The Art of the Euphemism: an uncensored conversation with the ghost of George Carlin

Note: contains strong language

Back in 1990 George Carlin performed a stand-up comedy routine mocking the ubiquity of euphemistic language in Western society. Few were more passionate than he in denouncing our obsession with downplaying and sugar-coating the features of life that make us uncomfortable. Things have only become worse recently, with the latest round of US presidential primaries providing a stage for spin-doctors and fear-mongers to lecture audiences on the horrors of gay weddings, universal healthcare, and José Hernandez, the 19-year-old who washes dishes in El Paso. It seems as though a certain intolerable threshold has been crossed, in fact, because today the man himself has made it his business to be here and share his thoughts with us, despite having died almost eight years ago.

Me: Welcome, George. Good of you to join us. Let's jump right into it. What are your thoughts on the euphemisms we're seeing in this year's election cycle?

George Carlin: You mean other than Donald Trump's hair?

Me: Ahaha. You've still got it George!

Carlin: That's kind of you. But in all seriousness, the deceptive language we're hearing now is even worse today than it was when I was harping about it twenty years ago. If you want to know the truth, we're deluding ourselves on a daily basis, and on so many levels. And, you know, you Canadians and we Americans share a lot in terms of culture, of course. But when it comes to our “democratic” elections, let me tell you: you have to stand in AWE of the champions of exaggeration and ambiguity, which are the people up on that debate stage. I mean, there's a lot of bullshit flying around these days, but none of it can even hold a candle to what we get when it comes to picking a president. It's embarrassing.

Me: I think you've hit the nail on the head for sure. I've long found it incredible, and incredibly frightening, how easily misled so many people can be by such transparent rhetoric or such obvious deflections – in Canada and elsewhere as well, not just in the US. Getting a straight answer out of a politician seems very rare these days. Maybe it's always been like this – cynicism ruling politics, I mean – I don't know. I was born the same year that you performed that routine on euphemisms!

Carlin: Oh, believe me, it's always been like this. And it's always been like this because people have always had things to hide, like the fact that the elites in our society benefit from injustice of all shapes and sizes. But they don't want people to talk about those things, so they become very good at changing the subject when asked about it, and most people are none the wiser, if they even care to pay attention in the first place.

Me: Do you think you could give us some examples? We'd be interested to hear your take on the current state of things.

Carlin: Absolutely. Since I kicked the bucket in 2008, I've had so much spare time to listen to all the bullshit I damn near contracted cholera once!

Me: …. Uh?

Carlin: I'll start with American politics, because that's the hot-button thing right now. And while we're at it, let's even go in chronological order. I'm gonna skip over Bush Jr., though – we all know what an epic clusterfuck that was. Let's start with Barack Obama. I think Obama was mostly well-intentioned: he (eventually) pulled us out of Iraq, he tried to get more people the healthcare they needed. He tried to do some good things, and to some extent he succeeded.

Me: Yeah, even though he was being harangued at every turn by a self-righteous faction of the GOP that likes to think its grievances are comparable to those of 18th-century Bostonians.

Carlin: Well they're unhooked from reality. But anyway, since we're talking about euphemisms, let's not forget that Obama dropped a big one right near the beginning of his Presidency. ABC's George Stephanopoulos once asked him in an interview about whether he thought that a criminal case should be opened against members of the former administration. You know, investigating them for occasionally half-drowning some poor bastard chained to a table – oh, I'm sorry – “enhanced interrogation” is what it's called now, because the United States doesn't torture people. Anyway, Obama was asked about this, and it was a yes-or-no question. But Obama didn't give a yes-or-no answer – he's far too shrewd for that. Instead he said “I believe that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”

How convenient. In other words, what he really meant was “there's a snowball's chance in Hell of anybody going to jail, because A) that would make me look vindictive, and I've got a reputation to keep; and B) I don't want to set a precedent that could tie my hands. What if I need to ask any of my people to carry out any …. morally questionable tasks?”

Me: I'd forgotten about that, but it's a textbook example of reframing the whole question. And sure enough, his targeted killing campaign using drones has been “morally questionable,” to say the least.

Carlin: That spin tactic Obama used isn't uncommon, either. I made this point in a speech I gave once, but I'll repeat it, and you hear public figures say it all the time: “I just want to put this behind me and get on with my life.” That's code for: “It would be so great if everyone would just forget about how badly I fucked up!”

Now, listen. I'm all for forgiving someone who really deserves it. You know, if they're actually forthcoming and penitent about it. But when someone says they just want to “put this behind them,” that usually means they want to avoid acknowledging their mistake at all. They just want to bury it – pretend it never happened. That's what cowards do.

Me: I know you wanted to try and go chronologically, but election season has given us dozens of soundbites from everyone all at once. So take your pick for the next one, I guess. How about the elephant in the room?

Carlin: Trump, right? Jesus. You know, I've always said that when you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show, but when you're born in America, you get a front-row seat. And boy oh boy, Donald has succeeded in putting on a show alright. If there really are Seven Circles of Hell, I'd say he's dragged us at least half-way to the bull's eye so far. First, it's “The Mexicans.” Then it's “The Muslims.” He's gonna kick out the Mexicans, put up a giant wall to keep them out. And don't forget, it's gonna be a “great” wall! And Mexico's gonna pay for it! Woop-dee-fucking-doo everybody! All our prayers have finally been answered!

Now let's take a step back for a moment and reflect on this. Even aside from the obvious racism simmering just beneath the surface of it all, what in the flying fuck does “great” mean, exactly? He's gonna build a “great” wall; he's got so many “fantastic” plans; “Make America Great Again.” It means nothing! It's all bullshit! That's the biggest euphemism of them all, folks: The emperor will always tell you he's got clothes on – and in this case, he tells us he's got “the best” clothes.

Me: On that point, did you hear his answer at the debate the other night? The moderator asked him a direct and straightforward question: How will you make Mexico pay for the wall that you're proposing? Trump's answer was: “I will, and the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me.” And the crowd actually cheered his answer, if you can believe it.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, George, but I'm pretty sure that if a person gave an answer like that in any standard job interview, they'd tell you to go ride your fucking bike. And yet this is the sort of response we get from one of the leading candidates for the most important job interview in the land. Not only is Trump full of blatant falsehoods (as is the rest of the field), but he also has a very distinct way of speaking, which seems to resonate with ….a certain demographic.

Carlin: Well at this point it's moved beyond just a freak show to become an entire God-damned circus, mostly thanks to Mr. Trump. Harrison Ford was asked about him in an interview, and couldn't believe his idiocy. Even the size of his dick actually became a topic of discussion recently. I mean, this is what it's come to! And you know, on a side note, maybe that's not so bad, because it might finally open people's eyes to what a joke the election system really is. Do you know how filthy rich you have to be to become President of the United States of America? The “debates” that we have to help us choose a leader don't matter. It's all a façade. Money wins elections. Spending records are broken and re-broken every four years! And then some people say “Well actually, lots of people donate money to their favourite candidate, so if someone spends tons on their campaign it's because they had lots of popular support.” Yeah, except how do you think people form their opinions of candidates? People will always trust the devil they know over the one they don't. To become known and popular and to win people's trust you have to put your face on TV commercials, on billboards, and advertise in newspapers. That shit happens to be pretty damn expensive. And then there are the televised events where the candidates are politely asked questions that they're not even obligated to answer – more commonly known as “debates.” We've really deluded ourselves with that word, I tell you. We don't have debates; we have carefully scripted communal interviews. And then we pat ourselves on the back, and tell ourselves that we love democracy. So maybe we needed a campaign season like this one – one that's become so transparently ridiculous – so that people will finally start asking the right questions.

Me: That's an interesting point. And by the way, for the debates, to even be invited to participate in one, you have to be polling above a certain threshold, which depends on your level of media exposure, which in turn requires tons of money – tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars per candidate. This is something that Ralph Nader has lamented for a long time, in fact. It really all comes back to the disastrous Citizens United case – the one Bernie Sanders often talks about – which removed the cap from individual campaign contributions.

Another question just occurred to me, though. Donald Trump has been railing on how much he hates political correctness, and you've spoken in the past about how political correctness and euphemisms let us dance around things we don't like, conceal reality, etc. Do you agree with Trump on that?

Carlin: Well you're right about that. I have no time for political correctness if it's gonna to prevent us from calling a spade a spade and discourage critical thinking. But all Trump has done is concealed xenophobia and racism under the guise of dispensing with political correctness.

Take his thing about how Mexico is “sending” people into the US, and how they're “pouring” over the border. So we're supposed to believe that the Mexican government is directly responsible for illegal immigration? That they're “pushing” them over the border, as he puts it? I remember Trump was asked once for evidence to support his claims, so he brought up some wishy-washy, anecdotal story about how he talked to a border guard once, and that was supposed to count as proof! You never hear him present statistics, just stories of conversations he had here and there that nobody can possibly verify. And hey, I'm sure illegal immigration is a real problem. But you know why? Because they need to support their families, and they can't find a job at home! You may have heard that we Americans love to brag about how our country is the best country in the world. It's such a bountiful cornucopia, overflowing with freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and generosity. And then some poor Mexicans come along, looking for work and safety because NAFTA killed their livelihoods and the drug cartels are hanging people from bridges, and what do we do? We cock our guns and tell them to fuck off!

Me: And as if that wasn't bad enough already, Trump added at the end of his tirade, as a minor footnote, that “Some, I assume, are good people,” and that he loves the Mexican people, apparently. How very kind of him. And according to real statistics that demonstrate reality, illegal immigration from Mexico has actually been declining since 2007.

And then there's the whole Muslim thing, too. His plan is to ban all Muslims from entering the United States “Until we can figure out what's going on.” There's a misleading statement for you. You'd think that if he really wanted to know “what's going on” – whatever the hell that's supposed to mean – he might start by asking the people who know about those things, like the FBI, CIA, and NSA. That's what they're there for, after all. But he's not really interested in understanding anything, he's just trying to sell fear to the American public. Letting Muslims enter and exit the country freely like anyone else has nothing to do with being political correct, and to say otherwise is to imply that every single Muslim is a threat. But that's clearly false, unless, of course, you accept this insane idea that an entire religion worth of people should be indicted for the actions of a radical few. That's just racist stereotyping 101.

It seems that Trump has capitalized on feelings that already existed among the paranoid part of society, and he's encouraged it even further because he knows that fear is an easy card to play. It's the low-hanging fruit. As Senator John McCain put it, Trump's gone and “stirred up the crazies.”And then, because of herd mentality, he's been able to make this veiled racism seem acceptable and mainstream to a lot of people, and it's snowballed into what we're seeing right now. It's become fashionable to reject political correctness, and often for good reason, as you mentioned. But the way Trump has harnessed that sentiment shows how dangerous it can be in the wrong hands.

Oh, I almost forgot. Get this, Trump also said “I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.” Let's untangle this one for a second. He doesn't really like homosexuals, but he knows he can't just say that. So he makes it clear that, while he doesn't have gay friends per se, he does have a few friends who just “happen to be” gay, like it was an unfortunate accident or something. But then, wait, all you homophobes out there can still vote for him, because he believes in “traditional” values – as opposed to the pagan values of his heathen acquaintances, who happen to be abominations. Speaking of which, if you'd like to see what a real abomination looks like, watch this video.

Carlin: He also once said: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” So he wants to fuck his daughter! That's what he's thinking, isn't it? Just say it, Donald. Or would admitting that you're into her be too …. politically incorrect?

And you know what “traditionalist” really means, right? If we read between the lines when somebody talks about the “traditional definition” of marriage, they're implying that there is a traditional definition for it. Somebody, please, show me where that was written down. Which of the Ten Commandments is that, exactly? People who say that don't really give a shit about a gay person's happiness, if you stop and think about it. Either they want to dictate their actions, or they want to try and “save” them. What could be more patronizing? And then Ted Cruz had the gall to call the Supreme Court's decision to allow same-sex marriage the “very definition of tyranny.” Well ho-ly shit. If irony was a crime, he would've gotten the needle for that.

Me: Isn't that the truth. During one of the debates Ted Cruz said something else that caught my attention as well. North Korea had just launched a rocket that evening, so the topic of discussion shifted to nuclear weapons, which these days inevitably includes questions concerning Iran. Cruz said

It is qualitatively different, dealing with a country once they have nuclear weapons. It's why you prevent them from getting nuclear weapons in the first place. Because your hands are somewhat tied once they have nukes, it's why this Iranian nuclear deal is so catastrophic.

The thing is, he's absolutely spot on about one part: the presence of nukes changes calculations enormously.

Noam Chomsky: I'd be happy to explain why that is, if you'd like.

Me: Noam! What a pleasant surprise! Please, by all means.

Chomsky: Well you see, when he says “your hands are somewhat tied,” that translates to “We can't bomb them or invade their country if they've got any nukes, because of the risk of nuclear escalation.” In other words, we can't attack anyone with impunity if there's a chance they could fight back effectively. That's part of the reason why we haven't invaded North Korea. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis we didn't attack, although we probably would have if the Joint Chiefs had had their way. Luckily President Kennedy found a diplomatic solution first. There was a time when Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weapons, but he was pressured to abandon that project, and he eventually gave it up in the 1990s. Same thing with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Since then they've both been overthrown and killed. So North Korea got the message, loud and clear: get nukes, or get invaded. Iran may or may not be pursuing the same agenda, but can we blame them if they are? They're not stupid, and we're excellent teachers.

Me: Thanks for that analysis, Noam.

Carlin: While we're on the subject of nukes, did you hear what Trump said about ours? It might be the single stupidest answer I've ever heard. Somebody asked him “What's your priority among our nuclear triad?”

Me: For those of you who don't know, the nuclear triad refers to the three different ways that the US can nuke somebody, theoretically. That's by dropping a bomb using an airplane, by missiles from a submarine, or by missiles launched from silos in the ground.

Carlin: Right, and you can see in this video how Trump answered the question.

Me: “Somebody who really knows what he's doing,” he says? So not him, evidently. It almost makes me shudder when I remind myself of all the hawks who are vying for the White House right now. Trump isn't even the worst of them, in terms of foreign policy, though it would help if he knew what the nuclear triad is. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz won't shut up about how “American Strength” is supposedly a way to prevent war. What they neglect to mention is that America's strength is waging war. War and “strength” are essentially the same damn thing in their minds! Cruz has a favourite rehearsed line that he loves to drop, too, about “clarity of vision and strength of resolve,” which I take to mean “We'll do whatever the fuck we want, whenever the fuck we want to, because people like me think we're infallible.” And Hillary Clinton isn't much better, mind you. She also loves to preach about how American “leadership” in the world is so crucial, even though that's a euphemism for unilateralism and global hegemony. Like how the United States is historically the runaway leader in using the UN Security Council veto, even when a vote is otherwise unanimous.

Clinton is a savvy political tactician, though. The way she tries to distinguish herself from Bernie Sanders is by referring to herself as “a Progressive who gets things done.” Right now she needs voters to view her as a Progressive, in order to win the Democratic nomination. Then when it comes time for the general election, her strategy will change. She'll emphasize the “gets things done” part, which means she's a Moderate, because that's more appealing to the centrist voters who she'll have to win over from the Republicans. There's method behind everything that gets said.

That includes being a spin-doctor, when necessary. Sanders sometimes points to the fact that she's very cozy with the big banks on Wall Street, and that she takes massive speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs. Funny enough, she fulfilled a sort of Family Guy prophecy when she spun a question about her involvement with Wall Street into a wrap-herself-in-the-flag answer about 9/11 having occurred in Manhattan. It was actually quite insulting to the intelligence.

Carlin: It probably comes as no surprise that Bernie Sanders is my guy in this race. Maybe he's guilty of speaking cryptically, too, but the only things that stick in my mind are the times when he's spoken real truth to power.

Me: Well, like Trump, Sanders has said things that would normally be considered political suicide, but in the opposite way. Trump promises to magically solve all of America's problems by himself, whereas Sanders has literally stated that no president alone can solve the country's largest problems. That's why he says that a sort of revolution is needed. It might be shocking to some people who have been unplugged for while, but it's true.

Carlin: I haven't got long left here, but tell me a little bit about the dynamic up in Canada. Is the rhetoric just as bad over there?

Me: Haha, well it's nothing like the shit show that you Americans have to deal with, but it gets pretty bad sometimes. A few months ago our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, did a bunch of televised conversations with random, ordinary people. Unscripted stuff, where they could ask him pretty much whatever they wanted. So, naturally, several of them asked him some pretty tough questions about the economy, unemployment, oil and gas pipelines, that kind of thing. His go-to reply for many of the questions was that “There are no easy answers.” Now, that's true, of course – some of these people were asking him about stuff that can't just be solved by snapping your fingers. This shit is chess, it ain't checkers. But he couldn't just say that, obviously. He had to be diplomatic about it. The “no easy answers” line was his way of politely saying “Sorry, pal, there's not much I can do for you at the moment. This interview is as much about the optics as it is about trying to solve your problems.” And by the way, I won't go into it right now, but our last government under Stephen Harper was much, much worse. He sugarcoated plenty, and was a master spin-doctor, but he didn't have to do it in person because he never even sat down with ordinary people like Trudeau's done.

And of course, when Trudeau's been asked about the US election, he's also made reference to how it shouldn't be about “building walls.” We all know what he means by that.

Carlin: That's been a common theme down here too, on both sides of the aisle. I swear to God, if Trump somehow manages to weasel his way into the White House, that'll be a true indictment on the American voters who put him there. People are gonna have to wake up before it's too late. But this election campaign is getting people interested in the political process, so at least that's something. Otherwise there should just be a campaign slogan that says “The public sucks. Fuck hope.” How's that for inspiration?

Me: I'd laugh, except that's hardly something to joke about, at least according to polling data that says 30% of Republicans, 41% of Trump supporters, and even 19% of Democrats are in favour of “bombing Agrabah” – the fictional country from the movie Aladdin.

Carlin: It's no wonder Trump is finding support. You know what they say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

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