I recently watched a clip from Life is Worth Losing, one of the late comedian George Carlin’s last specials. It came courtesy of The Reformed Broker, Joshua Brown, who introduced it by saying that Carlin was one of his biggest influences, and who called the clip eerily prescient. Carlin says:
There’s a reason education sucks and it’s the same reason that it will never ever ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now… the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.
Forgot the politicians… they’re irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations… And they own… all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls.
They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying to get what they want. Well we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else.
Maybe you were nodding along as you read it or listened to the clip. If you were laughing as you watched the clip, did you notice that the audience wasn’t? The clip is almost entirely devoid of audience laughter, but it got plenty of applause.
I was somewhat horrified at how Carlin began in the clip. But in fairness, I’ve read Kevin Williamson on late-career George Carlin.
Williamson used It’s Bad for Ya — Carlin’s follow-up to Life is Worth Losing, and one I remember laughing to the first time I saw it as a kid — as an example of the great comedian merely “performing,” “raging,” and “saying banal things to uproarious laughter.” Williamson observes:
The program runs for 67 minutes, during which Carlin never quite manages to say anything that is funny — it is not even obvious that he is trying to. He’s angry and bitter, though in a way that’s more like George Carlin doing a George Carlin impersonation than anything suggesting genuine rage.
I imagine that having someone explain the mechanics of stand-up may be similar to learning how a magic trick works — it probably takes something away from the experience. Williamson doesn’t quite deliver that level of insight, but he probably could have. He notes that:
What’s interesting about late-period Carlin is that it illustrates how things that are not actually funny can still get a laugh provided they are presented in the form of a joke, or with the familiar comedic bump-set-spike vocal modulation and other stand-up genre conventions. There is tremendous subconscious social pressure to laugh when presented with something that is shaped like a joke
That subconscious social pressure may be what usually gets to me; I laugh at almost all comedians. But Carlin’s real-owners-of-this-country bit made me cringe. More on that later.
Scott Adams is probably most well-known for creating the comic strip Dilbert, but he’s increasingly getting attention for his… let’s call it non-fiction work. There are only a few people I’ve come across since college who have had viewpoints that are so unique that I’ve wanted to consume their content day after day, and he was one of them.
One of his most interesting lines of writing is on what he calls persuasion (I can’t recall anyone else using that term for what he’s talking about, though it could be a blind spot I have). We’ve all heard that word, but I may have always thought of it as a verb, whereas Adams seems to use it in the sense of a field of study. Like philosophy or psychology, which are probably closely related to it.
His autobiography/self-help book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, got into persuasion quite a bit. His blog — which, sadly, hasn’t been his favorite medium of expression for a while — did as well. The posts he’s tagged with #persuasion are here. One very small example from one of these posts:
If you want the audience to embrace your content, leave out any detail that is both unimportant and would give people a reason to say, “That’s not me.” Design into your content enough blank spaces so people can fill them in with whatever makes them happiest.
He says he uses this technique with Dilbert. For example, Dilbert has no last name because it might tell you about his ancestry, which might be different from yours. Adams’ persuasion commentary gets into other insights based on psychology — and hypnotism, apparently, which is worth the price of admission — often with catchy little phrases to help readers remember them. For example, Adams discusses the fake because (a simple word followed by a plausible sounding reason to do the thing you were looking for an excuse to do anyway) and list persuasion (even if each individual item in a list is misleading or otherwise weak evidence, the sheer quantity of items gives the impression that your case is sound).
How to Fail often tied these kinds of insights into business advice. Another commentator/salesperson/raccoon, James Altucher, seems to be heavy into psychology-based business advice as well. (I find the wolf/sheep/raccoon commentary from Epsilon Theory to be somewhat hilarious.) Altucher noted in-group/out-group biases, as well as ambiguity bias, as key elements of knowing “everything there is to know about sales.” His example of these biases is unforgettable.
In How to get an MBA from Eminem, Altucher explains that Eminem started to get the crowd on his side in the climactic rap battle in 8 Mile by creating an in-group based on everybody’s area code (“Now everybody from the 313, put your mother-f*cking hands up and follow me”), while the antagonist shows himself to be in the out-group by not putting his hands up. And recall Adams’ point that leaving unimportant details undefined allows the audience to fill in those details however they want. Altucher stresses a similar point. He notes that Eminem refers to the antagonist as “this man,” just like a politician will refer to his “opponents,” rather than calling them by their names.
When I heard Carlin’s real-owners-of-the-country bit, I didn’t just realize that Williamson saw something true in comedians and their methods. I also started to think about a successful stand-up act as being like a successful sale: they both require a fair amount of persuasion to get the desired outcome.
I said I was somewhat horrified at how Carlin began the clip. He got better later in it. Despite seeming to misdiagnose the problem — see below — the solutions he offers (e.g., critical thinking, questioning who you’re working for, etc.) are pretty good. My last post says similar things (“MMM seeks to stop us from becoming whiny consumer suckas. Worthy goals, I think….”). But that opening was a terrible message.
Brown titled his post after one of Carlin’s lines: It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. That framing certainly had me thinking in terms of in-groups/out-groups – it doesn’t get much more in-group than a club – but what made me cringe while listening to Carlin’s bit were the assumptions inherent in what he was saying. While it’s part of a stand-up comedy routine, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously, I want to analyze it because those assumptions are fairly common.
“Because the owners of this country… I’m talking about the real owners now… the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.”
The idea that there is a group of wealthy people who control things in the US is conspiratorial, juvenile, and insulting. While I might be shocked to learn what percentage of us believe something like it, truth-seeking individuals should reject the idea.
Notice what Carlin doesn’t include in this line: names (whether people or companies), distinctions between types of business interests, and what types of important decisions he has in mind. It’s just like Adams not giving Dilbert’s company a clear business type – it lets the audience fill in whatever they want so they can nod along — and like Eminem referring to the antagonist as this man — it distances the audience from the vague subjects of Carlin’s joke. I don’t know if this is manipulative, clever, or something more benign.
Let’s consider an example of something that would fit Carlin’s frame. One “thing” to be controlled, and about which governmental actors have been making “important decisions” involves whether internet service providers can deliver data to end users at different speeds depending on what that data is (net neutrality). It’s a topic that has raged for years, and across administrations. Isn’t it odd how there seems to be an ongoing public debate about this topic? It’s almost as if there are competing wealthy business interests (say, Comcast and Google, or AT&T and Netflix) and masses of voters on opposite sides of the question, and that they may participate in politics in various ways (say, voting, lobbying, litigating, donating to campaigns, and running issue or candidate-focused advertisements) in attempts at prevailing on this issue at the FCC.
Carlin gives some hints of who these real owners could be. He says they own “everything,” “all the important land,” “the corporations,” and “the big media companies.” Most of these things aren’t concrete enough to get the audience thinking that they might be part of the out-group; they’re fairly ambiguous. They also are based on the assumption that corporations and media companies have it out for the people in the audience, which is weird. Take the net neutrality fight. Regardless of which side you back – and if this topic interests you, you should read Holman Jenkins at the WSJ about it; I think he’s had it nailed for years – there are corporations on your side.
“The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything.”
Again, I realize it’s a comedy bit. That’s still not going to stop me from complaining about the assumptions underlying the bit or the stupidity that comes out in it. There is so much that’s wrong here.
First, politicians are “put” in front of us? On a literal level, politicians wind up in front of us from their own volition, such as by filing for office by collecting signatures, or by paying filing fees; it’s not that there is some external force responsible for them (outside of rare nomination methods like selection by party committees).
To be charitable, Carlin could mean that politicians are put in front of us in the sense that campaign ads and events that are funded by some powerful entity, such that certain politicians have greater visibility thanks to wealthy interests. But that’s just like the net neutrality fight — there are wealthy interests on both sides of most issues, and of most elections. Even if voters pick from limited options (e.g., selecting from the major-party or the best-funded candidates even if their preferences lie elsewhere), that’s somehow supposed to prove that we have no choice?
Of course we have choice when it comes to candidates. We usually elect the better-funded one, but that’s more complicated than you think, and I said usually, not always. (Even the most recent election, New York’s primary, saw a first-time candidate who was greatly outspent defeat a long-time incumbent congressman.) And we may engage in coordination games to turn multi-candidate races into what are effectively two-person races, but that’s an artifact of our electoral system. I don’t recall anyone standing over me making threats as I cast my last ballot.
Second, what “freedom of choice” is it that we don’t have? I was talking about elections above because Carlin had mentioned politicians. But Carlin is ambiguous on the point, so the audience is free to think of whatever it is that they believe proves the point. Do you succumb to some puppet master when it comes to what you do? We all have plenty of choice, even though it’s bounded by practical constraints. (I think we need more choice, but again, that’s another subject.)
“They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying to get what they want. Well we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else.”
This is the fixed-pie fallacy. It’s stupid. Suppose “they” want more for themselves and more for everybody else. See what I did there? You’re probably trying to think of some powerful interest that does want less for everybody else, so you can prove my suggestion wrong. (Would one example do the trick? It shouldn’t; I’m sure there are plenty of groups that advocate for we-win-they-lose policies, just like there are plenty that are looking for win-win situations.)
Clearly, I don’t believe there are owners of this country in the way Carlin seems to mean, much less real owners, and definitely not nefarious interests that control things. Powerful groups looking out for their own interests, however… obviously these exist. But that’s enough for now.