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How Bill Maher got Dixie-chicked and survived

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Richard Goldstein

Staying in the Game

How Bill Maher Got Dixie Chicked and Survived

May 7 - 13, 2003

Just hours after George Bush strode from a fighter jet in full battle drag, Bill Maher ambled onstage before a much smaller but no less captivated audience. The rebel comic of late-night TV has quite a following among people who would rather laugh than cry about American politics. He may not be in Leno's league, but he's betting that he can hold his own on Broadway, and this week Maher opens in a one-man show with the oddly retro title Victory Begins at Home. Eat your heart out, Ari Fleischer.

Jackie Mason Maher is not. His show is part social critique, part sex shtick, and (here's the odd part) a civics lecture to boot. It's the sort of entertainment you'd expect from the author of a book called When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden. In this coffee-table polemic, Maher argues for a return to the spirit of sacrifice that prevailed in World War II, illustrating his points with makeovers of famous exhortatory posters from that era. This is parody as patriotism, and so is Maher's one-man show. Though his peeves—the war on drugs, the war on sex, the war on men (a/k/a the threat to truth itself)—haven't changed, he's hooked them to a larger idea of what it means to dissent at a time of enforced consensus. Maher's strategy is worth pondering, if only because his struggle to survive in this craven new world is also ours.

"I was the first one to be Dixie Chicked," Maher boasts. If you've kept up with his career, you know that Politically Incorrect got canned by ABC last year, not long after he made an offhand comment about the fearlessness of suicide bombers. Now Maher has a much less restrictive gig at HBO, one that doesn't require him to book celebrities who show up with their opinions written on their palms so they won't forget. The new format has allowed him to create a brisk, engrossing talk show that reaches some 1.8 million viewers. It won't make Letterman sweat, but it's a fine demographic for a performer who wants to reach a hip audience. No wonder Maher thinks of his 9-11 ordeal as a liberating experience. But he hasn't forgotten what it's like to wear the scarlet letter for saying something in bad taste.

"The first week or so was terrible," Maher recalls. "It felt like a burning X ray going through you—like the whole country is talking about you and it isn't good. For a couple of weeks I didn't sleep much, and I knew in my gut it was over at ABC, so I cleaned out my office right away. But then there was this groundswell of support from the left and the right. I had Rush Limbaugh and Barbra Streisand, so I got it pretty quickly that I wasn't alone on this."

Maher tried to explain what he'd meant, but that only whetted his critics' fangs. Maher's friends advised him to take time off, the usual response to a celebrity scandal, but he refused to withdraw. "This country loves comebacks," he says. "It loves a performer who won't go down. So I knew it was important for me to stay in the game."

That's just what the Dixie Chicks concluded when they were condemned for dissing the president. First they tried in vain to explain; then they took off their clothes. "I wish I could have posed nude," Maher sighs. He considers the reaction to that stunt: " 'So we don't like what they said—they have great tits!' That tells you something about Americans. When you entertain, it covers a lot of sins."

The Puritans required public confession; McCarthy demanded names. But these days, all we ask of a miscreant is that he leaven his heresy with laffs. Maher is acutely aware that being entertaining is what allows him to stay afloat while skewering orthodoxies. His act is carefully balanced between LOL and listen-up. He spent 25 years mastering this rhythm, moving from comedy clubs to Johnny Carson to his own show on Comedy Central and then ABC. His career has been a fight to be himself—with applause.

"When you start out, all you want is to get a laugh," Maher says. "You'll say anything for that. Then, maybe 10 years into it, you're not saying anything but you're not exactly homing in on what is you. The watershed is when you have an audience that comes to see you for your specific style. They know what to expect, and even if you say something they don't agree with, it's OK. And that level of acceptance is very gratifying."

In a sense, all stand-up is politically incorrect. It's where we go to vent our resentment at social and sexual norms. But some cows are too sacred to kick. As long as Maher bashed sex police, drug czars, and feminists, his audience stayed with him. (Of course, his rants about women owed more to Henny Youngman than to Eminem, and even today he sounds like Alan Alda next to a pig-in-a-blanket like Dennis Miller.) But there's a difference between shilling for "the male agenda" and pushing people to consider the complexities of a murderous act. When Ari Fleischer urged Maher and his kind to "watch what they say," it wasn't just about bad taste. It was a move to control dissident speech even (or maybe especially) when it comes with a punchline.

What happens when the applause becomes a big fat boo? For a comic like Maher, who thrives on the acceptance his act provides, this is no rhetorical question. Fortunately the trauma brought him back to the original reason why he wanted to be a comic: He hated the captain of the high school football team.

That feeling of being out of sync with the world is "a lot of what fuels the comedic impulse," Maher maintains. He has always reveled in being the outsider "who can see things because you're not in the picture." When ABC reported that only 14 percent of its focus group agreed with him, Maher was overjoyed. "I told them I'd rather be with those people than the 86 percent who eat cheese in wrapped slices." No wonder he could handle getting Dixie Chicked. It gave him a new way to be incorrect.

" 'Out of the mainstream' is the new L-word," Maher says. He sees the danger in this rhetoric, which aims to cast any dissent into the margins. Maher calls it "patriotically correct," and his response is to wrap himself in the flag on his own terms. "My new message is, Don't be afraid to be out of the mainstream," he declares. But he's not about to depart from the consensus fundamentally. Above all, he wants to stay in the game.

A lot of liberals are embracing Maher's stars-and-stripes strategy. But you pay a price for being relevant in a know-nothing age. You can proclaim, as Maher does, that our civilization is "not just different; it's better," but you can't point to the part we've played in making those other civilizations worse. That analysis doesn't come with a punchline. It's the difference between dissent and entertainment.

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I saw an interview with him the other nite, heres a few interesting things he said:

Politics is not telling the truth, its telling what appeals to the masses.

Interviewer asks, do you trust any politicians?

His response, No

Do you think you ever will?

No, and I'll be out of a job if it happens.


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I like Maher...don't always agree with his views, but I believe he is a not a bullshit artist

I thought his ABC show was better than his HBO show, format wise--I think his HBO show should spend less time on the acts and his sometimes amusing sidekick

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Originally posted by igloo

I like Maher...don't always agree with his views, but I believe he is a not a bullshit artist

I thought his ABC show was better than his HBO show, format wise--I think his HBO show should spend less time on the acts and his sometimes amusing sidekick

I don't know dude he makes me mad.. No one agitates me more though then his steady geusts Arrianna Huffington, Ted Rall and that Rapping Liberal. Maher has escaped the Dixie Chics faith by morphing to the masses.. He said and upheld his promise that once the fighting starts there is nothbing we can do but support the Bush administration.. I don't know if this is how he feels but a good idea for his career none the less..

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Five Postwar Suggestions for George W. Bush

By Ted Rall, AlterNet

March 26, 2003

The invasion of Iraq has deeply divided Americans. It has alienated our allies. It is already providing volatile new ammunition for Islamist terrorist groups searching for impressionable young men willing to blow themselves up just so they can take a few of us along with them. It's a grim situation, but it isn't too late for the Bush Administration to minimize the damage created by its reckless and illegal war, now that we're committed to it.

A year and a half after invading Afghanistan, the United States is about to seize control of another volatile, strategically vital patch of Muslim real estate riven by ethnic and tribal fault lines. As before, in its war against the Taliban, administration officials are issuing grandiose assurances about noble intentions.

"We will deliver the food and medicine you need," Bush promised Iraqis. "We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free...The day of your liberation is near."

Only a few hard-right Republicans really believe in Bush's newfound interest in liberating the oppressed peoples of the world. Antiwar Americans, most international leaders and the overwhelming majority of the world's population still hold that the war is motivated solely by lust for Iraq's vast oil reserves. One U.N. Security Council diplomat explains his colleagues' reasons for voting no: "No one wants to alienate the United States but you can't ignore polls showing 80 percent opposition to the war," he said.

Opinions of America are even worse among Arabs, who note that the only countries that Bush has invaded – Afghanistan and Iraq –and is thinking of attacking – Iran and Syria – are Muslim. Arabs conclude that Bush – a self-described "born again" Christian fundamentalist – is waging a 21st century crusade against Islam. Only six percent of the Egyptian public holds a favorable view of the U.S. This in a country where scholars at the Islamic Research Academy declared that "If the enemy steps on Muslims' land, jihad becomes a duty of every male and female."

Bush's clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, sprinkled liberally with Old Testament imagery, hardly reduces tensions.

Nonetheless, both America's image abroad and Bush's popularity here could improve dramatically if the former governor of Texas were to take the following steps to make the war look more like liberation and less like exploitation:

1. Promise to Lay Off the Oil.

Aggressive elements in the administration suggest that a new post-Saddam government of Iraq – a toothless American puppet, similar to Afghanistan's Karzai – should rip up its oil contracts with France's TotalFinaElf and Russia's Lukoil in order to get even for the UN vote. Houston-based Halliburton Co., where Dick Cheney served as CEO, is reported to have already secured a $4 billion deal to put out well fires and rehabilitate sanctions-ravaged refineries. And Bush is already scheming to raid $40 billion in the now-defunct UN oil-for-food program to finance postwar reconstruction.

"How do we protect the oil facilities and bring in companies and material to sustain and improve those facilities without being criticized for taking over oil or giving the appearance of somehow taking the oil?" asks Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy adviser at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Simple. Bush should pledge to honor all existing contracts, even – especially – with companies from countries that didn't support the war. More importantly for a leader whose top officials are nearly all former execs of big oil, Bush ought to prohibit sweetheart deals of any kind. Competitive bidding, not a cozy relationship with the White House, ought to determine which outfits get new contracts. And the people of Iraq, not the oil companies, ought to receive most of the proceeds in the form of direct payments.

2. Guarantee Iraq's Territorial Integrity.

On March 21, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned that Turkish forces plan to invade the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq to eradicate "terrorist activity." If unchecked, a Turkish incursion could lead to a new war with the Kurds, and the beginning of the end for a unified Iraqi state. Bush must issue two declarations, one guaranteeing full autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan and the other an intent to respect and defend Iraq's present-day borders.

Arabs will rightly blame the U.S. if one of their richest nations disintegrates into civil war. Any invader, whether it's Iran or Turkey, must be driven out by American forces. And we can't allow warlords and tribal chieftains to create fiefdoms within Iraq, as has occurred in Afghanistan.

3. Let the Iraqis Choose Their Own Government.

Bush claims that he wants to establish democracy in Iraq. Now he has to make good on that vow. That means creating the conditions that would allow free elections – peace and economic stability, reconstruction, a free press, open electioneering, recognition of political parties from across the political spectrum, including Saddam's Ba'ath Party – to occur. Bush shouldn't be tempted to repeat the Florida 2000-style backstage antics that manipulated the results of Afghanistan's loya jirga – after decades of strong central rule, Iraq needs a popularly elected president, not a puppet.

4. Rebuild Iraq.

Few Americans understand how badly we botched our occupation of Afghanistan. Hardly any know that U.S.-occupied Afghanistan has been reduced to pre-Taliban-style warlordism, that rape gangs rule the nights, that the stonings of adulterers continue, and that not one house has been rebuilt with international assistance – not even in Kabul, the one city ruled by the central government. But the rest of the world knows – and that's why they'll be watching us in Iraq. We have a second chance to get things right – but it's going to take billions of dollars and several hundred thousand troops at least a decade to get Iraq back on its feet. But that's the least we can do after subjecting the country to 12 years of brutal economic sanctions.

5. Get Out.

If we're really going to be taken seriously as liberators and proponents of democracy, we'll allow the popularly elected leaders of Iraq to lead their country into the post-Saddam era, whether or not we care for their politics. And we won't tell them what to do or how to do it.

Ted Rall is the author of "Gas War: The Truth Behind the American Occupation of Afghanistan."

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