Drawing Racial Dividing Lines on Political Correctness
Two race-based controversies exploded over this past weekend.
Ralph Northam, well on his way to being the ex-Governor of Virginia, is getting skewered for some racially-charged acts which (allegedly) took place 35 years ago. He’s also badly bungled the fallout in two baffling press conferences which were intended to restore confidence but did quite the opposite. In an astonishing contradiction, speaking in his own defense Gov. Northam did far more harm than good when he backtracked from his previous statement. Now, the Democrat is under severe pressure from several lawmakers, including members of his own party, to resign and basically disappear from the political scene altogether.
Meanwhile, across the country, comedian Bill Maher, star of HBO’s popular weekly comedy-talk show Real Time, is in serious trouble (again) for making an off-hand joke about a chicken franchise during a live sit-down interview with a Black congressman from Texas. Maher was on camera talking to Rep. Will Hurd when he tried to lighten up what had been a serious interview by making reference to Popeye’s Fried Chicken.
Though unrelated, the two recent controversies have plunged the nation into another heated racial divide. These scandals resurrect important questions about political correctness — and specifically who it applies to and when it’s applicable. Given the racial insensitivity commonly associated with the political right, these incidents were unusual since Gov. Northam and Maher are on the left of the spectrum. That assessment is indeed accurate. Gov. Northam is the top Democratic officeholder in a purple state. Maher, while overtly libertarian on many issues, has drifted decidedly towards the left in recent years, especially since Donald Trump’s election.
Should the same standards of behavior and a similar level of criticism apply equally to both men? Aside from being racially charged, are these two cases similar? Should punishments apply to both?
Here are my thoughts:
Prior to last week, I knew next to nothing about the Governor of Virginia. I’d heard his name and read about him in a few political columns. But he wasn’t considered a rising star. Beyond the big “D” attached to his name, I knew little about either his background or his policy positions. I presume most people on the left shared my unfamiliarity.
To date, Gov. Northam has made two short public appearances, both PR disasters. One was held on Friday and the other on Saturday. The second press conference contradicted most statements made in the first. On Saturday, Gov. Northam basically came out and did a Shaggy, “It Wasn’t Me!” cover that was about as convincing as a “not guilty” plea from Lee Harvey Oswald. He backtracked from previous comments which had taken full responsibility for being one of the young men shown in the scandalous photograph — one painted in blackface and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Then, only 24 hours after his self-acknowledgment and faux-apology, Gov. Northam returned and said on the following day, “It has taken time for me to make sure that it’s not me, but I am convinced — I am convinced that I am not in that picture.”
Well, make up your mind, Governor. Was that you or Bill Cosby in that photograph?
Let’s be clear. We’re doomed by an eternal morass of moral entanglements if we’re going to now judge every public official by what they did three or four decades ago. When it comes to running for office and providing political leadership, I don’t necessarily want moral Puritans in charge. I want real people who have lived basically normal lives and even made a few mistakes long the way. Just so long as they’re honest about it.
The trouble is — Gov. Blackface made a bad situation much worse and is now mortally wounded, politically speaking. We may never know if he really was guilty of picking out a shocking costume for a Halloween party, or whatever the occasion was. He could have even salvaged his political career if he’d exercised an ounce of common sense. As my pal Dr. Arthur Reber pined — if Gov. Northam had simply pleaded to the public that he wasn’t the same person as some 24-year-old jokester who did something in really bad taste, I believe most of Virginia’s citizens would have understood and to some extent, even forgiven. We all did dumb things when we were younger.
But the Moonwalker didn’t say any of those things in his second press conference. Instead, he flip-flopped like a coldwater trout hitting a hot frying pan. That’s when things got really funky. The Governor revealed that he’d dressed up in a Michael Jackson outfit and performed a dance at a school event. He even managed to win the contest. Like, wow! If anyone happened to shoot that video, I sure as shit want to see those other dancers if that guy won.
In case some jaws weren’t yet on the floor, then the Governor revealed that his nickname among some of his close friends had been “Coon Man.” Huh? Run that by me again, Gov? I mean, what are the odds! Somebody in the back of the room should have shut off his microphone and turned out the lights in midsentence, then and there. The foot-in-mouth Governor might have been saved any further humiliation.
The sooner he realizes he’s become Jerry Sandusky in the Virginia statehouse locker room, the quicker he can move on with his life, the party he presumably supports can heal and recover, and the state he represents can move on to find someone with a background more reflective of uniting people rather than dividing them. There’s no shortage of good people who can do a good job as Governor of Virginia.
The only option is to resign. Governor, as the movie title said — Do the Right Thing.
Bill Maher built his career on the shaky foundation of political incorrectness.
If Maher’s act doesn’t offend someone, somewhere, sometimes — he’s probably not doing a good job. Political incorrectness is Maher’s schtick. His wit means to poke. His humor intends to sting. Maher is not Mr. Nice Guy.
I’m not a big fan of Maher’s brand of comedy. Although I watch Real Time almost every Friday night, I find his material way too often to be juvenile, insensitive, and at times even cringeworthy. He’s crossed lines of decency before — unfairly targeting women, minorities, and entire religions. Though I share much of Maher’s philosophy on certain topics (atheism, social libertarianism, etc.), denigrating such easy targets does come off sometimes as being unnecessarily vicious.
Yet, absolutely nothing offends me. Nothing. If I do wince at a joke, my objection isn’t triggered by any personal sensitivities. Fire away, Bill. I can take it. Anyone affiliated with the arts, writing, or comedy probably shares this free-spirited tolerance. However, let’s also recognize a fact with a mixed fallout, that we live in changing times. Humor that might have been funny a decade or two ago won’t get the same reaction, today. Increasingly often, it seems, Maher finds himself standing alone onstage and making pouty faces at his own audiences, groaning after a particularly bad joke. He appears to welcome confrontation.
Yes, it’s all part of the act. Maher knows very well what he’s doing. He gets solid ratings from a loyal audience because he books top-tier guests on his show, he’s completely spontaneous, and the (initial) broadcast is performed on live television. He’s a comedy daredevil and a throwback to the freewheeling comedy acts of the 1950s, albeit with a current affairs theme. Maher’s style and format — performing without a safety net — is courageous, especially in these PC times.
Problem is, sometimes the trapeze artist slips and falls. Maher’s unfiltered spontaneity got him into trouble again last Friday. The comedian was engaged in a serious, but somewhat stale interview about the ongoing border wall controversy. Attempting to jazz up the scene which to that point had been about as comical as an interview on Meet the Press, Maher made a fried chicken joke in front of a Black congressman.
No one knows if Maher simply blurted out the first fast-food reference he could think of on the spot, or if he really intended to play on the old stereotype about Blacks eating fried chicken. Congressman Will Hurd didn’t appear bothered by it. Even the studio audience didn’t react much, other than to laugh. The incident seemed pretty lame by comparison to some of Maher’s other more incendiary controversies in the past. I don’t think anyone who watched the show gave it any attention. It was Maher being Maher, just like Cedric the Entertainer frequently uses the word “nigger,” Chris Rock employs the word “fuck,” and Ron White often lambasts women while smoking a cigar and slurps scotch. That’s their thing.
However, social media went on a rampage. Conservative media outlets, so desperate to sling mud at Maher for his ceaseless anti-Trump bias, alleged a double standard. But it wasn’t just critics on the right. The intolerant wing of the left also lept head first into the fire. Some called for HBO to cancel Maher’s show immediately. Others pleaded with future guests, including Blacks, to boycott the program. This time, a simple apology wouldn’t suffice. For whatever reasons, many people were outraged. They’re still angry, four days later.
Maher’s fried chicken remark couldn’t have come at a worse time. Juxtaposed against the Virginia Governor’s predicament which has dominated the headlines, some asked why Maher gets to skate free for perceived “racial insensitivity” while a politician’s career might be totally ruined for something that happened 35 years ago. That’s a fair question with a simple answer.
The reason Maher gets a pass while Gov. Northal doesn’t is simple. One offender is an elected official expected to uphold certain standards and maintain the public’s trust. The other offender is an entertainer who is expected to make us laugh.
See the difference?
Maher’s jokes might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But we’ve already entered into the hyper-sensitive abyss when jokes must first be vetted for their capacity to offend. We’ve reached a dangerous time when entertainers openly performing what’s universally acknowledged to be R-rated material intended for adults must now question every joke and self-censor anything that might be perceived as too edgy. Some top comedians won’t perform on college campuses anymore, fearing the backlash. That fried chicken joke could have been told at any Improv in America, and no one would bat an eyelash. But because it appeared on HBO, and was seen by millions, somehow that makes Maher’s spontaneous outburst scandalous.
If you don’t like Maher’s humor, turn off the TV. Watch something else. If you don’t want to hear the word “nigger,” then skip Cedric’s stand-up act. If Chris Rock’s use of the word “fuck” offends you, here’s some advice — don’t buy a ticket to his show. If Ron White’s tongue-in-cheek misogyny makes you angry, skip his performance and make other plans.
I’m offended that anyone is offended by a comedian.
Bill Maher has nothing to apologize for.