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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

A 'Seinfeld' Apology? That's Not Acceptable

June 15, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Politically correct" and "political correctness" may be the most repugnantly overused and misused terms of the decade.

They're deployed most often in defining an action or attitude as being based not on principle or conviction, but on current fashion--the assumption being that no moral basis exists for endorsing the erasure of many past wrongs or for supporting some positions. Instead, the motivation is fear--fear of being chastised for being out of step with reformers.

You, lucky baby, are the exception, of course.

In other words, only your beliefs are true and heartfelt. Only you, the great, pristine, courageous grand poobah that you are, hold the moral high ground. Those saps with whom you disagree--those against women being called girls, perhaps, or against all Arabs being stereotyped as terrorists, and Latinas as spitfires--are merely buckling to pressure from special-interest groups. Unlike you, animal rightists couldn't possibly believe what they're espousing. Unlike you, operating entirely from sage wisdom and integrity, conservatives or leftists whose views you oppose are cynical opportunists who are bending to some prevailing political wind of the moment.

That's not only insulting, it's brainless. You might as well attribute opposing slavery to "political correctness."

Yet the flip side inevitably surfaces, for "political correctness" does, indeed, exist in smaller doses, the latest toxic case of it being a loud squabble regarding NBC's "Seinfeld."

Let's stipulate that the National Puerto Rican Coalition, the Hispanic Assn. on Corporate Responsibility and other Latinos who angrily objected to last month's next-to-last "Seinfeld" episode were truly offended by one of its lukewarm comedy bits, which found a Puerto Rican flag being torched for laughs. Let's assume they saw it as an affront and that their outrage was genuine, if misappropriated.

But puhleeeeeeze!

Now comes penitent NBC, following its earlier groveling (when it apologized for offending anyone even while insisting there was nothing in the episode to apologize for) in proclaiming last week that it will exclude the controversial "Seinfeld" from its postseason network reruns.

Come again?

A crucial distinction has to be made about the so-called anti-Puerto Rican scene in question. It didn't depict the flag being incinerated intentionally, as some kind of banner-burning negative statement against Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. This was no racist assault on Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano and the memories of Pablo Casals, Raul Julia, Jose Ferrer and Roberto Clemente.

The fire was unintentional, a Kramerism that broke out as the cast was trapped in gridlock during a parade--the message being the eternal bumbling of Kramer, who tried desperately to stomp out the flames.

As this incident affirms, there is no stomping out the bonfires of gutless acquiescence.

Following network form, NBC won't say if the complaints were a factor in its decision on the rerun, but bank on it, especially as the protesting groups had threatened legal action to prevent the episode from being repeated. (Its fate in syndicated reruns is unclear.)

Although there's nothing epic about a single "Seinfeld," the combustible issue it represents is hardly trivial, for leaping out at you from between the lines here is "political correctness" run amok. Because NBC appropriately maintains that an apology for the episode isn't merited, its exclusion of the rerun can be viewed only as the ultimate act of unwarranted contrition from a network, one covering its butt by complying with political chicness, not with some lofty ideal or principle. In other words, we did nothing wrong, but forgive us anyway. We're innocent, but public regret is good for the soul. And maybe the pocketbook.

Some mea culpas are justified, as in NBC's response to an earlier complaint against "Seinfeld," this one from Asian Americans objecting to "Chinaman's Nightcap" being used to describe heroin in an April 9 episode. After being advised that "Chinaman" historically has been a word used by Westerners to demean Chinese, NBC vowed to ban it from future shows and did delete it on a subsequent repeat.

As for thin-skinned critics of the flag-burning episode, though, if a whimsical, fictional mishap in a sitcom is interpreted as a willful act of disrespect aimed at an entire people, then the future for absurdity is, indeed, limitless. An American flag catches fire in some other series, it's symbolic sedition. Another sitcom character slips on a banana peel and lands on a Puerto Rican flag, ripping it? See you in court.

Not that this discontent is grounded entirely in unreasonable paranoia. Puerto Ricans and all Latinos have a legitimate gripe against U.S. television, whose record for stereotyping and generally ignoring them--despite their burgeoning population--speaks pitifully for itself. Their paltry TV numbers and relative obscurity on the small screen are a profound indictment of this medium's chronic myopia when it comes to ethnicity.

If NBC were truly sincere about doing the right thing, it would feature many more Latinos prominently in prime time, an act of remorse that would carry much more weight than scraping and bowing.

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