Reflections on George Carlin, in the era of Donald Trump

George CarlinBefore capitulating to misanthropy, George Carlin delighted many of us by eviscerating the meritocracy’s treacherous rhetoric. Towards the end of his life, he tragically appeared to love words more than humanity.

One of Carlin’s best riffs explored the linguistic evolution of “shell shock,” a World War I phrase vividly describing the psychological damage of combat. The alliteration of “sh” amplifies the violent, shrieking cause—shells—and the horrific effect—shock. Carlin observed, “Two syllables…almost sounds like the guns themselves.” Indeed, the word “hell” is embedded.

During World War II, the military-medical complex labeled the most severe cases “battle fatigue,” leaving the remaining troops to fend alone in a culture that censured mental illness. Systemic violence remained central, because that four-syllable phrase honestly used the word “battle.” However, “fatigue” intimates lassitude more than devastating horror.

The conflict in Korea introduced “operational exhaustion.” That chilly euphemism eliminated the role of war in destroying so many young people’s lives. “Operational exhaustion” was supplanted in Vietnam by a more medical-sounding phrase, “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Carlin noted that its major contribution was a hyphen.

The existential horrors of warfare had just become another set of treatable medical disorders, preferably with cheap but lucrative pharmaceuticals. Our society’s decision to inflict widespread harm by sending part of its citizenry into harm’s way was rendered ordinary, similar to suffering caused by accidents, parental abuse, crime, or other awful events. Everyone has been unfairly or arbitrarily injured at one time or another: Everyone tries to “get over it.”

But there should be a special place of tragic honor for those who suffered so much on the battlefield. Some were shocked by the death and maiming of friends. Others were shattered by the killing of enemy troops or noncombatants. Leonard Cohen, another sadly departed guide for the distraught and perplexed, once sang, “Whatever makes a soldier sad will make a killer smile.” Acknowledging these psychic costs (the greatest debts of war) might encourage our nation to do more for its veterans (starting by creating a greater collective presumption against combat, particularly “wars of choice”).

Carlin also excoriated “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation.” For starters, both doctrines obfuscate governmental intentions and responsibilities. The broadest definition of “intent” is that an actor intends every effect that they can foresee will be caused by their action. In other words, we often resolve to do something that will produce a mixture of desirable and undesirable results. We can hope that the government’s primary purpose was to kill terrorists and not to terrorize or even alienate populations so they would continue fighting. Sadly, some people on both sides seem to enjoy exacerbating “The Clash of Civilizations.”

It is not only foreseeable but also demeaning to characterize the slaughter of innocent civilians as “damage.” Collateral damage obscures how America systemically uses “weapons of mass destruction” to commit war crimes. For some reason, a bomb dropped by a B-52 or a drone on a wedding, funeral, or hospital is allegedly less disgusting than a terrorist bomb planted at a local police station. “Enhanced interrogation” is equally misleading, suggesting that torture is a more effective way to gather intelligence. Actually, there often was no interrogation, no plan to gather data from those stale, unreliable sources. There simply was systemic sadism. Thus, the chilly phrase exaggerates torture’s value and denies how it is actually utilized. We refined two forms of State terrorism, bathed in euphemisms reeking of refined, faux expertise, an unholy mix of Madison Avenue and lawyer-talk.

We thus need to approach all prevailing rhetoric with great suspicion. Sometimes, leaders flaunt Orwellian flips, instructing us that “War” is “Peace.” More often, they don’t abide by professed principles. Official promotion of “transparency” usually signifies that the leader is withholding crucial information. Hillary Clinton discussed transparency all the time.

President-elect Trump is a master of the Art of the Lie and the Flip-Flop. Top-down surrealism serves many functions. Some people will devotedly believe his nonsense, such as the alleged participation of millions of fraudulent voters in the 2016 election. They are “useful idiots.” Others see through those fabrications but remain loyal, thereby demonstrating a capacity for leadership under their glorious trailblazer. Dissenters and skeptics complain, exposing themselves as an opposition to be marginalized. Many others remain silent, hoping that neither power nor truth catches up with them. Who knows? Perhaps human pollution is not making the earth uninhabitable for humans.

The first step is to divide these broad, vacuous concepts into separate, useful categories. If the phrase is not a flagrant lie or hypocritical cant, it may have value. “Post-traumatic stress disorder” does not blatantly reject the reality principle, which is grounded in respect for all facts. It is important to acknowledge how injuries can poison the mind. Often, the mind’s repetitive recollections are worse than the triggering event. This protracted anguish explains why successful tort plaintiffs are compensated for immediate pain and long-term suffering. Indeed, “suffering” and “distress” are more accurate terms than “stress,” which sounds somewhat mechanical.

However, there are profound differences between combat and domestic violence in forms, origins, and effects. Perhaps we should we reserve “shell shock” for veterans and use “post-traumatic stress disorder” for noncombat injuries. That linguistic move might make smug American civilians, who fortunately have not witnessed homeland war for well over a hundred years, less willing to send others into a bloodbath and more willing to help them when they return.

These examples reveal multiple layers of obfuscation that make it easier for the powerful to avoid scrutiny and create double standards in application. Fortunately, we have tools to analyze contested political terms, all requiring clarity refined by comic skepticism. Carlin study of history revealed alternative formulations. Most of this stuff is like extraordinarily bad poetry; we need to listen to the feeling tones within a prevailing phrase. Do the words graphically and accurately describe the problem, like “shell shock,” or are they a wordy concoction of abstractions reflecting the deadened imagination of the bureaucratic mind?

Intentionality, causation, foreseeability, and reality become lost in a mist of off-putting gibberish. Whenever the scope of the concept is elusive or obscure, there is an increased chance of bad faith. What functions does the phrase serve? What is being emphasized, hidden, or ignored? Who benefits and who loses? We need to determine all the effects that lurk beneath these less than majestic generalities and then normatively assess those outcomes. If war only causes medical problems that have afflicted everyone to some degree, perhaps it is not so hellish.

The next few essays will use these tools to compare and contrast such fraught terms as “Identity Politics,” “Culture Wars,” “Political Correctness,” “Affirmative Action,” “Diversity,” and “American Exceptionalism.” If some of what will be written pisses you off, just dismiss it as collateral damage.

James Wilson James Wilson (5 Posts)

James Wilson is Professor Emeritus of Law at Cleveland Marshall College of Law, in Cleveland OH.