This article is published in CounterPunch.
Bill Maher is simply an enemy of justice and a purveyor of oppression. Saying (writing) this publicly is a provocation of contempt from all the liberals in the room, yet it needs to be—desperately needs to be—said. Reality is refreshing. The corporate media has torn us away from it for so long that we might have forgotten this most fundamental fact, yet we must keep in mind the dire consequence of too little fresh air in this proverbial room: we suffocate in our own hot air.
In order to, within a reasonable space, adequately address and explicate the myriad ways in which the bloviating Bill Maher’s boiling breath brings us, all of us, closer to suffocation—in order to cover what I called the “Brobdingnagian breadth of Bill’s bigotry”—I had originally planned to publish this (admittedly long) article in two parts. However, as is often the case, the more one digs, the more one cannot help but come across more and more dirt.
And, believe me, there is no dearth of dirt on Bill Maher.
For this reason, I have composed two additional installments in what is now the “Bill Maher, Worse than Glenn Beck” tetralogy. In its inaugural episode, I addressed Maher’s dogged defense of U.S. imperialism and Democratic shill policies and a virulent, racist anti-Islam prejudice that brings with it almost unflinching support for brutally violent military intervention. I discussed how Maher’s irrational fear that “the Western world [will] be taken over by Islam” and his diehard support for U.S. “foreign policy” (a euphemism for imperialism) are, in many ways, an extension of his so-called “Islamophobia” (another euphemism, this time for thinly-disguised anti-Arab racism). I noted how Maher’s conception of Islam is entirely racialized (strange, when Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population), and how this prejudice therefore extends to encompass the entire, enormous, eclectic “Arab world.”
I will herein continue with this thread, and investigate how Maher’s anti-Islam prejudice and anti-Arab racism lead the pundit to make wildly irresponsible and ignorant claims about Israel. The comedian is dreadfully uninformed about even the most basic facts surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet he is a strident Zionist. I will subsequently explore the degree to which Maher’s vociferous anti-religious sentiment (what I call an anti-religious fundamentalism) informs this ridiculousness.
In the next installment in this article, I will investigate how Maher’s anti-Arab racism, given the contextualization of this particular strand of racism within a culture and world of white supremacy, is certainly not isolated, and address the numerous ways in which, through his “jokes,” he demonstrates a stark racism toward black Americans, and toward people of color in general. I will then connect this discussion to Maher’s rampant misogyny, and conclude speaking to the way in which he belittles political and ideological female opponents and opponents of color not by criticizing their ideas, but by criticizing their identities.
In the final installment of this series, I will turn my attention to Maher’s unapologetic classism and ableism, and to his utter disregard for those with mental illnesses. I will conclude the series with a look at the glaring inconsistencies in his populist rhetoric and in the decisions he makes in his life—particularly in regard to the unheeded (plainly ignored) advice he offers fellow filthy rich individuals in the management of their economic affairs.
Giving a Platform to Brigitte Gabriel
One good way to get an unambiguous glimpse at a public figure’s internal ideology and external cultural ideological impressions is through a look at who listens to said figure. In the case of Maher, the audience is a telltale sign. It consistently applauds when bigoted “jokes” and statements are made. It is clear the individuals Maher attracts share his disdain for those who depart from the “scientifically”-minded, educated, well-to-do, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, white male American “norm.”
Another method to accurately gauge such ideological inner workings is through an analysis of whom said public figure invites to speak on air. In the case of Maher, this cadre is, admittedly, rather heterogeneous, ranging from far-right loonies to a small handful of actual leftists (namely Naomi Klein, Cornel West, and Glenn Greenwald, among others). Of most interest here, nevertheless, is that, a statistically significant portion of the time, Maher invites to speak those offer great insight into what exactly Maher wants to say, but can’t.
In a prime example, let us look at the instance in which Maher enthusiastically features far-right, fanatical Zionist, anti-Islam writer Brigitte Gabriel on his show.
Gabriel is a figure who refers to Arabs as soulless “barbarians” and believes wholeheartedly in (and proselytizes on behalf of) the myth of American exceptionalism. (Franklin Lamb, director of Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace and senior fellow at the Institute for Middle East Policy Dialogue exposes Gabriel for the chauvinistic charlatan she is here.) In speaking of Obama, she says “I do not believe he should have kind of apologized to the Arabic world for America’s ills for the last, whatever, 30 years” (I don’t know about you, but I missed the part where Obama actually “apologized to the Arabic world”—presumably in between ordering drone strikes and imposing crippling sanctions).
She then proceeds to blame Iran for its ’79 revolution, conveniently ignoring the U.S. government’s overthrow of Mosaddegh, perhaps the most popular leader of Iran in its history, in 1953. “It was the Muslim world, back in 1979, that declared war on America before we ever did anything to fight the Muslims in the Arabic world,” Gabriel teaches us, in an exemplary Real Time with Bill Maher “history” lesson.
In his defense, Maher pushes back a bit, mentioning U.S. support for the Shah, but mostly in lip service, and not in any authentic adherence, to the “fair and balanced,” devil’s advocate approach. The truth is what Gabriel is saying is music to his ears—and, as their applause evinces, to the ears of the audience as well, for, to all the white Americans sitting out there, watching their favorite liberal comedian, Gabriel, of Lebanese descent, speaks for the entire Lebanese people, and, by extension, for all Arabs (cuz, I mean, c’mon, they’re all the same anyway).
It is a clever strategy. Next to Gabriel, Maher seems positively “neutral,” even progressive. By those on the actual left, it is often jokingly (yet accurately) argued that the Republicans are the Democrats’ biggest ally: the Republicans make the Democrats seem as though they are on the left. The phenomenon is quite simple. In terms of electoral politics in this country, “left”-leaning individuals (Democrats), who are often more accurately center-right, seem positively leftist when they’re juxtaposed with the ordinary proto-fascists (Republicans) that dominate the “other side” (there are only two sides).
Maher’s minor pushback shines well on him as a figure of “objectivity,” of “truth-seeking.” Someone as blatantly anti-Islam as Gabriel takes it too far; Maher, however, obviously stands in the “middle.” Such juxtaposition, on top of Maher’s awe-inspiring knowledge of history (He knew about U.S. support for the (unnamed) Shah!), makes his particular strand of anti-Islam prejudice seem much more reasonable—it’s not even anti-Islam prejudice, in fact, it’s merely a “logical” reaction to an “objective” reality!
“I’m a Big Supporter of Israel”
In a remarkably similar event (note the trend), Maher invites right-“libertarian” lunatic Michael Scheuer onto his show to discuss Israel. Sparks fly—ones mostly of concord, not of conflict. Maher sets the mood right away: “As long as there is an Israel in the world—and I’m a big supporter of Israel—and as long as America backs it,” he insists, Muslims are “always going to be trying to kill us.”
One might presume that such a bold statement would require bold evidence. None need be provided, however. The mere existence of Israel is what instills within Muslims worldwide a violent rage of unbridled antipathy. (“Muslim Rage!” Newsweek infamously declared—although “Anti-Muslim Rage” is much more accurate.) The rogue state’s policies (read: crimes against humanity) certainly aren’t responsible; no, it is solely because it exists. And as long as the U.S. supports it (given they, you know, “hate us for our ‘freedom'” and all), Muslims will want to destroy that too. No evidence is required. In fact, on Maher’s show, evidence is only to be disposed of. There’s no room for silly “facts” here. His almighty statements are the Gospels, the holy words of the most holy of holy hosts.
When Michael Scheuer insists on a fundamentalist isolationist, practically solipsistic, policy, saying he would no rather support Israel than he would Saudi Arabia, Maher is flabbergasted. “You’re really not telling me that Israel is on par with Saudi Arabia?” he guffaws in disbelief. Israel is a better country, of course, in Maher’s mind. Not surprising, when we consider the Maherian gem I quoted in the first part of this article: “They’re worse. What’s wrong with just saying that?”, he asked, “they” referring to “Arab countries.” What’s wrong with claiming entire countries and peoples are “better” than others, Bill? Well, for one, it’s a continuation of 19th-century white superiority narratives (we’re more “advanced” than those “backward” savages), and, two—well, you know, I think that first reason is quite enough.
Even thinking about questioning the host’s dogma is impermissible, nonetheless. “Israel is a democracy in a part of the world that has none,” Maher insists—conveniently forgetting that this is because, through C.I.A. coups, Uncle Sam has continuously prevented democracy from even taking root, yet alone growing there. Maher is clear to establish that he supports U.S. intervention in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; he bravely defends Israeli “democracy,” to much audience applause—and yet conveniently forgets to mention the rogue state’s countless histories of ethnic cleansing, occupation, bombing, murder, torture, discrimination, and more inexpressibly inimical assaults on the Palestinian people.
In the end, for Maher, a person with absolutely no sense of history (in spite of his purporting the contrary), the Israel-Palestine conflict is entirely a religious, not political, one. Palestinians are Muslims and Israelis are Jews, in His mind (that there are sizeable communities of Palestinian Christians, that approximately 17% of Israelis are Muslim, are superfluous factors). The conflict is ergo not about past histories of unrepented crimes, but about competing ideologies of religious extremism.
To Maher, for whom Islam has been racialized, if you’re Arab, you’re Muslim; and if you’re Muslim, you’re an extremist. It’s a simple syllogism; it’s pure logic! Maher is not anti-Islam, he insists; he is a “truth lover.” Sounds familiar… oh yeah, maybe because it’s the same argument many early-20th-century scientists, including those as prominent as Nikola Tesla (strange, given his own mental illness), and States (including not only Nazi Germany but, you got it, much of Western Europe and the United States) used to justify research and policies based on eugenics. But yeah, Bill, “truth lover.” Cool story brah. Tell me more. Enlighten me.
The US Media Is “Not” Pro-Israel
In another mind-numbingly vacuous segment on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Maher claims, positively confused, “I always hear that the media is pro-Israel in this country; I don’t see that.” There is such an astoundingly large amount of coverage on pro-Israel bias in the corporate media that it is not necessary to cover it here. I find it sufficient to remind us that a headline like this demonstrates where the mainstream media’s priorities lie and whose lives it values more than others’ (and keep in mind that this is a headline in a Canadian source; the slant is much worse in the U.S.).
Maher questions the notion “that Israel overreacts,” once again pedantically lecturing us (thanks Bill!), “you know, in the Gaza strip, they’ve fired 10,000 rockets at Israel in the last few years … If Quebec was firing rockets into our territory, and was sworn to wipe us off the face of the earth, do you think we would just be having an embargo against them? … I think we would have nuked them 100 times by now.” When Oliver Stone speaks of his time in Ramallah, noting “it’s horrible; they don’t have a life,” Maher blows it off, mumbling about Egypt and claiming “let’s not shit a shitter.”
Let’s get this straight. For one, Maher, broadcasting on TV, live, to the globe, claims Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip have fired 10,000 rockets at Israel in just the past few years. Ten thousand. Hyperbolize much? (And, speaking of rockets, even one of Israel’s best friends, the Washington Post, can’t deny that Israel fires significantly more (try almost twice as many) rockets at Palestine.) As I noted in the previous installment, “Completely fabricating statistics to support his position is a popular Maherian tactic.” Here, we find another: creating absurd analogies and strawmanning them in place of the real issues. In this case, we see an analogy between Palestine and Israel and Canada and the U.S. based a single criterion: proximity. The Israel-Palestine relationship is just like the Canada-U.S. relationship by mere virtue of the two being geographical neighbors. Again, past histories of, you know, ethnic cleansing, invasions, military occupation, apartheid, collective punishment, sanctions, so on and so forth, those are insignificant.
Strawmanning one’s ideological opponent is always preferable to the provision of actual evidence on Real Time with Bill Maher. When Oliver Stone, an individual who has actually lived in the land in question, discusses his time in occupied Palestine, bringing up first-hand accounts of, oh, empirical evidence, Maher tosses it aside. First-hand, lived experiences are insignificant. What’s important is that reality accord with His holy assertions.
One of biggest ironies of all is that, as much as he criticizes religious fundamentalists, Maher himself is an anti-religious fundamentalist. If something is related to religion, no matter how indirectly, it is instantly rotten. If someone is religious, they are immediately written off as a “brainwashed,” ignorant simpleton. Religion can never bring good in the world; religious people can never do good (and, if they do, it is only against their religious inclinations). Religion must be extirpated.
To borrow the unfortunate colloquial definition of the (often purposefully) misinterpreted and misunderstood term, Maher’s is an anti-religious “jihad.” In His world, if one is religious, one is necessarily illogical, foolish, stupid; if one is religious, all of one’s actions are made because of, and informed by, one’s religion. Maher, on the other hand, free from the fetters of religion, claims a monopoly on logic.
Not only is the Palestine-Israel conflict about religion, therefore, U.S. support for the rogue state is too religious in nature, he maintains. The Republicans “stole the Jews,” Maher jokes. Why do the Republicans love Israel so much? It’s not in the name of the preservation of U.S. hegemony in the region; it’s not because of imperialism; it’s not because of control over and expansion of foreign markets; it’s not because of access to cheap natural resources; and it’s certainly not because of anti-Arab racism. No, according to Maher’s implacable logic, “you know what? It’s because they want Israel in the hands of the Jews because they think the Bible is real, and before You-Know-Who comes back, the place has to be in Jewish hands.” Oh, wow, I get it now. Thanks Bill!
As Maher makes this absurd assertion, the extra-racist, extra-misogynist Seth MacFarlane nods and yeahs in approval. “Can I ask a really dumb question—can I be the dumb guy here for the rest of the hour?” MacFarlane interludes, much too late to possibly compete with the host in the fulfillment of his request. Why should I care “about a strip of land that, if your realtor sold it to you, you would sue him?” he quips, as Maher makes his second foreskin joke. Maher laughs. The audience laughs. We laugh. Innocent Palestinian lives are being lost, but that’s not important. MacFarlane made a funny!
Topping off the episode in this quality programming, Salman Rushdie graciously offers us his invaluable wisdom. We shouldn’t look at Israel as a source of Middle Eastern woes, he insists; rather, we should be looking at the Arab world. Israel is an “old quarrel,” he tells us, and we should “look beyond” it to a new future. Maher completely assents; the discussion is over in his mind. His beliefs have been confirmed. He’s ready to move on to ripping on Fox News, his favorite easy target.
And if there’s anything Bill Maher likes, it’s an easy target.
In the next segment of this article, I will address the numerous ways in which Maher turns race and gender into such easy targets and disguises racism and misogyny as “comedy.”