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Words You Cannot Say About George Carlin

Dennis Byrne 27 June 2008 3 Comments

It boggles the mind how a culture can lionize the recently departed comedian George Carlin while simultaneously consigning radio guy Don Imus to the lowest precincts of hell.

They both have made a raunchy career out of “offending,” yet one—Carlin—was revered and eulogized while the other—Imus—is despised. After Carlin, 71, died of heart failure last Sunday, the praise rolled in, about his genius and brilliance, his ground-breaking comedy and social commentary, his willingness to challenge the powerful, and his advocacy for free speech. He, indeed, was all of that.

Imus, in turn, got himself in trouble, again, for “insensitive” and racist remarks. He lost one job last year for describing the players on a woman’s college basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Now, he’s in trouble again for a comment he made about Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones, after another of his serial run-ins with the law. Imus asked, “What color is he?” When sports announcer Warner Wolf replied “African-American,” Imus said, “There you go. Now we know.”

Offensive? Undoubtedly. But no more so than some of Carlin’s bits: “Religion is bull****,” (available here on youtube) is a prime example of disparagement equal to or in excess of Imus’ latest sin. “Pro-life is anti-woman,” (here) strings one slanderous stereotype after another: “Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers” Carlin said. Pro-life people kill doctors, he asserts. You don’t see those white pro-life women having unwanted black babies implanted into their wombs. “Moral crusaders” should set themselves on fire. Catholics should leave gay people alone because they’re one group that never has an abortion. And on and on.

Imus’ sin was making comments that were viewed as disparaging to women and African-Americans. But when Carlin made disparaging remarks, it was described as a virtue. How do you reconcile the two things?

The obvious answer is that it depends on who’s being skewered. Relatively speaking, Carlin rarely went after liberals. The few instances that I saw him do it were lame, lacking the passion and humor that he habitually unleashed on people who believe in God, the sanctity of life and other despicable things.

A trio of Los Angeles Times writers saw the object of Carlin’s ridicule as the powerful and comfortable. They said, “Carlin came from the universe that included Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, comedians who used profanity to turn politics inside out. For them, words were meant to draw blood from the powerful while shocking the comfortable out of their routine lives.” From this, we are assume that among liberals, the powerful and comfortable are in short supply.

Complaining about the hypocrisy of the left is as easy as shooting fish in the barrel, and neither reason nor reality will dent the left’s own comfortable notions that everything comes out fair and square. Instead, they’ll conjure up all kinds of reasons why Carlin is worth defending and Imus is not. And that anyone who suggests that Imus’ offenses are equivalent in any way to Carlin’s is a racist and sexist.

But, this is no attempt to defend Imus. I have never actually listened to him at any length—no longer than it takes to recognize that it’s Imus and to turn to another station. Imus is just another “shock jock” that has successfully marketed their ignorance and nastiness. Imus, Carlin and the rest all have contributed in some measure to the desensitizing and dehumanizing of our society. Thanks to them, slime is a permanent ingredient in contemporary society.

Still, we shouldn’t be afraid of being accused of causing offense during legitimate debate. Reasoned disagreement over legitimate issues should not be snuffed out by fear of causing offense. Too often the accusation of “causing offense” is just camouflage for an inability to argue an issue on its merits. But praising Carlin while condemning Imus for speaking the same kind slanderous nonsense is hypocrisy.


Dennis Byrne is a member of the Chicago Daily Observer Editorial Board.


  • Rev Donald Spitz (author) said:

    George Carlin is now in eternal hell fire. He thought he could mock God and there would be no consequences, but God is not mocked and everyone of us will stand before God to give an account of our lives.

  • Jeremy (author) said:

    The difference is a simple matter of context.

    For all of his scathing social and political commentary, Carlin was a comedian. As such, his act was meticulously honed, worked and reworked so that every word carried the intended and optimal meaning. Comedy is, at its core, exposing the day-to-day ironies of life, provoking laughter and, at its best, reflection. Regardless of your beliefs, Carlin was brilliant at this.

    Imus is a personality. He’s simply riffing off of news headlines the same way many do every day to co-workers or the guy across the bar. There is no deliberation, no craftmanship to what he does. Those words are taken as straight from his self. They don’t provoke you to think, it’s more like he’s just trying to get attention. Really, it’s just lazy.

    So, context. Carlin is presenting you with issues and asking you to consider them, think about them, and embrace the absurd and hilarious way we humans behave. Imus is like having a conversation with a co-worker and finding out he’s a racist. One’s purposefully unsettling, one’s just wrong.

  • fuck god said:

    george carlin was funny

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