Bill Maher Diagnoses Liberal ‘Progressophobia’
Here’s a statement that deserves amplification.
of HBO’s “Real Time” did a commentary on something he believes deeply destructive. Maher, who has described his politics as liberal, libertarian, progressive and practical, is a longtime and occasionally brave foe of wokeness in its extreme manifestations. He zeroed in on one aspect that fuels a lot of grievance, and that is the uninformed sense that America has largely been impervious to improvement.
Mr. Maher called this “progressophobia,” a term coined by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Mr. Maher defines it as “a brain disorder that strikes liberals and makes them incapable of recognizing progress. It’s like situational blindness, only what you can’t see is that your dorm in 2021 is better than the South before the Civil War.”
His audience laughed uncertainly. You could tell they didn’t want to get caught laughing at the wrong thing and weren’t certain what the wrong thing was. Normally they’re asked to laugh at right-wing idiocy, which is never in short supply.
“If you think that America is more racist now than ever, more sexist than before women could vote, you have progressophobia,” Mr. Maher said. Look at the changes America has made on disputed issues like gay marriage and marijuana legislation. “Even something like bullying. It still happens, but being outwardly cruel to people who are different is no longer acceptable. That’s progress. Acknowledging progress isn’t saying, ‘We’re done,’ or, ‘We don’t need more.’ And being gloomier doesn’t mean you’re a better person.”
He was asking for perspective, a hard thing to do when you’re a comic because a comic’s tools are exaggeration, satire and sarcasm. But Mr. Maher maintained earnestness.
“In 1958,” he said, “only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Now Gallup doesn’t even bother asking. But the last time they did, in 2013, 87% approved. An overwhelming majority of Americans now say they want to live in a multiracial neighborhood. That is a sea change from when I was a kid.” Mr. Maher was born in 1956.
He barreled on: “In a country that’s 14% black, 18% of the incoming class at Harvard is black. And since 2017, white students are not even a majority in our public colleges. Employees of color make up 47% of
50% of Target, 55% of the Gap, as companies become desperate to look like their TV commercials.”
“The ‘Friends’ reunion we just had looked weird, because if you even suggested a show today about six people all of whom were straight and white, the network would laugh you out of the room and then cancel you on
And yet there is a recurrent theme on the far left that things have never been worse.”
had recently told the
New York Times,
“You’re witnessing white power and white privilege at an all-time high.” Mr. Maher: “This is one of the big problems with wokeness, that what you say doesn’t have to make sense or jibe with the facts, or ever be challenged, lest the challenge itself be conflated with racism.”
He added: “Saying white power and privilege is at an all-time high is just ridiculous. Higher than a century ago, the year of the Tulsa race massacre? Higher than when the KKK rode unchecked and Jim Crow unchallenged?” He acknowledged that “racism is unfortunately still with us,” and its “legacy of injustice” lingers. “I understand best I can how racism singes a person’s soul so much they might see it everywhere. But seeing clearly is necessary for actually fixing problems, and clearly racism is no longer everywhere. It’s not in my home, and it’s probably not in yours if I read my audience right, and I think I do. For most of the country the most unhip thing you could ever be today is a racist.”
He got a big laugh when a picture behind him showed two young people with their heads suddenly exploding. “Here’s the thing, kids. There actually was a world before you got here. We date human events A.D. and B.C. but we need a third marker for millennials and Gen Z: B.Y. Before you.”
“There are a helluva lot of Americans trying really hard these days to create a new spirit of inclusion and self-reflection, and this progressive allergy to acknowledging societal advances is self-defeating. . . . Having a warped view of reality leads to policies that are warped—blacks-only dorms and graduation ceremonies, a growing belief in whiteness as a malady and [that] white people are irredeemable. Giving up on a colorblind society—only if you believe we’ve made no progress does any of that make sense.”
Yes, some things are worse, “but where progress has been made it’s not a sin, and it’s certainly not inaccurate, to say, ‘We’ve come a long way, baby.’ Not mission accomplished. Just a long way.”
It was refreshing to hear a popular entertainer take on Progress Denialism. It was great.
Having a sense of perspective about what America is and the progress it has made encourages not only self-respect—maybe you yourself tried to help in some of the social-justice movements of the past 75 years—but respect for this great project we’re all involved in, which is America itself. It’s hard to continue an arduous journey toward something like equality when you’re demoralized, and you become demoralized when you can see no distance from point to point, and are given no credit for pushing on.
America is a funny place, more like a great continuing drama than a country. We’re always sinning, sometimes wildly, and always looking to reform ourselves, redeem ourselves. All our civil-rights movements attest to this. We’re an agitated people constantly looking for betterment. We’re always tearing open our shirt, baring our chest and saying, “There’s something wrong with us!” And there is, a lot! It is revealing that while other countries did quiet conversions, we did great awakenings, that in the 20th century, when other Western countries might experience quiet revivals, we in America flocked to huge rallies for a great man like
who in his way was saying there’s a way to quiet the American heart, any heart, you have got a home, you are not alone, you can become a better person.
Americans are always trying to figure out a way to broaden the number of available lanes to happiness. You can’t do that by mere divisiveness (persons of other colors are bad) or unrelieved bitterness (nothing ever changes).
Anyway here’s to Bill Maher, an entertainer with a popular, irreverent show who took another chance on thoughtfulness, and clearly meant it.
By the way, it seemed to me he experienced no major pushback, just criticism here and there, but nothing big.
Here is a guess on why. Because everyone knows what he said is true, that America is not only capable of transformation and improvement; it has long produced both. Even the organized accusers who castigate for a living, who’ve become famous and rewarded for castigating and accusing, know this. They depend on it. As progress accrues they’ll be claiming victory one day. Meanwhile they’ll keep doing their thing: They’re being rewarded in the marketplace, handed more power, and enjoying both. That’s very American too.
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