Where is George Carlin When We Need Him?

In 1972, the late and much-missed comedian George Carlin performed a memorable monologue titled “The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television.” The routine, which for obvious reasons I can’t describe in too much detail here, was brilliant, and, of course, hysterical. It forever etched Carlin into the pantheon of comedians like Lenny Bruce who, in pushing the envelope of what was considered “acceptable,”, also enhanced our consciousness of what was going on all around us.

I can’t help but wonder what George Carlin would have done with the recently issued guidelines provided to the Centers for Disease Control by the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services. According to HHS, the words or phrases to be avoided by the CDC in preparing its budget recommendations for the coming fiscal year are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,”  “transgender,”  “fetus,”  “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”

There have been more than a few moments during the first year of the Trump presidency when it has felt, quite intensely, like America had transitioned into some kind of Orwellian, dystopian version of its former self. Strangers are feared and often loathed, the physically challenged are publicly mocked, our intelligence services are ridiculed, friendly foreign governments are routinely insulted while Russia and its dictator can do no wrong… The list is long and ever more troubling. Just when you allow yourself to think that it can’t get worse, it gets much worse.

From where I sit, this recent effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to control the CDC’s use of language- in essence, to limit their freedom of thought and expression- represents a new and profoundly disturbing manifestation of Trumpian America.

That scientists are not to use the terms “science-based” and “evidence-based” once again opens the door to what White House advisor Kelleyanne Conway famously referred to as “alternative facts.” If scientists cannot base their funding proposals on science and evidence, on exactly what are they supposed to rely? The answer can only be that their own (or their government’s) preconceived notions of what is true and what is untrue should guide them, or, if you will, what is fact, and what is declared not to be fact because of ideological bias. How terrifying, and warped, is that?

And in this brave new world, one has to wonder what is so very threatening about words like vulnerable, fetus, diversity and transgender. Could it be that, in HHS’ collective mind, they conjure up images other than prosperous corporate white men? I have spent time today trying to place myself inside the heads of the people who generated these guidelines. It is no easy task. The only thing I feel pretty sure of is that there are few if any  people of color among them, and probably very few women also. The guidelines reek of male white privilege and bias.

Slowly but surely, right in front of our eyes, the America that we have known and loved is being stolen from us. This is no longer a reflection of the time honored philosophical differences between small-government Republicans and big-government Democrats. We have gone way beyond that now, and have entered a place where the truth is what we decide it will be, damn the facts. If you happen not to subscribe to that truth- well, you’d better be ready to suffer the consequences, especially if you are in any way vulnerable, gay, or a colorful part of the American tapestry.

The longer this national nightmare goes on, the more I find myself feeling increasingly left-of-center than I ever have before. As a child of the sixties, I marched against the war in Vietnam and certainly felt a part of the cultural revolution that swept the country in those tumultuous years. But time, as it inevitably will, had tamed my instincts, particularly with regard to foreign policy. I found myself longing for an America that wasn’t afraid to assert itself more impactfully in a world filled with dark forces.

But President Trump’s relentless effort to transform the very essence of what America is, and means to the world, is moving me back to where I was so many years ago. I would love to be able to full-heartedly celebrate America’s long-overdue recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and Nikki Haley’s passionate defense of Israel in the UN Security Council. But this other piece of the Trump presidency- the dystopian piece- finds me increasingly in “the opposition.” This man is a danger to everything that we hold dear in America, not to mention a danger to the world.

It pains me to have to write these words. They are strong, and unhappy. But so are the feelings that accompany them. The only way to fight this encroaching darkness is, in this season of Hanukkah, to light a light. What Bob Woodward of the Washington Post said long ago still holds, and the paper he wrote for and edited has adopted it as its slogan. “America dies in darkness.”

Don’t curse the darkness. Light a light. And don’t let any branch of our government tell us, or our scientists, what they can and cannot say. Shine a light on the truth!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.