This excellent David Itzkoff piece considers the enduring popularity of the late standup comic George Carlin. In particular, it explores why Carlin appeals to the left and right alike. And I think it’s a good artifact for recognizing an important change in political life that’s rarely discussed.
As Itzkoff says, Carlin was a lifelong progressive. His critique of the pro-life movement has been making the rounds recently, for obvious reasons. Carlin is embraced by the right (and occasionally critiqued by the left) because he ran contrary to a development on the left that's rarely discussed but very consequential, the rise of safetyism. By that I mean the left's intense and deepening attachment to psychological safety, to the maintenance of emotional comfort above all things, to avoiding giving offense even to the point of reducing freedom. I know that the term safetyism implies a pejorative stance, and yes, I'm opposed to it. But I'm trying to speak about it in entirely neutral terms here, not argue against it. I just think that these questions of relative political position for figures from the past are difficult to adjudicate in part because our ideological coalitions shift in obvious ways (the alt-right, the Bernie left) but also in far more subtle and less-discussed ways. 25 years ago Carlin's stance as someone who hated language policing wouldn't even be coded as right-wing at all; the ground shifted out from under us in a way that was fundamentally cultural rather than political. But for definitional arguments, the consequences are real.
You could look at the ACLU’s sad devolution into just another Democrat think tank as a good indication of the shift. The ACLU has lost interest in its core commitments because liberal culture enforces safetyism with more zeal than any other value.
You’d never know it, in a lot of progressive circles. The trouble is that safetyism (or whatever you'd like to call it) is one of those changes that the left-of-center seems unwilling to even admit exists, in order to discuss its consequences. Because it’s never going to be cool to advocate for more safety at the expense of freedom, even if you think that's the right thing to do. So there's a resistance to even accepting those terms - the constant invocation of “you just want to be able to say the n-word,” when of course the consequences of this turn have been vastly larger than that. There’s a real allergy to calling politics politics, with this issue; it’s one of those things that progressives insist is just progress, just good people being good, just the moral arc of the universe. And you can see how safetyism becomes self-reinforcing: to speak of safetyism at all offends some people, and we must not offend anyone because… of safetyism. So it’s off the books.
But insisting that the psychic comfort of some should be the top priority of all is ideology at its purest, political by definition. And Carlin’s career is a good example of what’s lost when we so prioritize the implacable human demand to feel safe, respected, and valid: the world is permanently unsafe, and in order to navigate its treacherous complexity we must think and speak in ways that will inevitably offend some. No one ever promised you that you’d always feel safe, and anyway no force on earth could ever achieve such a thing for you. I guess I am arguing against safetyism, now. It’s my nature. But what’s more important is simply that people on the left admit that this has happened, acknowledge that they’ve chosen safety over freedom, and engage in debate about whether this is for the best, about what the right mixture and safety might be. We can’t do that until we mutually acknowledge what’s happened. The proof is there in the progressive voices of the past. And it proves again what I’ve been saying for 15 years: I’m just a leftist who never changed.
My friend and I were talking about smoothness the other day. People want a smoothness to their lives, which is understandable. We don't want the inconveniences of getting in our car or on a bus to go to a store to buy groceries and then get back on the bus or in our car to go to the post office and the bank. We don't want to run errands or really do anything that takes time away from whatever we want to do (though I'd say staring at our computer screens or phones takes up far more of our day than errands did). We also don't want to be challenged on our beliefs. We don't want to have our boundaries be pushed or pulled. We want to feel safe and comfortable.
We want life to slide easily along. We want a frictionless existence where everything is available to us without effort, where we can simply turn off things we don't want to engage with. Tech companies have facilitated this in a lot of ways.
And I think it's honestly been incredibly harmful to us as a social and political animal. Even something as banal as running errands requires you to interact with people who may be radically different than you. You may walk into a heated argument or an awkward confrontation. You may even have to deal with small injustices, both personal and political. This helps keep us tethered to society, by forcing us to exist bodily in it day after day, hour after hour.
No one enjoys waiting in line, but often this can lead to conversation with strangers. Maybe, even, it will lead to political engagement.
The first time my wife went shopping with my mother, she told me that my mother just talks to everyone at the store, whether they're a fellow shopper or employee. Which is about the last thing I ever want to do. I'd rather never talk to any single person in a store and I'd definitely prefer for strangers not to talk to me. But I think the discomfort of these interactions is a good thing. I think we lose something in always feeling safe and comfortable.
Like, I never ask someone at a clothing store for help. And I definitely don't ask their opinion about the clothes I try on or pick out. There's something slightly humiliating in liking something in front of someone else, because they may think you look foolish or lame or just plain bad. But I think these small forms of humiliation are good for us. It's good to feel uncomfortable, at least in small doses.
I think it goes even further than that. What we have is narcissism masquerading as virtue.