Courage and complacency around here


George Carlin died of a broken heart. Literally. His heart gave out at 5:55 p.m. on June 22, 2008. But just maybe Carlin died of the other kind of broken heart—the kind that breaks from disappointment.

If you really listen carefully to George Carlin, you can hear through his rants some kind of inner passion—the passion to inform a population that has lost its ability to direct its own future. George was one of us. And he had heart.

It’s hard to ignore Carlin’s courage. In 1961 he was arrested for refusing to show his ID when the original shock comic Lenny Bruce was being arrested for obscenity. A few years later Carlin’s “seven words you can never say on television” launched a freedom of speech debate that still echoes through the halls of the U.S. legal system.

What got me going on Carlin was a fellow blogger who posted a video of Carlin’s rant about education—the kind the big wealthy business owners don’t want you to get. Here’s George in his own words:

“Forget the politicians. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the Senate, the Congress the State Houses and the City Halls. They got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and information that you get to hear. They got you by the balls!

Some days it sorta sounds exactly like how things run out here in New Brunswick—and how the rest of us might want to be careful about what we say, since what we say may actually affect our paycheques. As a result, dissenters in New Brunswick seem to be a rare breed.

But it’s not just here. Carlin’s kind of dissent seems to be in awfully short supply everywhere these days. Looking back it makes you wonder what has changed over the past 40 years. I’m fairly certain that dissent didn’t disappear because all the problems of the world have now been solved, or the gap between the rich and the poor has been narrowed at last, or our politicians are finally working harder and more openly for us ordinary folks, or we’ve all reached a level of enlightenment that transcends personal gain. We seem to have more problems than ever. So what happened to dissent?

I was talking to a friend about this apparent lack of dissent last week, and somehow Facebook crept into that conversation. What is it about Facebook? And the lights went on. Facebook is all about being popular. On Facebook it doesn’t pay to offend anyone—in fact the less offensive you are the better, because in the Facebook universe the person with the most friends wins.

Sure, our media shapes us, as Marshall McLuhan said. But Facebook is just a symptom. There are deeper reasons for the disappearance of dissent. As consumers in a consumer-based society we’re prisoners of the global corporations that supply us with our next fix. And at the most fundamental level we subconsciously know it.

It follows that what happens at the local or regional levels is more or less irrelevant on the larger economic and political scale. More than anything, we’re affected by what’s happening internationally.

This came up last week at a meeting where the idea of local–regional media was being discussed. The newspaper that was being discussed is a great record of regional events and ideas. But what relevance do these ideas have to the events happening in the outside world? What is shaping our thinking from the outside that we don’t acknowledge in our everyday lives?

Truthfully, most of what influences our lives is dictated by that outside world—the corporately controlled world. It dictates the way we communicate, dress, shop for food, decorate our homes, and how we travel from one place to another. Very little local enterprise—other than the localized political and economic controls that keep our sewers and potholes fixed—affects our daily lives. And maybe that’s enough to keep us locally engaged.

But clearly, as Carlin suggests, the main shaping agent of culture is the corporate media. Living inside these sprawling media networks we sometimes get the uneasy feeling that we’re victims of disinformation—such as the media rush to the war in Iraq. Or worse, that were simply being distracted from the real business of running our own society. The end result is a growing cynicism about one’s ability to actually affect the affairs of the world, and a loss of faith in the future.

So we’ve made the bargain with the devil. We get all the high fashion and cheap consumer goods we can possibly want. All we have to do is play along with the system, shut up and enjoy it—no matter what it does to erode our capacity for critical thinking, or how it damages the rest of the planet.

But there’s that niggling thought. If it’s such a great deal, why are we slowly getting poorer and less satisfied as time goes by?


Popular Posts