HUMANISTS EXPECT their heroes to be positive. That’s what humanism is, after all—a positive morality that launches off the negation of belief; an actively asserted moral framework that hinges on solutions, on progress, on unwavering optimism. It’s an ideology grounded in the desire to make life better for all on Earth—and it’s powered by the belief that this can actually be accomplished.
On the other hand, here’s George Carlin: “If you live on this planet, you’re guilty, period, fuck you, end of report, next case!”
I can sympathize. I haven’t always called myself a humanist—in fact, for most of my life, if asked, I would’ve said I was a pessimist, a cynic, a misanthrope, and a nihilist (and not particularly in that order). And I learned to be those things in part by watching the master comedian himself.
I remember quite distinctly the night—and the Carlin material—that would influence me so. I couldn’t have been older than twelve, but there I was, propped up on the couch, surrounded by parents, and flushed with embarrassment as Carlin joyously detailed the pedophiliac thoughts that might accompany getting a Christmas card portrait of someone else’s kids. It was Carlin’s 2001 special, Complaints & Grievances (one of his most famous), and that particular skit spurred some parental discussion about the appropriateness of my watching it. But Dad argued that I was mature enough, so I kept watching. Carlin would soon launch into his infamous Ten Commandments bit and I would be forever changed.
But it might not be accurate to call Carlin a misanthrope. It might not be accurate to call him any of the things I once called myself; at any given point in his life he may have either identified with or outright rejected each of those labels. Carlin was, if anything, an idiosyncratic man, and his beliefs followed suit. Suffice it to say, however, that he wasn’t positive—certainly not the optimistic cheerleader for humanity that other freethinking icons have been. Did he want humanity to succeed? No. “I root against the species,” he often declared. Did he believe that we even could succeed? Not quite. Change “can’t happen,” he once quipped. “It just seems the pile of shit is too deep.”
And yet, despite this, many people—myself included—consider George Carlin a humanist.
Does he deserve the title? Carlin loved humans but hated humanity; it’s a characteristically nuanced and counterintuitive position. “I love and treasure individuals as I meet them, I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to,” he wrote in his New York Times bestseller, Brain Droppings. In a 1997 interview with a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart, Carlin further explained his position: “I dislike and despise groups of people but I love individuals. Every person you look at; you can see the universe in their eyes, if you’re really looking.” (In that interview he would also tell Stewart: “You are going to show us a lot, and I look forward to it”—more evidence of the man’s incredible prescience.)
So there’s that. Poetic and intimate, Carlin cherished individual human beings the way any humanist might, even while rooting against the species. It was a kind of “sympathetic contempt,” in his words, and came from a place of “disappointment and disillusionment.” In a 2007 radio interview, Carlin explained his position as such: “I realized I didn’t really care about the outcome on this planet. I didn’t care what happened to the species. I think this is a species that was given great gifts and had great potential and squandered them.”
Carlin’s dislike of humanity was not a malicious hatred, but something of a shrug spurred by vicarious regret; that he didn’t wish for the end of humanity wouldn’t prevent him from reveling in it. And, if anything, we can at least acknowledge the emotional complexity that allows for humans to both hate something and care for it in spite of themselves. “They say if you scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist,” Carlin said, in one of his final interviews. “And I would admit, that somewhere underneath all this, there’s a little flicker of a flame of idealism that would love to see it all—woosh!—change.”
In his sweeping tome From Dawn to Decadence (2000), famed historian Jacques Barzun discusses those Renaissance thinkers who he considers to be the “first humanists”—people like Petrarch, Rabelais, Boccaccio, Erasmus, and so on. In that historical sense a humanist was someone who first excelled in the linguistic arts—obsessive tome collectors and letter writers, poets and philosophers, masters of the written and spoken word. A love for reason and for nature guided their every endeavor. And their work—like Boccaccio’s masterful Decameron—sought explicitly to delve into all the filth, and grit, and earthiness of real human affairs: a conscious shift away from the high superstitious mysticism of the Middle Ages. Together they produced an oeuvre that satirized, mocked, critiqued, and undermined the political, religious, and social authorities of their day. They exposed the follies of those man-made institutions and traditions that would claim instead to be something more, and they did it in service of the humans who were also now, for the first time, their artistic subjects.
Carlin was a humanist in that classical tradition—a Renaissance man without God; a genius, radical, revolutionary, writer, philosopher, linguist, and social critic. His nonbelief extended well to antitheism; his frequent and emphatic identification of organized religion as the biggest perverter of human morality was central to both his act and his personal life. And if he attacked churches, and politics, and other institutions—which he did with erudition and verve—it was only in response to the suffering they wrought upon people. So he cared. At least he cared enough—in the tradition of his kindred Renaissance thinkers—to observe what was human and report on his findings. He wanted to topple the empire if only for the sake of the people being crushed underneath it.
“Some of us get to sit there with notebooks,” Carlin once said in an interview shortly before his death. “And I’m a notebook kind of guy… I watch the freak show, and I keep my notes, and I make up stuff about it, and I talk about the freaks. And the freaks are all humans, and they are all like me, and we are all the same.”
We need those notetakers. We need those observers who say, no, it’s not okay. They might be the real humanists, those who realize that through honesty only can we first assess and then conquer a problem. Admitting that it’s not okay is the first step towards making it so. Because it’s not all flowers and rainbows out there—to believe this is a delusional hazard equivalent to fatalism in its capacity to promote indifference.
A recent article in The Atlantic asked if Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me—the new blockbuster work on race relations in America—was too bleak. It is bleak, but only in America, where we expect our reality to be sugar-coated, where we want all the movies to have happy endings, and where we want our public figures to be infinitely optimistic, smiling, and hopeful. Coates’s first project is to dismantle what he calls a “specious hope,” but only insofar as that “hope” can facilitate the glossing over of reality and help to maintain the status quo. Because some of those who preach hope only work to perpetuate the delusion—a work they perform either out of ignorance or because they themselves benefit from the delusion. In Coates’s case, it was a white news anchor who pressed on about “hope” as a way to avoid addressing the uncomfortable reality of race. As Carlin himself said, “the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything’s gonna be alright.”
That’s why I consider Carlin a humanist. He was a man of the people, by the people, for the people; he skewered euphemism, detested false security, and he preferred the uncomfortable truth to a comforting lie. He despised tyrants, lambasted gods, and deconstructed entire institutions, and he did so in the name of reason, truth, and honesty. “Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you,” begins one of Carlin’s countless quotable barbs. “Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure.” If he lost his faith in humanity in the process of so much truth-telling, who can blame him? It only speaks to the unmitigated intensity with which Carlin engaged the world.