On Friday night's Real Time, host Bill Maher continued his new career of arguing against Ben Affleckin absentia when he commented on the Berkeley commencement controversy for the first time. An online petition has circulated demanding the rescission of UC Berkeley's invitation for Maher to speak at the school's commencement, and Maher predictably cast the brouhaha as an assault on free speech, while pointing out that his Muslim friend doesn't think he's a bigot. The viewer can judge whether that claim is undercut by Maher's slick reference to "1,001 nights," which supports the conclusion that Maher is really talking about Arabs, not the religion of Islam.
But he also allowed that the controversy could have the effect of taking away from the graduates' big day, while apparently promising to steer clear of the subject of Islam, and offered to bow out if he gets enough feedback to that effect:
"They invited me because it was the 50th anniversary of... the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. I guess they don't teach irony in college anymore....Whoever told you you only had to hear what didn't upset you?"
"I promise, this'll be your day, this is a commencement speech. The issue is you. My speech was, is, I hope, going to be about you and whatever tips that I thought could actually help you in life, because I've aleady lived through it. That, an my hunk about how Jewish women hate to have sex."
That all sounds fairly reasonable (the free speech argument was also capably advanced by our own Mike Luciano), but Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal quickly pointed out that the issue isn't freedom of speech, but freedom from speech. "If they don't like your views on television, they can switch channel, but the commencement speech, it's a platform that doesn't give the opportunity for questions, that doesn't give the opportunity for pushback, or even for debate," she said. "It's a monologue, not a dialogue."
Maher's fellow white males on the panel. and in the audience, derailed Jebreal as best they could, ignoring the distinction she was making and loudly cheering Maher. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) echoed Maher by telling Jebreak that "It's okay to be offensive, that's what free speech is about," and when she persisted, impatiently asked if maybe Maher should get Affleck back on the show. Maher, to his marginal credit, allowed Jebreal to hang in there for a long time, but belied his ostensible willingness to debate by impatiently ending the conversation:
Maher and his minions miss a few key points here, the first being that people actually do have a right, or at least an expectation, not to be offended at their own commencement speech. They also miss the fact that just as Maher's anti-Islam rants are sacred examples of free expression, so is this petition.
But Maher's most fundamental problem is that he thinks it is enough that he knows he's not a bigot. Forget whatever you think Bill Maher is implicitlysaying with his cracks about the desert or his focus on only certain geographical and pigmentational Muslim-majority countries, and listen to what he is explicitly saying: the entire religion of Islam is fundamentally violent and murderous. He says this over and over again, including the charming assertion that "It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing."
Maher's "out" is that he's only talking about the "bad ones," I guess, but he never exactly explains how that is, how he can condemn an entire religion, but not everyone who believes in it. His partner Sam Harris does this by literally saying that any Muslims who don't believe in murdering innocents "don't take the faith seriously." It's sort of the reverse of the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. Jebreal is correct, then that if Maher (or Harris) made any such generalization about Jews or black culture, they wouldn't be confused when people called them bigots. To the hundreds of millions of Muslims who do take their faith seriously, and don't believe in murdering innocents, this is a slur against them.