The legendary comedian George Carlin died 14 years ago this week. An Air Force veteran, Carlin began his career in entertainment after leaving the service in 1957 with a general discharge. (Though he served in the military for just three years, he was court-martialed three times.) Never one to shy from controversy, Carlin applied his renegade spirit to the art of stand-up comedy, gaining national fame with his sardonic wit and unabashed criticisms of American pop culture.
In the new HBO documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, a close examination of Carlin’s six-decade career reveals a comedian who was ahead of his time in his insights on the precariousness of our democracy. Here are five quotes that show why Carlin is just as relevant now as he ever was alive.
“If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re gonna get selfish, ignorant leaders.”
There’s an alarming increase in the bystander effect among Americans — more specifically, in incidents of people using their phones to film tragedies rather than to intervene or contact first responders. This unfortunate trend is one example of how Carlin’s fears have come to materialize since he first spoke those words in 1996. Americans seem to be becoming more selfish. Furthermore, a recent study conducted by Norway’s Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research revealed global IQs are dropping for the first time in recorded history. Unfortunately, our elected officials regularly mirror both trends in increasingly selfless and ignorant behavior — behavior that has left the country perhaps more divided now than ever.
“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, being told who you ought to be looking up to? I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much.”
The next time you walk past a magazine stand in the airport or grocery store, take note of the faces gracing the covers — athletes, movie stars, and viral video personalities are far more common than people who actually do meaningful work for a living. We have become a culture that celebrates vanity as if it were a noble virtue. And in today’s age of Kardashians and Real Housewives, when the word “hero” gets thrown around a lot and is too often applied to those for whom fame itself is their only real accomplishment, we should all be following Carlin’s example.
“Rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year, the list gets shorter and shorter and shorter.”
Carlin regularly declared how he loved individuals, but hated groups of people, and among those groups he hated most, America’s political class took the top spot. The late comedian openly criticized every administration he lived through and held few, if any, politicians in high regard. Some readers might take that quote and apply it to the hot topic of gun control, but they should keep in mind that Carlin was also known for openly criticizing American gun culture. Nevertheless, Carlin points out the hypocrisy of the American government choosing when to take people’s rights away, citing, for example, Japanese Americans being stripped of their rights and forced into internment camps and the government’s ever-changing stance on abortion and reproductive rights.
“I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is that there aren’t enough bicycle paths. […] Environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet. Not in the abstract they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that some day in the future they might be personally inconvenienced.”
The fight against climate change has largely shifted from a push for meaningful policy changes to little more than virtue signaling by companies trying to avoid being canceled. For example, the very same popular coffee company that proudly announced in 2018 that it would shift from plastic straws to paper straws is still responsible for selling over 6 billion disposable cups annually. Carlin called bullshit years ago. There’s a big difference between genuinely caring about the environment and simply telling people you care.
“What would you do, if you were the planet trying to defend against this pesky, troublesome species? Let’s see, viruses might be good. They seem vulnerable to viruses, and viruses are tricky, always mutating and forming new strains whenever a vaccine is developed. Perhaps this first virus could be one that compromises the immune system in these creatures. Perhaps a human immunodeficiency virus making them vulnerable to all sorts of other diseases and infections that might come along.”
Speaking of the environment, Carlin eerily predicted a global virus-based pandemic as the earth’s way of protecting itself. Joking as if he were Earth incarnate, Carlin mused that a virus that attacks the immune system might be a good way to take on the issue of man-made climate change and rid himself of pesky humans. Though possibly alluding to the HIV/AIDs outbreak of the 1980s, Carlin’s hypothetical virus bears a notable resemblance to COVID-19 as we enter the third year of the pandemic despite the development of numerous vaccines.