The Hollow Courage of Bill Maher

Throughout his career, Bill Maher has delighted in scolding the powerless.

Bill Maher in September 2010 during the unveiling of his Hollywood Walk of Fame star. Sharon Graphics

Which longtime member of America’s pundit class once equated Islam with cancer? Had to apologize for comparing dogs to “retarded children”? Mused about the need for Arab men to become “civilized”? Was publicly alarmed at the rising popularity of the name Mohammad? Casually joked about a woman being throttled before calling her a bitch?

While the smart money might be on any number of bloviating right-wing vulgarians, the answer is someone of a much more liberal persuasion, aligned not with the likes of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon but with Barack Obama and the Democratic Party; given a platform not by Fox News, but rather Comedy Central, HBO, and ABC.

Bill Maher has been a fixture of American cable and late night punditry since the early 1990s.

Nominally a standup comedian by trade, his TV career launched with Politically Incorrect, a late-night political talk show that ran on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1997 (moving to ABC between 1997 and 2002). He migrated to HBO in 2003, where he still resides as host of the popular Real Time With Bill Maher. His punditry has regularly earned him guest spots on CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. His film Religulous even grossed $14 million at the box office.

A sympathetic profile from 2016 characterized his career and persona as follows:

For the last 13 years on HBO’s “Real Time” (after nine years on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect”), Maher has been presiding with similar authoritativeness over what he sees as a feast of hypocrisy. For 35 weeks each year, he calls out politicians, religious leaders, demagogues, pundits — some of them, notably, his own guests — with a brand of humor that’s at once engaged and world-weary, and not infrequently infused with snark.

Certainly, a major factor in Maher’s longevity and success has been the diversity of his targets and the near-infinite malleability of his posturing. More than anything, this has seemed to extend his appeal beyond the range of a traditional talking head: in a pundit ecosystem fond of bifurcating the labels liberal and conservative, he successfully brings together certain sensibilities associated with both in a single and marketable package.

This makes sense given Maher’s general ideological trajectory, which has seen him broadly shift from the libertarian right to the liberal center since the early 2000s while remaining grounded in a fairly consistent persona.

In a 1999 interview still in the midst of his Politically Incorrect days, he associated himself with both libertarian thinking and the Republican Party:

I’m a libertarian. The line I’ve always used is, I would be a Republican if they would. Which means that I like the Barry Goldwater Republican Party, even the Reagan Republican Party. I want a mean old man to watch my money. I don’t want a Republican to be funny. I don’t want him to be charming. Because government is a sieve that takes as much money as it can and gives it away, usually needlessly. I am for freedom, a waning cause in this country. The GOP — which used to be the party of freedom and getting government off our backs — is now quite the opposite.

Despite trying to eschew political labels (Maher has variously described himself as simply “sane” and “practical”), he has throughout the past decade identified himself as both a “progressive” and a “9/11 liberal.”

Like Jon Stewart he delighted in roasting George Bush and has firmly aligned himself with the Democratic Party, donating $1 million to an Obama-friendly super PAC in 2012. Though occasionally critical of Obama, his Democratic partisanship once inspired him to joke that the president should assassinate an antiwar activist with a drone, and offer a nakedly obsequious defense of illegal NSA spying (“I’m okay with [it] now that Obama’s in office”).

Indeed, a bellicose attitude toward foreign policy and a fondness for punching to his left have been consistent themes throughout Maher’s career, both before and after his partisan alignment with liberalism.

During a 2001 segment he praised the Vietnam War as “necessary,” arguing it showed “the bullies of the world we would put ourselves on the line and spend lives” and crediting it for ultimately ending the Cold War (“The Vietnam War didn’t have to happen in Vietnam, but it had to happen somewhere!”). While he did oppose the Iraq War in 2003, Maher effectively endorsed its justifying logic a decade later. In 2016, he briefly made positive noises about Bernie Sanders though soon lapsed into generic anti-socialist posturing, blasting his program as “Santa-ism” a few months later:

Look, no one is arguing that millennials haven’t gotten a rotten deal in this economy but they’ve also gotten used to getting shit for free. If you’re a millennial you may never have known the concept of paying for things that all of us used to pay for. I’m a baby boomer; I think the natural order of things is to pay for music that I like. To do less than that doesn’t make you a revolutionary, it makes you a person who goes to the bathroom when the check comes.

He would go on to scold young Sanders supporters as naive and selfish, adding that millennials simply “don’t remember the Soviet Union [because] the only time they’ve ever had to crouch under a desk was to go down on their teacher.” “So the new generation is ready for socialism,” he added, before concluding: “Problem is, they may be ready for a little too much socialism.”

Real Time’s YouTube channel describes Maher as “irrepressible, opinionated, and of course, politically incorrect.” It’s notable, then, that many of his most controversial statements have effectively lacked any real political content.

While long grounded in a primarily liberal milieu, Maher’s career has been punctuated with overtly chauvinistic outbursts of the kind more traditionally associated with conservative talking heads in the mould of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. Indeed, his jocular use of the n-word during a June episode of Real Time featuring Nebraska senator Ben Sasse (which he was hastily forced to recant) is merely the latest in a long and established pattern.

In 2001, he had to apologize for comparing dogs to “retarded children” (”They’re sweet. They’re loving. They’re kind. But they don’t mentally advance at all.”). During Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza he tweeted, “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her.” In a 2011 argument with Tavis Smiley over sexism in the Middle East, Maher insisted that “civilization begins with civilizing the men,” adding: “Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man . . . The results are not good.”

On another occasion he defended Paula Deen’s use of the n-word, before breezily joking about Chris Brown “beating the shit out of her” to laughter and applause. He called a twenty-eight-year-old man having sex with a thirteen-year-old girl “a crime,” but insisted that a thirty-five-year-old woman being with a fourteen-year-old boy was just “a little offbeat,” adding “the crime is that we didn’t get it on videotape.” Blithely riffing on the subject of domestic abuse, he once told his audience: “Stop acting surprised someone choked Tila Tequila! The surprise is that someone hadn’t choked the bitch sooner.” During the Democratic primaries in 2008, he joked that [for Hillary Clinton to win] “she needs Reverend Jeremiah Wright to rape a white woman,” on another occasion playing several clips of Clinton on the campaign trail, and adding:

I’m not trying to be sexist here, but I’m just saying that women try a lot of different tacks when they’re in arguments . . . look at Hillary Clinton. Because the first thing a woman does, of course, is cry . . . and then they go to sweet talking . . . and then they throw an anger fit totally unrelated to anything . . . And when it doesn’t work, they bring out the sarcasm.

In 2010 following an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, he joked:

I thought when we elected a black president, we were going to get a black president. You know, this [oil spill] is where I want a real black president. I want him in a meeting with the BP CEOs, you know, where he lifts up his shirt where you can see the gun in his pants. That’s — “we’ve got a motherfucking problem here?” Shoot somebody in the foot.

Of former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain getting a job with Fox News, he tweeted, “Man, #HermanCain is making a comeback – says he likes working with Fox team, particularly some of them fine-ass white women they got there.”

Misogyny, bigotry, and parochial attacks on the Left are all, of course, regularly given air-time in the US media. The State Department also suffers from no shortage of pundits willing to defend its every action, especially when their chosen team is in the White House.

What’s distinctive about Bill Maher isn’t his politics or the casual chauvinism that often accompanies them so much as the context both have tended to inhabit. Indeed, much about his on-screen persona has long synced far better with the cultural ethos of MSNBC than that of Fox News.

Like other liberal pundits, he is fond of casting political debate as a contest of intelligence rather than ideology (promotional posters for Real Time’s 2017 season were emblazoned with the slogan “Let’s Make America Sane Again”). In 2008 he urged Democrats to embrace the label “elitist,” proclaiming:

New Rule: Republicans need to stop saying Barack Obama is an elitist, or looks down on rural people, and just admit you don’t like him because of something he can’t help, something that’s a result of the way he was born. Admit it, you’re not voting for him because he’s smarter than you. . . . Barack Obama can’t help it if he’s a magna cum laude Harvard grad and you’re a Walmart shopper who resurfaces driveways with your brother-in-law.

Throughout his career, Maher’s opinions and general affect have thus been bound together by a distinctly metropolitan smugness that revels in causing offense then greeting the inevitable blowback with caustic superiority.

While flattering the sensibilities of a predominantly liberal audience, he has successfully channeled the everyday prejudices of a typical suburban Trump voter, his supposedly irreverent posture tending to deploy itself in the interests of power and orthodoxy much more than any dissenting cultural critique.

Nowhere have all these threads in Maher’s career (or their real function) been more visible than in his sophomoric attacks on religion.

Religulous (2008) showcases the Real Time host theatrically refuting a carefully curated group of believers from the world’s major faiths, usually by way of crudely literal readings of their foundational books. While a portion of the film is dedicated to the evangelical Christianity of the American South — in which Maher confronts worthy and able targets such as a congregation of rural truck drivers at a road stop chapel — something altogether more ugly than typical metropolitan class contempt is reserved for the Islamic world.

Like Sam Harris and his fellow travelers, Maher’s ostensibly universal critique of religion has disproportionately leveled its attacks against both Islam and Muslims, often implicitly or explicitly in defense of neoconservative objectives at home and abroad. As FAIR’s Adam Johnson has observed, Maher has thus played a critical role in normalizing Islamophobic prejudices for a liberal audience.

Echoing a sentiment popular in the New Atheist movement, Maher has depicted Islamic culture as uniformly primitive and backwards. Comparing right-wing and Muslim extremists, he once declared “[while] one is herpes the other is cancer.” Channeling the rhetoric of the neofascist right, he has mused about the supposed demographic threat posed by European Muslims and once expressed alarm about the popularity of the name Mohammed in Britain (“Am I a racist to feel that I’m alarmed by that? Because I am. And it’s not because of the race, it’s ’cause of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in three hundred years?”). He also zealously joined conservative commentators over the case of Ahmed Mohamed, the fourteen-year-old Texas student who was arrested after bringing a homemade clock to school (“It’s not the color of his skin. For the last thirty years, it’s been the one culture that has been blowing shit up over and over again”).

“Political incorrectness” in the Maher lexicon has never really implied dissent, except in the most superficial sense of the word. Genuine dissent, political, cultural, or otherwise, has to be directed at those in power on behalf of those without it. Rudeness, vulgarity, and performative disdain for the pleasantries expected from patrician pundits on liberal networks may be marketable commodities, but none are remotely transgressive if the performer only punches down.

Like Donald Trump, a man also proud of being “politically incorrect,” Maher has always delighted in savaging and demeaning his targets with little consequence or accountability.

Moreover, like Trump, his career has largely been the product of liberal culture and its institutions. It wasn’t Fox News, after all, that broadcast his racist tirades against Muslims, but HBO; it wasn’t conservative talk radio that aired many of his McCarthy-esque attacks on socialism, but Comedy Central and ABC; and Maher’s overt chauvinism didn’t land him an editorial gig at Breitbart, but rather primetime speaking slots alongside Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow.

All of this makes Bill Maher the perfect media creature for a twenty-first-century America in which the crude bigotry supposedly rampant among the working classes is routinely given a platform on network television by pundits earning seven figures; where institutional liberalism’s modus operandi is elitist condescension toward the lower orders and conservatism’s is cultural resentment; where the mainstream media’s favored posture is almost invariably deference to the state; where the leaderships of both major parties theatrically trade insults in public and milk the same donor class every election cycle; where public debates are cast as battles between the smart and the stupid rather than the Right and the Left or the haves and the have-nots; where more than a decade of “war on terror” jingoism has enabled open racism against Muslims and immigrants to flourish; where the pursuit of spectacle and ratings rather than the public interest drives the news; and, above all, where the most successful charlatans tend to be those who play act as cultural critics while ultimately serving powerful interests — and being richly rewarded for it.