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The Power of Culture


What do seven dirty words, Big Bird and Archie Bunker have in common?

George Carlin, the envelope-pushing, line-crossing comedian was probably most famous for "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." That routine provoked countless conversations about censorship and the First Amendment, both before and after the Supreme Court upheld a Federal Communications Commission order against his "indecency." I didn't remember until reading his obituary that he had actually been arrested several times for delivering "Seven Words" in a show.

Carlin was about far more than dirty words. He used his immense talents as a wordsmith and performer to simultaneously make listeners laugh and challenge them to look askance at the status quo in politics, culture and society. Carlin was scheduled to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. this fall, and it's a great misfortune that we won't be able to see the ways that he undoubtedly had in mind to have the gala crowd squirming in their seats.

Also in the news this week was the death of Kermit Love, a much lesser known name. Love was a costume designer who built Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters. The gentle, uplifting spirit of Sesame Street, so prized by generations of parents and children, is in many ways a stark contrast to Carlin's purposefully jarring routines. But Carlin and Big Bird both reminded me of the power of culture to shape our society.

People For the American Way's founder Norman Lear has always understood the great ability of pop culture to puncture unexamined prejudice, to make people think, to point toward a higher ideal. That's one of the reasons I was so excited about taking this job. I would love to hear your ideas on ways we can creatively use culture to make social and political change — send me your thoughts at [email protected].

One last thought about the week. Thursday was the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned state sodomy laws. Reading our legal director's remembrance of that day reminded me how exciting it was to have the Court make a ringing defense of liberty — and reminded me what a huge difference it makes whether our top Court is friend or foe on individual rights. That is also why I'm here. And why I'm grateful that you are too.