Last week George Carlin died and with him perhaps any recollection that there actually was a time when the mass communications categorized as “entertainment” weren’t peppered with profanity, references to anatomy, and of course America’s most beloved pet without a home… the “F” word.
I don’t mean to sound like the uncle at Thanksgiving who yearns for nickel public phone calls and cold root beer in glass bottles. America’s popular culture has proven again and again to be an engine for positive change. Many believe that it was blue jeans and rock n’ roll that brought down the Berlin Wall. I for one am certain that it was all those Madonna concerts that paved the way for fewer and fewer Madonna concerts. A constantly evolving entertainment culture often has desirable impacts.
But I’ve just returned from visiting Denver and in walking around their tourist-friendly downtown area I was struck by the amount of lassitude in everyday conversations on the street. In LA, I get it. We’re this roiling saucepan of influences and assertive “look at me” behavior so our communication is funky and loose. But Denver? And it wasn’t just generational. All ages enjoyed injecting a zesty adjective into every third sentence. In some cases I may have simply misunderstood what was being discussed. Was the man disappointed with the acceleration on his car, thus making the vehicle a “f*****g sled?” Or was the car used on a regular basis for sex during snow storms?
In a published review of speeches made at recent college commencement ceremonies, no fewer than three of the distinguished speakers cited frequent use of the word “like” in conversation as a handicap to graduates seeking jobs. Unless you like, wanted to like, work at a fast food thing, like Wendy’s. But like, at NASA, they’re like so “I don’t think so…”
When George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 for a comedy bit that referenced the seven words you never heard on radio or TV, the good people of Milwaukee felt they were maintaining what we might call their levee for language flooding. I grew up there and I can testify that even in ’72 they weren’t shocked or surprised by Carlin’s routine. They just wanted to demonstrate that at an open-air festival concert in their town, with families walking around slurping ice cream, you didn’t talk like that. It’s a safe bet that during that same show Carlin went on at some length about drugs and Vietnam. They didn’t bust him for his ideas; they just didn’t want his conveyance of ideas to coarsen the air at their celebration. Still, a few strongly worded editorials would have done the job. An AP photo showing Carlin with long Christ-like hair being led off in handcuffs didn’t help anybody except Carlin.
But today, with all of our other infrastructure problems, we may be having a serious nationwide failure of our language levees. Not because in a post-Howard Stern world we’re going to suddenly become more delicate and genteel, but because we’re about to enter a sustained phase of leadership change in which we will all urgently need to know the difference between substance and rhetoric. Following regime change, we’ll be asked to make hard choices and our dialogues on those options must be precise and clear. They can’t be filled with more emotional fogging or commit unpardonable sins such as the appropriation of the word “freedom” to mean “blood for oil.”
George Carlin often got us to laugh by exploiting the Mobius-strip properties of English. A favorite of mine was his citing of the inherent contradiction in naming any seafood “jumbo shrimp.” He was right to point out these oddities, but in doing so he always employed superb and economical language. Most any evening spent in a comedy club now will provide a demonstration of how focused language is often replaced with the hurling of “F bombs.” Both things are effective in pursuit of comedy results. But with one, you get a sense that the levee needs attention.
One of our presidential candidates knows how to focus language like a laser. The other is not as fast on the draw, but he is often good with word choices such as “energy security” and “common sense conservative.” There’s a general feeling that McCain will get killed in debates because he’s going to look oafish next to master-blaster Obama. But we need to remember that we felt the same way about Bush. We thought he was a clod and so he couldn’t succeed. Then we like, sorta, I dunno, like, handed him like the car keys for eight years and let him drive all over us. Because he like, you know, like, talked like a regular guy, like. This time we need to get some sandbags on that leak.