“Please don’t make the Olympics into the Oscars,” Bill Maher pleaded in his show-ending New Rules monologue in tonight’s return of Real Time to HBO after a month’s break.
Last April, as he reminded the audience, he said the theme of this year’s Oscar show was, “We dare you to be entertained.” Its producers, he griped, seemed determined not to let the audience forget for a moment the injustices and deficiencies of the human condition.
The Tokyo Summer Games, in Maher’s view, have outdone Hollywood. He reeled off a series of instances where officials and creative staffers faced consequences over decades-old behavior. In one case, the opening ceremony’s musical director was ousted over a 1994 interview in which he admitted to bullying fellow students when he was a child in school. “Remember when your teacher used to try to scare you, they’d say, ‘You know, this is going to go down on your permanent record,’” he said. “No longer an empty threat now.”
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He also ridiculed media coverage of surfing becoming an Olympic sport in Tokyo. The Associated Press — not exactly some lefty activist outlet — wrote that having surfing in the Games exacerbates cultural appropriation and “racial indignities.” That’s because non-Hawaiians have popularized and mainstreamed a sport with deep spiritual and communal meaning for its original participants. The article’s headline described the competition as a “whitewashed” event.
While jokes still flowed and the early moments of the segment seemed fluid enough, Maher’s tone was pointed and his points more urgently made than in most weeks. (It could have been the host’s new glasses, which he broke out at the opening minutes of the show, calling them a permanent new accessory. In something of a teaser for the “New Rules” segment, he quipped, “They have progressive lenses. When I put them on, all I see is white privilege.”)
“This is called a purge,” Maher said of the climate in the U.S. and increasingly elsewhere. “It’s a mentality that belongs in Stalin’s Russia. How bad does this atmosphere we are living in have to get before people who say cancel culture is overblown have to admit that it is, in fact, an insanity that is swallowing up the world.”
As to charges that his stance means he has moved farther to the political right (a place on the spectrum given to reflexively denouncing cancel culture), Maher said, “My politics have not changed, but I am reacting to politics that have.”
The news coming out of the Olympics, he continued, “yet another example of how the woke invert the very thing that used to make liberals liberals. ‘Snitches and bitches’: That’s not being liberal.”
Maher admitted that “most of human history is a horror story,” but said the notion of keeping cultures and communities in silos interferes with one of the main positives in life. “The good parts are groups coming together and sharing. It’s sort of the whole point of the Olympics,” he jabbed.
Even the Olympic Games concept itself, he pointed out, was adapted from the Greeks. He rattled off sports and their places of origin, including badminton in India, tennis in France taekwondo in Korea. “What is this new rule that the first to do something are the only ones who get to have it?!” he wondered.
He closed with a condemnation of the hypervigilance about cultural appropriation, though he said there are legitimate cases of it. “Stealing natural resources from indigenous people — yes, of course, that’s exploitation,” he said.
At the same time, he insisted, “Not everything is about oppression.”
Cultural exchange can work in other directions, too, he maintained. K-pop bands like BTS became popular in the U.S. by making pop music that is catchy to Western ears, not by playing traditional Korean songs in the style of their ancestors.
“We live in a world where straight actors are told they can’t play gay roles and a white novelists aren’t allowed to imagine what it’s like to be a Mexican immigrant,” Maher said. “Even though trying to inhabit the life of someone else is almost the definition of empathy, the bedrock of liberalism.”