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> Columns > Boston Globe > Politically Disappointing

Politically Disappointing

By Cathy Young | June 17, 2002

The ABC show "Politically Incorrect," which goes off the air at the end of this month after a five-year run, is seen by some as a victim of political correctness -- not the left-wing, multicultural, feminist kind that was prevalent when the show was born five years ago, but the post-Sept. 11 kind that brands as unpatriotic anyone who refuses to wrap himself in the flag. (Shortly after the attacks, host Bill Maher questioned the characterization of the terrorists as cowards, since they were willing to die in the act of slamming airplanes into buildings, and suggested that the us military was far more cowardly in bombing the enemy from a safe distance.

The show's fans lament that its demise will make American culture a less hospitable place for provocative and unorthodox thought.

Some of the outcry that followed Maher's controversial remark did have an unpleasant whiff of "patriotic correctness," particularly when White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer commented that Americans "need to watch what they say." I hope we never get to the point where Americans need to watch what they say, and I don't think Maher's comments, which the Republic can surely survive, should have cost him his job. I wish him well in his endeavors. However, I'm not as sorry that the show is ending as I am that - at least for me - it never lived up to its promise.

There are several reasons for my disappointment. For one, "Politically Incorrect" often became a vehicle less for provocative thinking than for provocation as an end in itself, with a too-frequent emphasis on shock rather than thought. What's more, Maher could be smugly intolerant and derisive toward politically incorrect ideas that he happened to dislike (support for gun rights, for example).

Above all, perhaps, I'm disappointed because I once hoped the show would be a breath of fresh air on gender issues, challenging both feminist and conservative dogma. Indeed, Maher has been more than willing to mock feminists and traditionalists alike. But the philosophy he offers hardly seems much of an improvement.

Recently on CNN's "Larry King Live," Maher depicted himself as a champion of embattled men in an antimale culture: "Somewhere along the line, it became national law that women are spiritual, ethereal, perfect beings, and men are brutish louts." That's a good, if exaggerated, point. But Maher's defense of men on "Politically Incorrect" has basically amounted to this: Men are louts, and that's just the way they are, so live with it.

Thus, during the Clinton sex scandals, Maher did not simply take the view that committing adultery and lying about it are not impeach able offenses. Rather, he argued that to condemn men for adultery is essentially unfair, since men are by nature philanderers and no real red-blooded male will stay faithful to one woman for 30 years if he has younger and prettier women to choose from. (Validating his own stereotype of the male species, the middle-aged Maher has bragged about dating only "girls" in their 20s.) No doubt, Maher says that he's just telling it like it is; but at times it seems that he can't see the fact for theory. Thus, he has cited Prince Charles as an example of a man unfairly condemned for doing what comes naturally to men, i.e. cheating on his wife - even though all evidence suggests that Charles is not a philanderer but a one-woman man who married the wrong woman.

Maher is entitled to his beliefs about the sexes. (At least he is an equal-opportunity offender: Discussing actress Winona Ryder's shoplifting arrest, he made the sweeping declaration that "girls steal," citing his girlfriends as an example.) But the sad truth is that his rhetoric about men isn't politically incorrect at all: It's a mirror image of both feminist and popular cliches of men as pigs. Such politically incorrect topics as domestic violence against men were brought up on his show only to be subjected to merciless ridicule.

With champions like that, men hardly need enemies.

Does this mean that I'm celebrating the end of "Politically Incorrect"? Hardly. For one, the implication that Maher lost his show because he said something controversial is disturbing. As for perspectives on gender issues, the show ABC is planning as a replacement for "Politically Incorrect" will be hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, host of Comedy Central's "The Man Show" - which is based on the same "men are pigs and proud of it" premise, but substitutes sheer vulgarity for Maher's wry wit. Progress, indeed.

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