Bill Maher, host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," is under attack. Sears and Federal Express pulled their sponsorships of the show. Viewers are angry.
Several affiliates have dropped him. His show is teetering on the brink of cancellation, all because he said that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center weren't cowards. Rather, he said, "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."
Now, I'm torn. On the one hand, Maher is not entirely wrong, though his comments were poorly timed and mean-spirited. The Clinton policy of risk-free symbolic strikes against Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was hardly gutsy.
On the other hand, "Politically Incorrect" deserves to be canceled more than any show not currently on the WB. Maher, his producers and fans have long contended that the show makes a valuable contribution by inviting apathetic Americans into the "national conversation." Of course, it's a mystery to me why any American who can't be bothered to pay attention to politics unless Pamela Anderson is discussing it should be welcome in that conversation.
I'm embarrassed to admit I've been on "Politically Incorrect" a few times but will never again. Still, I think I've identified the two basic problems with the show: the concept and the host.
"Politically Incorrect" is one of the last icons of the 1990s conflation of celebrity and politics: George magazine, "Murphy Brown," "policy summits" at the White House for the likes of Billy Crystal and Richard Dreyfuss, "serious"
speeches by Barbra Streisand.
The result of this phenomenon was a profoundly cynical approach to important questions. It said that fame, as opposed to serious work, intelligence or experience, was the best criterion for determining who has a legitimate opinion.
For example, in every issue of George, the editors asked a Hollywood star what they would do if they were president. The first thing Melanie Griffith would do is pass a law saying "no one should make more than $1 billion a year." Such stuff may offer valuable insight into how Melanie Griffith thinks - on the odd chance someone finds value in such things - but in a discussion of public policy, this is as helpful as cricket-chirping.
Similarly, the idea behind "Politically Incorrect" is to get a bunch of pretty people together and have them argue with politicians and other political professionals (journalists, activists etc.).
Of course, the real aim of the show is to make fun of conservatives while sounding "politically incorrect." As Maher told Playboy in 1997, "Ninety percent of show-business people are nutty liberals." So the liberal seats are filled with lefty comedians, movie stars and rappers. This leaves the conservative seats to mockable right-wingers. Worse, not only does the audience root for the celebrities, but the host and producers do too.
Which gets us to the second problem with the show. Bill Maher is anything but an impartial host. He sucks up to Hollywood liberals because A) he needs to get them back on the show, B) he usually agrees with them, and C) they tend to be wildly ignorant.
Maher calls himself a libertarian, but the fact is he's a libertine socialist; he favors guilt-free promiscuity and legal drugs, but everything else is eligible for a government takeover. Remember: Libertarians are for as little government as possible, particularly in the economic and regulatory realm. Maher supported Ralph Nader for president and has said he favors a government takeover of the electoral system. To call himself a libertarian is like a Vishnu worshipper calling himself Catholic.
But that's Maher's approach to everything: getting hung up on what his guests deride as mere "labels" or "details" is just stupid in a world where the opinions of supermodels matter a great deal.
It should be no surprise that columnist Arianna Huffington has come to Maher's aid. Recall that in the last election cycle, the one-time Gingrich conservative rightly ridiculed the notion that Donald Trump was qualified to run for president but in the same breath she became the cheerleader for a Warren Beatty candidacy. By my calculations, that's a full 720-degree spin of hypocrisy.
Anyway, Huffington has written a letter, column, whatever (again, labels, shmabels) asking people to petition ABC not to "censor" "Politically Incorrect." Huffington warns that the First Amendment might be the first victim of the terrorist assault if "Politically Incorrect" is dropped. Never mind that the First Amendment, which deals only with government censorship, has nothing to do with this (sigh, more labels).
The truth is that "Politically Incorrect" lasted longer than it deserved. And, in the wake of the Sept. 11 murders, Maher's style of cynical mocking, sophomoric sex-talk and knee-jerk America-bashing was destined to die on the vine no matter what, because it's inappropriate, dated and boring just like the title of the show.
Does he really deserve to be canned because of this specific remark? Probably not, but why get caught up in the details?