Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dirty Words

In case you haven't heard it before, Crooks and Liars has posted a performance of The Seven Words You Can't Say on TV. It's no offense to George Carlin to point out that this is somewhat derivative. Lenny Bruce told essentially the same story, with the same moral. But every creative person stands on the shoulders of giants, and Carlin had a lot to say that was different. Bruce was coming from a place of deep pain, he was angry and sarcastic, and much of the time, he wasn't even funny. But Carlin had a sunnier disposition and a gentler voice.

Lenny and George both wanted us to notice that certain words are off limits because they represent truths people want to hide. We might be afraid of the truth, we might be bigoted or hateful, we might just have silly ideas about what is proper, or there might be real ugliness we don't want parading around the living room in front of the children. Some of those sentiments may be defensible, others reprehensible, but the comedians' project was to demolish the mystic power of those words, to make them just like any other words, so we can be free to talk about the truths behind the taboos. Sometimes those truths are just silly, sometimes they're kind of important, sometimes they're urgent, sometimes they're profound. Doesn't matter, if you make it funny enough, you can say it.

The license to break taboos, to say the unsayable, goes back to Aristophanes, and no doubt to the dawn of language although, as far as I know, Aristophanes is the oldest written example we have. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) The license was held by Shakespeare's fools, by Moliere and Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. But it has to be earned. Not just anybody can do it. There's a wormhole through the universe of bullshit that you somehow have to find.

So goodbye George, we'll miss you a lot. As will the residents of Rogers, Oklahoma.

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