“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.
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.
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:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Did Not Dream About Banning Critical Race Theory
- Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World
- King’s Dream was Rooted in Analysis of Systemic Racism
- Critical Race Theory and the Misappropriating of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- 5 MLK Quotes Too Radical To White-Wash
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.
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.
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 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.”