On the fallibility of memory

My favorite George Carlin line (“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money”) is actually Chevy Chase’s line; he got it from Lorne Michaels. That’s so even though I clearly “remember” watching Carlin say it on TV. We send people to prison based on evidence no more reliable than that memory.

My post on Tom Ravanel’s indictment for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute (short version: he was a party-giver, not a dealer) included the classic George Carlin line, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you have too much money.” The quote, like Carlin himself, perfectly sums up the “greed is good” era of the early 1980s, to which we seem to be returning.

However …

A reader points out that the line has also been attributed to Richard Pryor (which makes sense to me) and Robin Williams (which doesn’t). But I remember Carlin delivering that line on TV; in my mind’s ear, I can hear it in his voice.

Still, since I’m a serious blogger, I didn’t just assert my infallibility; I did research. The first form of blogger research is, of course, Googling. (The second form is blegging. Then you give up.)

And yes, I found attributions to Pryor and Williams as well as Carlin. But I also found the transcript of a CNN interview with Tom Shales, co-author of Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.

SHALES: Pot-smoking was as common as drinking Pepsi or Coke. So I don’t consider that bad. And some people think it helps the creative juices flow.

Al Franken, one of their long-time writers and also often performer on the show, said he — the coke was used to stay awake, because Lorne Michaels imposed this insane structure on the show, which is basically key to his own circadian rhythm, which is, he likes to get up at 3:00 p.m., have breakfast and then go into work. And so they would work all night and still do sometimes, I think, work all Wednesday night, writing, all Tuesday night writing, writing, writing.

And Al said, “Well, I really just took coke to make sure nobody else took too much coke.”

ZAHN: Wow.

SHALES: Of course, Chevy’s immortal line, which is actually quoting Lorne, “Coke is God’s way of telling you, you have too much money.”

This story has, I think, at least four morals.

1. Famous Names Attract Famous Lines. A really witty phrase attributed to someone you never heard of is probably attributed correctly. But if it’s attributed to Lincoln or Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill or George Carlin it’s even money that someone remembered a funny line and attributed it to the Official Funny-Line Sayer of the relevant time period.

2. Listen to your readers. You might learn something.

3. Google is great. Often better than blegging, which is saying a lot.

4. Memory is a story-teller, not a video camera. I’d head the line; it made sense that the line was Carlin’s; I never saw Carlin live; therefore I must have seen Carlin say it on TV. Hey, presto! Memory.

What’s scary is that we send people to prison based on this stuff.

The common-law rules of evidence our courts still use regard the testimony of a witness to something that witness remembers as the fundamental form of evidence. In order to introduce a document or a photograph or a piece of physical evidence you need a witness to testify to its provenance. In order to introduce a scientific or technical principle you need an expert witness to give that item as an expert opinion; a textbook or a journal article doesn’t count as “evidence.”

By contrast, the civil-law (i.e., Code of Justinian/Code Napoleon) rules used in most of Europe regard documents as fundamental; if you want to introduce a witness, you need a document to show his identity.

Score this one for the civil law.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com