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George Carlin, RIP

By Harvey Silverglate

            This is partially a free speech blog, so we’d be remiss in failing to note the passing of George Carlin. He failed to convince the Supreme Court of the absurdity of the Federal Communications Commission’s “broadcast indecency” rules that scrubbed the airwaves during the day and evening (when, presumably, the kiddies are awake) of those naughty words that we all hear and (if the truth be told) many of us use quite regularly. The real outrage of the high court’s idiocy in that case was that Carlin had clearly used the “seven dirty words” in the context of a parody of broadcast censorship. The FCC has no self-recognition, apparently, and the Supreme Court justices have no sense of humor. 

            But, of course, Carlin had the last laugh. In addition to bringing his biting wit and jokes into his audiences’ lives, he also was a hero to those who take the First Amendment seriously, as well as to those who try hard to understand some of the less proud legacies of Puritan America. As H. L. Mencken has noted, a Puritan is someone who has the nagging feeling that somewhere, somehow, someone is enjoying himself. Well, Carlin has proven Mencken correct, and that’s no small service for him to have performed before dying, all too soon, of heart failure.

             Even in his death, the ironies of his anti-censorship message continue to resonate. Today’s Boston Globe’s Opinion Page, in the VoxOp feature, excerpts blogger Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast, lamenting Carlin’s passing: “I suppose one can’t have as finely honed a [garbage] detector as he had, and use it so expertly for so many years, and have much of it left after the last eight years of the Bush administration. But no one cut through … modern life the way Carlin did…” Phoenix readers may recall my gripes with the Boston Globe’s censorship policy (which I wrote about here and here), so I was curious as to whether “[garbage]” was in Jill’s original text, or whether it was the word Carlin would have used – bullshit. Turns out that the Globe censored not one, but two bits from the post: garbage replacing “shit,” and the “cut through … modern life” replacing “cut through the bullshit of modern life.” Carlin was a lone pop culture voice for free speech, but sadly he died before his work was finished. 

            George Carlin – Rest in Peace. What are we going to do without you??

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