Carlin posted on Twitter that a conservative comedian was today’s Carlin; another person posted that this conservative Trumpster comic is just like Carlin, except he isn’t funny or smart.

The Right, you see, is a movement about nothing, and all they have is grasping at other people’s ideologies in an effort to make them their own.

George Carlin was raised in a Dewey school, a Catholic education.

This too is a message about learning to think for yourself. That Deweyan Catholic upbringing equipped Carlin with the mind and will to reject the Church, religion, and even God.

As he joked throughout the end of his life, Carlin worshipped the sun and prayed to Joe Pesci:

We are a people ruined by private property, Carlin noted, and we would all be much better off spending our brief time on the planet we are destroying simply saying, “Is everybody okay? Let’s get something to eat.”

Punch Line

Beyond my face-to-face life, few people have impacted my development more than comedian George Carlin. Along with Richard Pryor (and indirectly, Lenny Bruce), Carlin entered my consciousness while I was a teenager in the 1970s, a redneck mired in the racist provincialism of rural upstate South Carolina.

Of course, teachers and writers—along with a wide array of artists, thinkers, etc.—shaped my Self and my mind, but Carlin and Pryor were essential doorways into critical thought. Notably, Carlin and Pryor taught me the importance of language and its relationship to power, foundational concepts that would in many ways lead to Paulo Freire as well as my careers as a teacher and writer.

So when Carlin was trending recently—a video clip of him talking on Larry King with many people connecting Carlin’s comments about comedian Andrew Dice Clay to the current controversies around Dave Chappelle—I felt I had to explore the Tweets and how people were navigating Carlin today:

First, I believe it is important to stress that Carlin clearly begins these comments by supporting Andrew Dice Clay’s right to be the sort of comedian who people found to be deeply offensive, offensive in ways that were not funny (homophobia and misogyny, specifically). Carlin is weighing in but distinguishing between “can” and “should.”

As well, Carlin checked King about “we” laughing at Clay, suggesting that Carlin did not find Clay funny even as he supported something like free speech for comedians.

In many ways, Carlin was way ahead of his time and this on-air discussion fits well into the larger “cancel culture” debate among comedians (see the Jerry Seinfeld/Bobcat Goldthwait situation, for example); but of course, Carlin’s tempered comments also match perfectly the Chappelle controversy.

The world of the comedian is filled with violent-adjacent language—”punch line” and the common claim that comedians “kill” when jokes or sets work really well. (Carlin has brilliant, early jokes from the 1970s about replacing “kill” with “fuck” in movie dialogue, highlighting the essential violent nature of American culture.)

But Carlin makes a case for the importance that comedians punch up, using comedy to challenge power, and that Clay tended to punch down, specifically at the expense of marginalized groups such as homosexuals and women.

I think, as many on Twitter claimed, that Carlin’s comments are relevant to Chappelle even as some try to justify Chappelle’s trans-phobic rants as attacks on outsized influence by what Chappelle and his supporters see as misguided trans-rights activists. Chappelle apologists, then, seem to believe Chappelle is punching up.

That argument is nonsense, missing a bigger point, one also made by Carlin but somewhat glossed over.

At its core, the problem with Clay and Chappelle is less with them, and more with their audience. One common justification expressed for Chappelle’s recent comedy special is that his garbled perspective on trans people is embraced by his audience and that those he criticizes (trans-rights activists) are the ones out of the mainstream.

Chappelle apologists argue that the court of public opinion supports Chappelle, and thus Chappelle is justified, if not right.

As Carlin notes, Clay had an audience, many white males who, as Carlin notes, were deeply insecure and prone to a wide array of bigotry (that likely would have included anti-semitism, Carlin adds since Clay is Jewish).

If we set aside whether or not Clay and Chappelle crafted funny jokes, if we set aside whether or not Chappelle is punching down or up, we cannot set aside that Chappelle is speaking into and directly fueling environments of hate and exclusivity.

Trans people live delicate lives and their margins are frail, thin, and Chappelle is being cavalier and calloused, placing his right to free speech (in wrong-headed ways) above the lives and rights of marginalized and oppressed people.

Chappelle is certainly aware that there was a fairly recent world where white comedians made their livelihoods on racist jokes and the most aggressive and offensive use of racial slurs; maybe they had the right to that language, and yes, they certainly had audiences who agreed.

But mainstream acceptance of racist jokes and racial slurs were contributing to environments of hate that directly impacted Black people in negative and horrible ways.

Clay and Chappelle should be bright and perceptive enough not to need these comparisons to their own potential frailties, but these points do highlight that comedy is not in some sort of joke vacuum; there are consequences for jokes told and the laughter that often occurs about the Others used in the pursuit of those jokes.

Chappelle’s doubling down on trans-phobia isn’t funny and it isn’t inconsequential.

Finally, while I do support Carlin’s video clip going viral, and I do agree Carlin’s perceptive analysis of punching up and the audience for comedy is directly applicable to the Chappelle debate as well as the current discourse around “cancel culture” (where I side with Goldthwait, not Seinfeld), I have a huge caveat for the added belief that we need Carlin alive today since he would be a solid and powerful voice in this situations.

As much as it pains me to write this, I am certain that given time and space, Carlin would, in fact, disappoint us now. There is a bittersweet advantage to having the ability to cherry pick from Carlin’s brilliance (a real thing, in my opinion) and to ignore that as he grew older, Carlin lived up to his standard less and less.

The Carlin of my teen years, the 1970s, is a sort of peak Carlin, one I tend to idealize; the Carlin of the King interview is the mostly sober and mature Carlin of 1990 (Carlin was being interviewed, not on stage performing).

Carlin tended to devolve into the angry old man, and his comedy content and targets became sloppier and sloppier even as his delivery and craft remained impressive.

I think Carlin alive now would slip and fall on his face right before us—similar to the recent crumbling of the ways some of us have idealized Margaret Atwood.

Carlin’s comments on Clay are worth highlighting, and his analysis speaks to how we can and should navigate Chappelle and cancel culture.

But this is also a lesson in the dangers of idealizing and idolizing.

In my own way, I love Carlin and am eternally grateful for his contribution to my mind.

Carlin was, ultimately, a man, a human, frail and flawed. He occasionally said some really stupid shit.

We don’t need him alive now to recognize that he is right about the direction of punch lines. And we would all be better off if we simply used his words from 1990 to recognize the importance of everyone’s humanity.

There is no punch line more valuable than our collective humanity—and about that, even if he would fail us today, I feel certain Carlin would agree if he were still alive.

See Also

Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Canceled?: The Day Comedy Died

“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin

Canceled?: The Day Comedy Died

Lenny Bruce is not afraid

“Its the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” R.E.M.

Recently, when I watch standup specials through online services, I think about Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

As I have explained before, a foundational part of my critical Self was established during my teen years through listening to the comedy of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Along with them, The Firesign Theater and Steve Martin also had a profound impact on me, but Carlin and Pryor led me to studying the life and comedy of Lenny Bruce.

Lenny Bruce's Obscenity Trial Challenged First Amendment Rights ...
Lenny Bruce took obscenity to court.

Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor were incredibly important voices for free speech and the power of words, including the power of offensive words and the sacredness of those words.

So there is more than a bit of nuanced irony to the evolution of standup comedy in the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter era, an evolution that looks to me like the death of comedy.

Standup comedians—especially white male comedians—are quite predictable now; they turn immediately or eventually to the anti-cancel culture bandwagon that appears to be mandatory for a standup routine in 2020.

There’s a lot of “Don’t judge me because the line has moved” and “Comedy is a ‘joke,’ right?” kind of laziness in the routines. While contemporary comedians seem to be joining a tradition found in Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor, the ugly truth is that these routines are lazy and angry responses to a mostly mangled and even fabricated message about “cancel culture.”

Comedians have joined a backlash against cancel culture, and these challenges to cancel culture come from people who already have amplified voices, including outsized privilege in those voices as well as histories of skirting by with little to no accountability for their insensitivity and bigotry.

As Michael Hobbes explains:

While the letter itself, published by the magazine Harper’s, doesn’t use the term, the statement represents a bleak apogee in the yearslong, increasingly contentious debate over “cancel culture.” The American left, we are told, is imposing an Orwellian set of restrictions on which views can be expressed in public. Institutions at every level are supposedly gripped by fears of social media mobs and dire professional consequences if their members express so much as a single statement of wrongthink.

This is false. Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic. While there are indeed real cases of ordinary Americans plucked from obscurity and harassed into unemployment, this rare, isolated phenomenon is being blown up far beyond its importance.

The panic over “cancel culture” is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis. The Harper’s statement, like nearly everything else written on this subject, could have been more efficiently summarized in four words: “Get Off My Lawn.”

Along a spectrum from Louise CK to Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, I want to know: Who among these men has been canceled?

Louise CK had his career temporarily interrupted for many years of sexual harassment and inexcusable sexual aggression. Allen hasn’t missed a beat in his career.

And Harvey Weinstein is a convicted sex criminal.

Is a temporary moment of mild accountability “canceled”?

Is rumor, innuendo, and published accounts charging someone with sexual assault “canceled”?

Is being found guilty of sexually violent crimes “canceled”?

The implication about and direct challenges to cancel culture seem to suggest that “cancelling” is unfair, widespread, and poised to end free speech.

This cartoon version of cancel culture is hyperbole, Urban Legend. It suggests a cavalier and indiscriminate assault on good and descent (white and male) people.

None of that is true, however.

As a white male, Louise CK will survive the brief pause to his career with excess wealth and fame; he will likely experience a rehabilitation phase and find a place where people just forget about everything he did.

Allen has never really suffered anything more than the stress of being accused publicly of sexual assault.

And being found guilty of a crime is not some sort of “canceling”; it is justice.

Some of the problems with standup comedy are simply being exposed by the cancel-culture backlash. Smart and culturally critical comedians often perform for audiences less informed or sophisticated than their material.

Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor could never know if their audiences were just cackling like children because of the cultural taboo around “fuck,” for example.

None the less, Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor were using words in order to interrogate not only those words but the failures of humans to interrogate their own biases and blind spots.

And none of these men were perfect; although all of these men faced genuine threats of censorship and career-ending consequences throughout the mid-twentieth century. Those threats, however, were directly about their language and critical comedy, and not about their personal behavior or failure to acknowledge bigotry in their routines.

It is a sad thing. The comedy levee is dry it seems.

We are left with the hollow ring of laziness against the childish laughter of an audience prodded with “Fuck cancel culture.”

“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin

Toward the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut mostly abandoned his life as a novelist, publishing instead political rants against George W. Bush and Republicans for In These Times. Some of those essays formed A Man Without a Country in 2005.

Vonnegut in 1972
Vonnegut, 1972

On April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died, and then a few months past a year later, George Carlin also died. Vonnegut (84), chain-smoking aside, lived a full 13 years longer than Carlin (71), who had his struggles with recreational drugs and heart disease.

Related image
A Life in Focus: George Carlin, US standup comedian who always said a word out of place

Carlin and Vonnegut profoundly shaped me, Carlin’s comedy albums in the 1970s and Vonnegut’s impressive body of novels and essays throughout my adulthood. Both men as well ultimately became, as Carlin phrases, “old farts”:

Playing off Carlin’s joke that “farts are shit without the mess,” I must here acknowledge that both of these influential men were very weak versions of themselves in the final years—and they also began to fail significantly the brilliance they offered in the prime of their careers.

Two experiences with Carlin lately have nudged me to account for my affection for him and Vonnegut.

First, a much younger friend recently watched some Carlin stand up on YouTube; the response was, “He’s really problematic.” As I watched, these were much later clips, and I found them underwhelming, mostly angry-old-man rants that weren’t very thoughtful and held little evidence of the comedian I worshipped and memorized after listening to his albums over and over in my bedroom as a teenager.

Carlin’s Class Clown and Occupation: Foole were so smart and incisive, such powerful works of language, I am certain these are some of the most solid foundations of how I came to be a reader, writer, and teacher.

When I think of Carlin, I recall his slipping into songs and skits that I still can do by heart: Class Clown, Muhammad Ali—America the Beautiful, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. But I am in retrospect also drawn to his noting that he attended a John Dewey progressive Catholic school, where he terrorized the nuns.

Carlin and Vonnegut spoke to me through their irreverence, especially toward religion, and, of course, their deft use of language and dark humor; I also embraced the profanity.

But, second, after the sobering experience of watching Carlin with a friend, I saw these Tweets by Ja’han Jones:

Something really hard for me to confront happened to Carlin between his three-album run in the 1970s and his posthumously released I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. The skit and material for this were shelved by Carlin because of 9/11 and then Katrina.

That collection is representative of the later Carlin, the ranting that seems, as Jones questions, little more than conservative “get off my lawn” material; this Carlin seems as annoying as being crop-dusted by a stranger while trying to shop—offensive for offensive’s sake.

As a 2008 routine shows, unlike his brilliant examination of profanity from his early career, Carlin begins simply to swear a lot:

I’d like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb, empty expression on his face. I’m tired of that asshole. And while you’re at it fuck Tiger Woods, too. There’s another jack-off I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be? You know? Being told who you ought to be looking up to. I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much. And fuck Dr. Phil, too. Dr. Phil said I should express my emotions, so that’s what I’m doing. Now, since the last time I rolled through these parts, and I do roll through with some frequency. I’m a little bit like herpes. I keep coming back. But since the last time, I might have seen some of you folks I have had my 70th birthday.

Carlin, the old fart.

I was in New Orleans the spring before Katrina hit, the natural disaster that, like 9/11, gave Carlin pause about his angry-old-man wish for a lot of deaths. My friend and I were tired, and back in our hotel room, I flipped through the cable channels, falling on Carlin in a 1992 interview by Charlie Rose.

Carlin explained “I don’t vote and I really don’t,” once again nudging into my life and steering how I navigated the world.

By 1996, again on Rose, Carlin is a more fully formed “old fart” from the hints of libertarianism in 1992 (“between you and me, I do not consent to be governed”), the detached observer without hope:

There’s a little bit of a sick part in this too, I [root] for the big comic, for the big asteroid to come and make things right….To get us back where we were before the first one came and knocked out these dinosaurs and…I’m routing for that big one to come right through that hole in the ozone layer because I want to see it on CNN. See, I’m here for the entertainment, Charlie. I am. People, philosophers say, “Why are we here?” I know why I’m here, for the…show. Bring it on, I want to see the circus.

Well, we’ve all seen a lot of comedians who seem to have a political bent in their work, and always implicit in the work is some positive outcome. That this is all going to work, if only we do this, if only we pass that bill, if we only elect him, if only we do that. It’s not true, it’s circling drain time for humans. I believe this, I honestly believe this, not just as a comedian, “He thinks that he has to say that,” I believe it, and when you say to yourself, “I don’t care what happens,” it just gives you a broader perspective for the art. For the words to emerge. To not care, that’s what happened in that ’92 show, that’s why I could say the planet is fine the people are (fart sound). Because the planet will outlast us, it will be here, and it will be fine.

At 81, Vonnegut wrote in “Cold Turkey”:

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

Ultimately, with Vonnegut and Carlin, I recognize their counter-cultural roots in the 1960s and 1970s (when both men really hit) that shift from skepticism to cynicism as they approached death—humanity is doomed because we are self-defeating and at war with each other and Nature.

What am I to do with the ideal, maybe even idealized, Carlin and Vonnegut who shaped me against the “old farts” they became?

I am not sure, really, but I am left with one more similarity between the two men, a few lines late in Vonnegut’s claimed last novel, Timequake, “Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.

[1] See the following:

“Your House Is Just a Place for Your Stuff”

The secretary’s desk is dark wood with a pull down door and one drawer beneath the main section, divided into sections for office supplies and such. It sits now in a very dark corner of my parents’ living room, and I am certain we had that desk in our house in Enoree, South Carolina during the 1960s, and then in the two subsequent houses after.

I spent part of Saturday afternoon taking three car loads of trash from their house to the nearby dump. But part of the time helping one of my nephews go through everything in my deceased parents’ house was spent cleaning out that desk.

Stacks of medical bills reaching back almost two decades, tax returns from the late 1980s and 1990s, unopened packs of pens and Rook playing cards—the desk was some awkward combination of mausoleum, careless filing system, and hoarding.

I found handwritten notes my nephew had left for my parents to wake him on time; also his assorted certificates from school along with school pictures of my other nephew when he was on the basketball team.

In the single lower drawer was a hefty stack of newspaper pages and clippings—all of me.

There I saw a jumbled cataloging of my hair, facial hair, and glasses (or not) styles, and then on the bottom, I found a dark yellow page crumbling at the edges.

The date was 1968, and staring out at me was my first-grade school picture beside a brief story about my surprise seventh birthday party.

My childhood at that moment holding a crumbling yellowed newspaper seemed especially foreign, as if not in a different time but a different world. A child’s birthday party and picture in a small town newspaper.

I felt like the brother and sister must have in Pleasantville after being transported into a TV sitcom from the 1950s.

My nephew and I were on a second weekend of going through my parents’ stuff, in hopes that we can over the summer sell the house. The finality of my parents’ death can only come through the total eradication of their stuff, in the wake, of course, of all the legal complications of deceased people, their stuff, and those who may have claims against them and that stuff.

The process has developed into determining if everything is either something someone in the family would want, something for a yard sale, or trash.

Almost everything from the desk I shuffled through went into a large box that I loaded into my SUV with as many garbage bags as it would hold to toss mostly without any thought into the giant and relentless trash compactor at the waste site.

The main compartment of the refuse receptacle has criss-crossing bars over the top to control the size of what people can toss in. The near side is a large angled metal surface that bags and trash slide down violently into a smaller area where a giant plunger pulls back and then compacts the trash into a surprisingly small storage area to the right.

All this stuff my parents had kept, much of it paperwork documenting all the stuff of their lives—this machine thoughtlessly pounded into a uniform rectangle of just trash to be hauled to yet another refuse facility, probably a landfill.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

The stuff we just had to buy, the stuff we made ourselves miserable to attain, and the stacks and stacks of paperwork documenting all that stuff and all the payments of our monied lives—all of it comes mostly to trash.

But before it is trash, it must be handled one last time, christened trash, sometimes thoughtlessly and sometimes with the hesitation of placing it in a stack as if it should carry on—until in a flash it too is tossed into a box or bag as once-stuff-now-trash.

Three times carrying my parents’ stuff to my SUV, three times unloading bags and boxes to be tossed into the giant compactor, three times driving to and from the waste site—this mini-ritualizing of my parents stuff into trash was yet one more thing I could not have anticipated about the terrible thing that is any person’s death.

Just common flawed people, my parents both died in ways no one really deserves—clinging to bodies that simply had run their course and laboring under the dark cloud of how much everything would cost and a medical care system reduced to a mechanistic nightmare by the insurance industry.

As I paused a few times watching the giant trash compactor work—steeling myself against the smell and the din of this machine grinding on and on—I recognized an unintended metaphor for what my parents had experienced in their dying.

Or to be brutally honest, their living also.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

During one trip back to their house from the waste site, I thought about George Carlin’s routine on stuff:

“The whole meaning of life, isn’t it: Trying to find a place for your stuff”—so when you die, it is all in one place, easier to sort through and mostly haul off as trash: “They don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.”

I put yellowed and brittle paper from 1968 to the side while I finished sorting through the desk. I picked it up, thought about being seven and recalling my parents as a young couple, and then could not bear the thought of taking this newspaper page to my house for someone to look at and decide it was finally trash.

All of that stuff mattered the wrong way, and then it became in a flash stuff that doesn’t matter at all.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

Confessions of a Born Again Agnostic

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

Born November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut has been dead a few months more than a decade now. For all his dark humor and fantastic stories, it seems impossible to believe he could have imagined the U.S. in 2017.

President George W. Bush left Vonnegut in a near-constant state of exasperation so a country now led by Trump with Republicans and conservative Christians scrambling to excuse every indecency known to humanity, including crimes against women and children, would make even Vonnegut shrug, “Nobody would buy it.”

On this day of Vonnegut’s birth, I am witnessing a world I could have never imagined—especially considering my lifelong mostly closeted existence as an atheist/agnostic.

I came to recognize that atheism/agnosticism in the first years of college, and I also realized this was no choice, but who I am to the bone.

During intense years of reading Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and other existentialists mostly, I was an aggressive atheist, mostly outing myself and obnoxiously confronting peers who were themselves equally obnoxious as witnessing Christians.

Being born, growing up, and living in the deep South, the Bible Belt, I was confronting this aspect of my Self with a great deal of angst, fear, and self-loathing. Once I graduated and entered my profession as a public school English teacher—at the same high school I had attended in my home town—this important aspect of who I was as a young adult was quickly packed back into the closet.

The four schools of the district I taught in literally surrounded the dominant church in the small town, the steeple towering above the horizon when looking from any of the school buildings.

Many students attended that church, but everyone in the school confronted everyone about what church they attended.

The great paradox about my early years teaching was that I was adamant about not sharing my atheism with my students, about not in any way imposing my nontraditional beliefs on my students who were in most ways as I was growing up in that town.

Yet, gradually and increasingly, students were more and more aggressive about asking and even explicitly pushing me to confirm or deny a rumor I was an atheist.

This was incredibly stressful for my early years. I literally feared for my job each time these situations popped up, some of them reaching administration and causing me to be quizzed by the principal as well.

Later in my time at that school for almost two decades, this became something of a joke, that I refused to answer what I did or did not believe. But it lingered as a threat none the less.

I tried to play along; it was a defense mechanism about the closeted life.

Once, when one of the office staff asked me just to tell her the truth, I looked around to make sure we were alone, and then whispered, “I am an agrarian,” before walking away with a smile.

The next day when I saw her, she apparently had shared my confession with someone, unaware of the joke, so I followed up with, “That’s right. I work the land!”

Being atheist/agnostic, however, has never been anything other than stress for me, as an outlier, someone who simply sees the world unlike the vast majority of people. Even moving to higher education, I am moment by moment confronted by traditionally religious students and the norm of being Christian and attending church.

Once while in a diversity training session for faculty, the facilitator had people stand by their religious identities. The list worked through virtually every faith and many Christian denominations, but non-believers were excluded by omission.

In my row were two colleagues who are atheists as well. We made eye contact, one shaking her head, and I simply stood, leaving the session.

From those early days of college, my embarrassing certainty and in-your-face atheism, to my much more reserved and comfortable understanding that I am a born again agnostic, I have continued to suffer under the weight of how angry traditional Christians make me with their conservative politics and egregious hypocrisy.

I want to bite my tongue, but it is challenging, especially in political discussions.

The Moral Majority, the Religious Right, and the Reagan era—these were the sort of perverse marriages of politics and religion that confirmed by humanistic commitments, ones espoused by Vonnegut, and my inability to commit to the petty God and spurious dogma of organized religion, often brilliantly skewered by George Carlin.

So I sit here on Vonnegut’s birthday genuinely stunned at the U.S., this bastardized Christian nation in which white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for a sexual predator and continue to support him.

This bastardized Christian nation in which so-called Christians contort themselves in whatever way necessary to justify child abusers and sexual abusers, abdicating any semblance of moral or ethical beliefs for crass political affiliation.

This, then, is what I could have never imagined: The religious right is so morally bankrupt that I am for the first time in my nearly six decades entirely comfortable to be out of the closet as a born again agnostic committed, as Vonnegut wrote, “to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”

With the current unmasking of very awful men living their lives mostly without any consequences for being very awful, I must admit Vonnegut himself was a flawed man, embodying the tension in the spotlight now between artist and his art.

In Vonnegut’s case, I do not justify or excuse his flaws as a man—just as I admit my own—but I do hold tight to the many wonderful and enduring codes he at least promoted with his writing, and best expressed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)

Everything else, including religion in the service of politics, is, as Carlin charged, bullshit.