The other day when I was puttering around on my home computer, somebody turned on a nearby TV, George Carlin was telling jokes and I noticed two things.
First, he was not funny. Second, there was a knock, knock, knock _ or let’s put it this way: He gave me a sense of something ominous beckoning to enter the room.
War was the comedian’s subject, or more particularly, America’s racist way of waging it. Have you ever noticed, he asked, that we only bomb countries populated by brown people?
It’s not true, of course _ he later admitted as much, by way of additional calumny _ and the joke therefore lacked that vital element in humorous expression of making us confront something as undeniable as it is unexpected.
Yes, America has bombed countries populated mainly by non-Caucasians, such as Japan, which started a war with us not through declaration, but a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Japan later cost us tens of thousands of American lives by continuing to fight even when decisively defeated. More tens of thousands were saved by the bombing.
Obviously, America has fought wars against people who are mainly white, even a war against ourselves, the Civil War, a war in which more Americans died than in any of our others, and a war that had the consequence of ending the enslavement of blacks.
And in World War II, we bombed a nation of white-skinned people. We bombed Germany, as Carlin later conceded, adding, however _ as another unfunny joke _ that Germany wanted to rule the world, and we weren’t going to put up with that: Ruling the world is what we Americans do!
Carlin is often described as very smart, but this is such a dumb observation as to make you suppose his IQ minuscule. Among nations of our relative power in the history of Western civilization, perhaps none has been less imperialistic. In the days before we entered World War II, we were downright isolationist. To suggest we were somehow on a par with Hitler _ a genocidal, power-ravenous maniac invading countries left and right _ is historical idiocy, and something else, to boot: morally vacuous.
I found myself wondering about Carlin and how he had gone from his famous routine about seven dirty words that you can’t say on TV to routines that have about as much bounce as a flat tire. I searched out newspaper articles about him, discovering that some of his jokes are depressingly dark, such as asking why tragedies involving children are understood as more heartbreaking than those involving adults.
I discovered as well that he is totally confused about the nature of our society. He thinks corporations responsible for just about everything bad that happens, a typical leftist hallucination. His understanding of religion is roughly that of a 6-year-old.
And that brings me to what I heard knocking on the door when I heard him on TV _ nihilism. Carlin said in one interview he doesn’t care how the human story turns out _ he just likes having “a ticket to the freak show.” In another interview, he told a Los Angeles Times writer that he aims to avoid “an emotional stake in the world,” that he would rather “divorce myself from it.”
The word “nihilism” derives from the Latin word for “nothing.” It’s an absence of hope, an absence of belief in much of anything, and a force, Friedrich Nietzsche once warned, that would bring our civilization to its knees.
In the case of Carlin’s jokes about our nation bombing just brown people and competing with Hitler, what he leaves out is crucial _ the fact that America’s core principles of liberty and a just rule of constitutionally based law have enabled this land to fight its way through its faults to an extent that few lands have. When you leave out such central features of our story, you in effect denigrate them, and to the extent that more and more people accept the denigration, our chances of a better world are lessened.
Comedy is often built on sorrow. Humor often takes aim at social iniquity. But the best humorists hang on to something positive: Mark Twain located the profound goodness of Huck Finn and Jim; Will Rogers manifested affection for common people; Garrison Keillor discovers love abiding in small towns.
I don’t see any of that life-affirming quality in what I have read about Carlin, and what scares me is that there appear to be a lot of Carlins out there, an increasing number of examples of nihilism knocking on the door.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)