George Carlin died this week at the age of 71.
Most people would call him a comedian, and indeed he was—22 albums, 14 HBO specials. In 1975, he was the very first host of Saturday Night Live.
But his legacy involves something much darker and more serious than that, affecting every American alive today.
In 1973, one of Carlin’s routines (“Seven Dirty Words”) was broadcast on a non-commercial FM station—WBAI, known for its lefty politics and progressive artsy ideas. After a listener complained to the FCC about the “dirty words” (one listener!), the FCC reprimanded the station owner. The Pacifica Foundation appealed, and won in federal court. But in 1978 the FCC appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government in the now-famous FCC v. Pacifica Foundation.
Carlin’s words were declared “indecent”—an astounding concept when used even today. The year the Cold War raged, the year China lifted its ban on Aristotle and Shakespeare, the American government declared certain words dangerous.
The decision suddenly gave the government the right to decide that certain words couldn’t be said on the radio at certain times of day—and to decide which words (and which times). Apparently, the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Bill of Rights didn’t apply at all times of day, or to all words.
It still doesn’t.
You are allowed to say that “Jesus hates gays” on the radio 24 hours a day. You aren’t allowed to say that “anal sex and eating pussy are gifts from God” any old time you like. Is the government protecting God, itself—or you?
George Carlin spent his half-century career hilariously pointing out life’s absurdities. One was that the most powerful government in the world was so obsessed about the power of a few non-violent words that it was willing to damage the Constitution to protect society.
The words that required stifling by the Supreme Court were shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
Click here for Carlin’s intensely funny routine about these words. Of course, they’re harmless—until they’re banned, when using them constitutes a political act.
For 10 minutes, the clip shows Carlin skewering the whole idea that words are dangerous. With an orator’s skill and an athlete’s daring, he uses the words over and over until they lose their feared meaning, and gain a new one: the words become symbols of power. Banned, the words reflect government power. Spoken, they reflect Carlin’s. And, by extension, ours.
Beyond chanting the Sacred Seven, Carlin reminded us that words alone couldn’t be bad, that context is everything. It’s a subtlety mastered by most adolescents. Our government has yet to catch on to this.
Carlin believed that censorship was wrong and dangerous. To fight it, he ridiculed it so effectively that everyone within earshot laughed at it. When people realize that censors are ridiculous, small, stupid, and selfish, censorship is less likely.
And so Carlin was an alchemist. He took banned words he knew were harmless, and by using them to expose government malice, he made them dangerous.
“You can say you pricked your finger, just don’t say you fingered your prick,” he said.
To honor George Carlin, tonight you can salute him with any appendage you wish.