Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Politically Incorrect

Comedian Bill Maher used to host a show called Politically Incorrect back in the 90s that used to air on late night television. Given his tendency to speak without a filter, he said something that got him kicked off the network. Then he moved over to HBO in 2003 where he has been hosting a very similarly-themed show called Real Time, since but without much supervision. I was a fan of the original show, even though he typically brought together random combinations of guests, some whose views I found repugnant. But the point was to engage in open dialogue and to be provocative, and at the height of its popularity, everyone went on that show including my former boss. The Hub and I even attended a live taping of the show, which was very interesting to watch as one guest in particular stopped yelling at another one just as the show cut to commercial, then resumed his tirade once the cameras started rolling again without skipping a beat.

When Maher first made the transition to HBO, we didn't have cable, then we didn't have HBO so we didn't see the show for years. But Keith Olbermann filled the void with his brand of snarky and hysterical political commentary, as did Jon Stewart with his comedic take on the news. When we finally got HBO around the time that the Kid arrived, I caught the show every now and then, but my tolerance for him wasn't as it once was. I'm sure that had a lot to do with confirmation bias or my realization that Maher wasn't all that funny anymore. 

Looking back at Maher's impact on late night television, it is fair to give him credit for having been a  pioneer of in-your-face commentary. He and guys like Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Olbermann and Stewart all built their audience around holding no punches while engagin in public discourse. O'Reilly's bit was giving the impression that he was just a simple guy with strongly held opinions; Olbermann was big on giving long-winded soliloquies; and Coulter would flip her hair, cross her legs and just unload one of her signature mean girl rants. Stewart was a kinder, gentler version of Maher, as he used his humor to disarm right before unleashing a stealth attack. Like Stewart, Maher's show aired on Comedy Central initially, so his format was that of a late night comedian hosting Crossfire (the show that Stewart killed with shrewd kindness). Maher wasn't an expert on policy, just a funny guy with strong opinions, but given the times (the Clinton years), almost anyone could call themselves a pundit and get away with it.

In recent years, his schtick hasn't changed, but my tolerance for his brand of confrontational discourse has waned in the aftermath of the Trumpocalypse. Prominent politicos, professors, journalists, and comedians still go on his show to debate the issues, much like a Sunday morning talk show framed with profanity laced monologues. Additionally, his show has become a safe space for controversial figures like Megyn Jesus-is-white-and-Santa-too Kelly, alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, and most recently, Sharon Osborne, formerly of the CBS daytime show The Talk.  

I don't have any specific feelings about Osborne because I never watched her reality show and rarely tuned in to watch The Talk. So I don't have any knowledge about her other than what I've observed in the past few weeks since the Meghan Markle interview with Oprah. I have seen the clips of her exchange with her co-host, Sheryl Underwood. I also saw a tweet Osborne sent in defense of her friend Piers Morgan, and I tweeted back (something I do when people say ridiculous things), but like most people, my feelings about what happened are based a lot on my experience in similar situations.

I think it is unfortunate that she left the show in that manner. I have definite opinions about how she treated Underwood and think she deserved some of the backlash she received. Yet, I am also very aware that women face harsher consequences than men in similar situations. Piers Morgan, her partner in all of this, didn't lose his job for what he said, given that he has spent months and months and months of relentlessly bashing the Duchess--I believe he lost his job for being a cowardly lion. And I am convinced that had he not gotten so emotional and stormed off, he would still be on air bashing Markle for whatever protocol lapses she committed by not attending Prince Phillip's funeral.

I don't know how Osborne can claim to have been blindsided on a show called The Talk, where it would seem logical that the interview with the Oprah (and reactions to it) would be the hot topic. It aired on their network, so once it was clear that one of the bombshell revelations had to deal with race:

Osborne stood up for her friend, whom she felt was being unfairly attacked for his opinion. She was right that he got paid for his opinion, which he never shied from offering. Alex Beresford also gave an opinion, and perhaps one point of contention is whether anyone cared what the weather man had to say, but we'll come back to that. Once Osborne felt that she was being unfairly attacked, she resorted to the tactic of weaponizing her tears to silence one of her co-hosts. Whether one finds that offensive is subjective, but it isn't as if it hasn't been done in the past without condemnation when it was good for ratings. As outrageous as that exchange was, it is clear that Osborne's departure wasn't really just about one nasty on-air tiff, but a lot of built up nonsense that someone in the front office decided they could do without. I mean, this is the same show that kept Julie Chen on air while her husband, Les Moonves, was harassing women in his office and sabotaging Janet Jackson's career. That CBS is now taking a such a hard line against workplace harassment is laughable. 

Osborne should absolutely be mad about that. Yet, I refuse to give Osborne any tissues to dab away her tears. She's a big girl and sometimes we have to suffer the consequences for our bullshit. She was given a pass because people tend to like British snark, but she didn't expect immediate pushback by two Black women who understood all too well how damaging Morgan's unrelenting attacks towards Markle have been. Elaine Welteroth and Underwood called her out for defending him, and in turn, she struck back with the emergency parachute of claiming victimhood in a situation where it wasn't warranted. And it backfired.

Here's the deal Sharon, you can cry about being called a racist, which is an accusation that gets tossed around a lot (and unnecessarily so) especially on Twitter, but as someone who has been accused of the same thing, it isn't as if you are wearing a permanent scarlet letter R. It does sting at first, but it is a lot like having your name scribbled on the stall of a dirty gas station bathroom. What loser actually takes the time to jot down the information and then follows through to call to see if you are easy? It is a trending topic until the next viral video, not a daily deluge of some guy calling you a phony for every little thing you've done for the last five years...

So yes, let's hone in on whom you were defending. Piers Morgan. Truly a stand up guy, a pillar of journalistic integrity... He has the absolute right to hate on the Duchess, for whatever sick reason he has as a married man for feeling some kind of way about a married woman whom he once met for drinks. Did she use him? For what exactly, since she met Prince Harry later that night (and it isn't as if he introduced them). She's just not into you dude, and that is exactly what Alex Beresford, the weather guy, said in exasperation after sitting through another one of Morgan's tirades. And in response to being called out for his creepiness, Morgan tore off his mic and stomped off because he felt he was being unfairly criticized (ironic, huh), as if it was perfectly normal to hold a grudge for five years and expect that maybe a few folks were tired of hearing about it.

You were not defending the Queen, Sharon, you were defending your asshole friend and two of your colleagues were not having it. You can be his friend, but that doesn't mean everyone else has to. And when you are friends with an asshole it suggests that you are unbothered by his assholiness. That doesn't make you an asshole like him, but your tolerance of him does impair your ability to understand why others might find him unbearable. Others aren't swayed by your arguments that he isn't all that bad, so either you are blind or you possess some asshole qualities. It isn't a generalization to notice that assholes tend to befriend each other.

Now, I find it interesting that you don't take issue with Morgan being a bully, but you feel compelled to argue that his unnatural obsession with trashing the Duchess and other people of color who have called him out does not stem from some form of prejudice or bias. Because to take notice of the commonalities shared by his various targets is racist, not that he chose to denigrate those specific people for whatever twisted reason. And in response to your demand for receipts, you're mad when Underwood opens her purse...

Since you didn't want to hear it from her, have someone to read this to you so that you can feel educated on how Welteroth, Underwood, Beresford, Oprah, Jameela Jamil, Adeel Amini, and the rest of us see racist (and sexist) undertones in the behavior of Piers Morgan. For balance, let's remember the British tabloid press, that relative who questioned the baby's skin color, and the decisions made by the Royal establishment, all of which led Markle say to hell with this princess shit, I'm going home to my Mama! We saw how quickly the backlash began and understood Markle's plight with every unflattering headline that was published. We know about being the sole person of color in certain spaces and how conspicuous it can be. We know how exhausting it is to be so hyper aware of our otherness that we try to fit in as best we can, even when the effort is futile. We understand that our comfort is not their concern.

Our hyper awareness of ourselves isn't always matched by the others. They will reason that by not being more careful, they aren't treating us any differently, and isn't that what we want--not to be singled out? Why should the others feel self-conscious about what to say in our presence, so why not question how dark the baby will be? Why not compare the backgrounds of the future Queen and the American Duchess, and wonder aloud whether Markle came from some sketchy gang-ravaged neighborhood like the ones we've seen in the movies (don't all American Blacks live in those kind of neighborhoods)? Why not take notice that the Duchess has her own sense of style that is bolder than what we are used to seeing from the Royals, so doesn't that make her appear audacious, haughty, and slightly rebellious? Who then, is this uppity Black woman, this rogue who has infiltrated our stodgy Royal family? 

Off with her head!

None of those questions conjure the virulent racism of the kind that involves burning crosses, separate water fountains, and ugly names, but that doesn't mean that those microaggressions can't pile up to weigh her down. It isn't racist to suggest that the former actress can go back to work to earn her keep, but that hasn't been the precedent for anyone else who marries into the Firm. It isn't racist to interview her attention-whore Daddy if her Mama won't talk, but it seems rather convenient that his opportunism isn't being denounced. It isn't racist to constantly pit the Duchess against the future Queen, the American wildflower to the English rose. It isn't racist to dislike Markle if you honestly think she is a manipulative or dishonest person, but just remember that she didn't try to sell access to her ex-husband, she hasn't been accused of having sex with minors, nor is she reportedly canoodling with a lady-in-waiting.

Nor was it racist of Markle to share her truth with the Oprah, given that for years, people have gone on her show to garner sympathy for whatever drama is going on in their lives (recall Sarah Fergusen). No one can elicit sympathy like Auntie O, and before her tragic death, even the late Princess Diana was allegedly scheduled to appear on the couch. If the Queen herself could give an interview with anyone before she died, don't you think it would be with Oprah?

Therefore Miss Sharon, you too could have chosen to sit down with Oprah (or Gayle King) to rehab your image after this debacle with The Talk, with the added optics of proving that you aren't racist (which I am not implying), but you chose to sit down with Bill Maher instead. A man who still seems pissed about having gotten his first show cancelled almost 20 years ago. No one goes on Real Talk to apologize or to atone for their sins or to repair a damaged persona--they go there to defiantly lean in to the impression that they are a shitty human being.

You didn't even listen to what Underwood was trying to tell you. You were so incensed at the perceived implication that you were a racist that you didn't hear her say several times that you weren't the racist, that you were her friend, and that her issue was with Morgan's statements. Every time we try to have these hard conversations about race, this is how they end. Somebody snatches off their mic and storms off the set. Somebody starts to cry wolf. Somebody cites their right of free speech and decries cancel culture. Somebody writes new laws to criminalize giving away bottled water on Election Day. Somebody writes a shitty letter and threatens to take his money and his daughter elsewhere. Somebody issues a terse denial and then Grandmother has to separate them at their Grandfather's funeral.

You amplify your preception of your hurt feelings and never deal with the blood that is gushing from my head.

I'm not denying that it hurts to be accused of something you geniunely cannot see as wrong, but that doesn't mean the accusation is false. It means that you don't understand what I am saying. So when you demand to be educated, Sharon, then that means you must stop talking. Stop defending yourself and just listen. LISTEN. Ask how to help, if that is the appropriate course of action. Respect my position in the same way you expect your point of view to have validity. We may not agree at the end of the conversation, but at least everyone will feel heard, which is how we begin to heal.

If your response to an uncomfortable confrontation is to go on Bill Maher's show and then dig in, well, then you've made a revealing choice. I won't make any declarative pronouncements, because you said what you said...but now I get to see things how I see them. Political incorrectness isn't real talk, it is bullying. It is toxic, unexamined ignorance. And it explains why you and Piers Morgan are such good friends.

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