Some of you have asked me how come I haven’t written about these guys passing. Especially since I’ve written about the deaths of way more obscure people on this blog and these guys were both East Coast Irish-Americans raised Catholic, like me, and within range of my age (Russert younger, Carlin older).
You’d think I had something to say about them. Well here are some things:
I grew up around and knew guys like both of them. And I had things in common with both of them, besides our Irish-American East Coast roots.
I was raised with Russert’s love of politics, from working for my father on campaigns, as he was the Democratic Party chairman of our town. It was during his tenure that the town moved from a Republican majority to Democratic one, thanks to my father’s efforts at getting out the ethnic vote for Democratic candidates.
Unlike Russert, my old man and me argued a lot and had a contentious relationship throughout my teens and young manhood, but we were similarly influenced by these working-class guys (my father dropped out of seventh grade to go to work) and their perspectives.
So I totally related to Russert’s love of politics and understanding of it from hands on experience, his father’s as well as his own.
But obviously I had more in common with Carlin. It’s no accident friends and strangers alike have told me I reminded them of Carlin, mostly during the 1970s, but even more recently. Usually after they heard me read my poetry or improvise an extended rant about politics or contemporary life and mores at a party.
I related to Carlin’s using the language of the streets as well as the intellectuals to address the obvious hypocrisies and self-delusions of a lot of our so-called "leaders” as well as ourselves.
But I didn’t identify with either of these guys as much as I have with all kinds of creative folks and not so creative ones. And I didn’t always like the way they came across.
Russert, it seemed to me, could be petty in his questioning of those without a lot of power, especially the kind of power that’s held in awe in Washington DC political circles, while on the other hand being reluctant to press people with that kind of power or probe their failures or obvious lies very deeply, if at all.
He’s been lauded in the media since his death as some kind of paramount journalist, but as others have pointed out, he wasn’t a true “journalist,” in the sense of someone who pursued newsworthy stories and investigated them in depth for the truth hidden within the media myths.
There have been so many brave journalists whose names most of us can’t even call to mind, but who have pursued the truth about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and behind the lies that got us into the Iraq one and the failures in the Afghanistan effort, as well as exposed the lies and crimes of those in power, way beyond anything Russert even attempted, let alone pulled off.
Russert may have been the nice guy and good friend people in the media have said he was, but he broke no big stories during his career and he got many of them wrong, taking his cue most often from those in power in politics, as in his initial defense of the invasion of Iraq and the lies it was based on, or more recently taking cues from rightwing organizations and bloggers, as well as Fox News, for questions to ask the Democratic candidates in debates he moderated.
I’m sorry for his family’s and friends’ loss, but I also hope that in the future, “news media” stars who have the chance to question the powers that be do it more bravely.
In fact, just imagine Carlin having the power of MEET THE PRESS to grill our political “leaders!”
No one would ever accuse Carlin of being too meek in his reaction to any kind of power (though I have no idea how he was in real life when confronted with those kind of people in social or business situations).
But then, it’s a lot easier to raise the kinds of questions and objections and criticisms Carlin did as a comedian than as a journalist (which is why the journalists who do it should be as famous, or actually more so, than either Russert OR Carlin).
Carlin was the kind of guy I’m very familiar with, not only growing up around but to some extent being one myself. An Irish wise guy with a big mouth and many chips on our shoulders, and the deep conviction that only we knew the truth and it was our obligation to tell it to the world.
He did a great job of that. His routines were often—as others have pointed out and more eloquently than me I’m sure—just as stunning if you took out the jokes, and the so-called foul language.
And he was an original in the world of white stand up comedy and celebrity.
There certainly were many in the world who shared a lot of Carlin’s perspective on the blatant hypocrisy of not only politicians but of most of the rest of us as well, and who “spoke truth to power” and who pointed out the absurdities in the ways our shared language is used to manipulate and obfuscate.
There were also many, not necessarily the same ones, who shared his seeming cynicism about the failings of our “leaders” as well as the rest of us.
It was that cynicism, especially the older he got, that I didn’t share and that fueled his commentaries in a way that reminded me too often of the kind of older Irish wise guys who didn’t consider anyone else’s opinions worth responding to or often even listening to, and who seemed dismissive of any beliefs and perspectives contrary to their own and could cut you (me I guess I mean) down to size with a smart ass comment that embarrassed you (me) into silence or inarticulate anger.
Perhaps it’s the memory of boyhood humiliations at the hands of (or rather the language of) guys like Carlin that always kept me at a distance from his achievements.
I laughed at his humor and admired and acknowledged his wit and intelligence and often loved his truth-telling and was grateful he was out there doing it, but I was also sometimes put off by the cynicism, and later sometimes bitterness, I felt was behind a lot of it.
He reminded me a little of the poet Robinson Jeffers, who I admired greatly as a young man, but who too was a bit of a misanthrope, railing against the sins of his fellow humans while mostly isolating himself from any responsibility for them.
Jeffers was a wonderful poet, original and unique in his message as well as his technique, to a large extent, like Carlin. But of course neither existed in a vacuum.
Black comedians, as well as others, were doing comedy similar to Carlin’s long before he came along. Dick Gregory not only blazed that trail and on the same celebrity level years before Carlin did (though without the Irish wise guy street language and dismissiveness, which black comics like Moms Mabley and Redd Fox had already been doing for years anyway) but he also took what he preached into his life and practiced it to the extent that he lost his comedy career and celebrity as a result.
Jewish comedians too, like Lenny Bruce most obviously, though Carlin managed to keep his later obsessions more humorous than Bruce did, because Bruce too, like Gregory, suffered for his groundbreaking routines and ended up more concerned with the misuses of the law in this country than pointing out his fellow humans foibles.
And there were poets who had been addressing some of the same national hypocrisies and lies in their poems long before Carlin started his similar rants. In many ways, I see Carlin as almost more of a poet than traditional comedian—a “performance poet,” as they began calling poets back in the 1970s who memorized their poems to "perform" them rather than read them. He would have fit right in at any Saint Marks New Years Day marathon.
Obviously some of the Beats, like Ginsberg and Diane di Prima for instance, addressed a lot of the same, or similar issues Carlin addressed, as well as many of us other poets. And some of us suffered as a result. (I, for instance, lost jobs, friends, family, awards, publishers, etc. as a result of some of my “speaking truth to power” and usage of the seven forbidden words, and too often practicing what I preached,)
After all, Carlin came a little late to that approach compared to what was happening among many younger than him in the 1960s.
None of this is to take away from his enormous achievements as a comedian and social and political commentator. I still share clips from his old and his latest shows with friends because of the power of their humor and truth telling (and write similar tirades and rants and observations and criticisms and revelations in my poetry and elsewhere).
But I also always feel sad that in the end his caustic wit left little room for solutions. His last show in particular stated outright that there is no hope for this country and this society, that “the owners” of it, the corporate elite who have the politicians in their pockets etc. will never let that happen.
Maybe that’s true, and maybe we should all just tend our own gardens, but that’s not my desire, nor belief. I know that if Nixon was defeated in the 1968 election we would be living in a much different country and society and even world, or if Gore had won in 2000.
Some things do matter. And though corporate power is more entrenched than ever, and its reach more wide spread and intrusive than ever, there is always the possibility for change, if enough people, especially influential ones, believe in it and work for it.
As my old friend Hubert Selby Jr. used to say, and I've quoted here before: "Remember the infinite possibilities of life."