In fat and happy times in America, irreverence was a charming trait, striking a lot of chords in a culture that prizes free speech, irresponsible or not. We have loved to be entertained by daring and shocking comments, and even when we were convinced they'd gone too far, we sat back and said, "Only in America."
But in the aftermath of Sept. 11, irreverence is much less charming. The first target in this rapidly changing environment is Bill Maher, the perpetually snide host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect."
In its early days on the Comedy Central cable network, the program was fun -- a disparate combination of actors, authors and political thinkers in the kind of lively, free-flowing dialogue people might have in their living rooms. But the show has long since ossified into a stale phantom of its former self, an unfunny professional-wrestling-style verbal smackdown. A single conservative is served up like a tennis ball for a crowd of Hollywood smart-mouths who are either leftist or clueless or, on many occasions, both.
On Sept. 17, as comics tiptoed lightly through the ashes of the terrorist bombings, Maher plowed ahead with his usual irreverence, utterly tone-deaf. Conservative Dinesh D'Souza, by default or design, tried to argue at paragraph length that the terrorists weren't cowards, but instead were representatives of a mindset totally opposed to Western culture. Maher horned in with this amazing gaffe: "We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away, that's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, not cowardly."
These remarks outraged talk radio hosts, who sent their audiences to the show's sponsors, like FedEx and Sears, who then pulled their commercials. Twelve ABC affiliates, including Washington's WJLA, pulled the show from the airwaves in protest.
ABC continues to air the show with bargain-basement sponsors, and frequent panelist Arianna Huffington is circulating an online petition to prevent "censorship" of Maher's views. But just as ABC isn't required to air the views of Rush Limbaugh or any other conservative, it's not "censorship" if they decide that Maher's regularly kooky left-wing remarks are too offensive to its audience or advertisers.
Some journalists chafed when Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested in response to a Maher question that people ought to "watch what they say" and that it shouldn't have been said. But it's hard to fault Fleischer when even Maher tried to clarify his comments, saying that he didn't mean to imply that the military were cowards, reserving the coward label for "politicians who, fearing public reaction, have not allowed our military to do the job they are obviously ready, willing and able to do."
This is incredibly rich for Maher to assert, since the cowardly politician he's clearly referring to is his sexually liberated hero Bill Clinton, whose entire military strategy in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and alleged terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan was to drop missiles and cross fingers.
But Maher's irreverence on that fateful Sept. 17 show didn't stop at military cowardice. Overlooked in the scandal was his abject religious bigotry. Maher blamed religion for the terrorist attacks: "Religion is extremist. It's extreme to believe in things that your rational mind knows are not true." When challenged by D'Souza about faith in God being irrational, he added people believe "a lot of stupid Muslim tricks and stupid Christian tricks, OK? They believe a lot of things, and it's such a fundamental belief, that if the other guy doesn't agree with you, he's got to go, and we're guilty of the same thing." Refusing to make any distinction between Christianity, Islam and the perverted Church of Osama is much more irrational than religious belief.
There's no "clarifying" this insult, aimed at the hundreds of millions who fell back on their "extremist religion" for solace after these acts of terror.
If Sept. 17 wasn't enough for ABC viewers, the nightly parade on "Politically Correct" continues to feature the usual Hollywood airhead festival from actors like Paul Provenza, who recently said people who aren't flying a flag are convinced it could "easily be confused with the flag that's shown by people who show the flag for xenophobia, for revenge, for violence against other people who will suffer in a war." Compassion, not revenge, is his motto. How does it show compassion to the victims' families by doing absolutely nothing? Only the loony left in Hollywood could understand that.
If "Politically Incorrect" falls like a tree in its obscure late-night forest, will anybody hear it? Even if it survives, conservatives ought to skip out on the smackdown.