Bill Maher Isn’t the Enemy

Editor’s note: This was the last piece Chez Pazienza ever wrote. It was published in issue 73 of ‘Banter M’, our digital magazine for members. I have decided to publish on the main site because I believe that is what he would have wanted. The infighting on the left infuriated Chez, and he dedicated a huge amount of time trying to stop factionalism splitting apart resistance to Donald Trump. We went back and forth on email over this article for a day or two as Chez wasn’t sure if he was articulating his point properly. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that there were parallels between Milo Yiannopolous’s stance on relationships between older men and teenage boys and Bill Maher’s position on a female teacher who had a relationship with a 12 year old boy back in the 1990’s. Although this wasn’t the focus of his piece, he wanted to strike the right tone and articulate his point properly — and as he always did, he agonized about it before signing off on it. That was Chez. He was a perfectionist through and through, and wanted to be no confusion about what he was saying. Below is the unedited version he sent me. – Ben

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So, we’re going to do this again, eh? Great. Every year or so, the usual suspects among the perpetually aggrieved left make the collective decision to pick up their torches and pitchforks and march up the Hollywood Hills to the gates of Bill Maher’s house. (I assume it’s in the Hollywood Hills; that sounds right.) I’m speaking figuratively, of course, since what they really do is react to something “offensive” Maher has said or done on his show or during one of his live appearances by venting their spleens via way of a bunch of silly internet think pieces. This crap is like clockwork, so reliable has Maher been as an outlet for liberal superintendent class angst and moralizing for so long. Recently, though, it’s seemed particularly like a left-wing cultural imperative given that identity politics has come to dominate left-wing culture and Maher is, well, a middle-aged white guy — one who happens to abhor what the censorious demands of today’s identity politics crusaders have done to liberal thought.

In the wake of Bill Maher’s decision to give former alt-right star and vacant little snot Milo Yiannopoulos a forum on his HBO show, Real Time, last week, the waves of sanctimonious scolding have been washing over a segment of the internet at steady intervals. First, there was the question of whether Maher was right or wrong in letting Yiannopoulos ply his bigoted wares and otherwise fame-whore himself on national television. Maher’s belief in the old Louis Brandeis maxim that sunshine is best disinfectant didn’t satisfy many, the same many, you’d have to imagine, that thought setting things on fire at Berkeley was a really productive way to shut Yiannopoulos up (as opposed to merely feeding his ridiculous mythology). That of course earned him his first round of rebukes, followed quickly by the fallout from the interview, where Maher was at least perhaps rightly taken to task for being a hell of a lot less direct with Yiannopoulos than he should’ve been. (An argument can easily be made that, yes, if he wasn’t going to be willing to put pressure on him in the name of being civil, then having him on the show was merely giving him what he wanted and nothing more.)

Maher’s handling of Yiannopoulos really brought the knives out, in entirely predictable ways. Jezebel melodramatically dubbed him a “monster.” The A.V. Club, in a piece written by someone who so obviously seethes from a deep reservoir of compressed hostility toward Maher, called him “irrelevant,” saying that he’s “a man without a country” because liberals don’t like him — an almost admirable bit of self-reinforcing circular reasoning — and he’ll never earn the respect of the right for his willingness to engage with it. Then there’s Pajiba, a site I personally happen to like even when I disagree with it, which is taking great, scathing issue with Maher’s claim in the wake of Milo’s downfall that he was at least partially responsible for it. The author calls this “pompous and inaccurate,” even though it’s entirely possible that Maher’s willingness to provide Milo with one of his biggest stages yet inadvertently gave him all the farther to fall when the boom dropped on him 48 hours later. Yeah, Maher shouldn’t be tooting his own horn about it like that was his plan all along, but the sheer toxicity of the venom directed toward him, as with the A.V. Club piece, reads more like a “lifetime achievement award” of punishment than a response to any one supposed offense. 

There are many more column inches out there excoriating Maher, but you get the picture.

None of this is surprising, of course. Maher has indeed always been a divisive figure, certainly someone who challenges modern liberal sensibilities and who doesn’t submit to its shibboleths. He’s reportedly a raging asshole in person and, admittedly, calling him pompous — as Pajiba did — isn’t completely misplaced, since he wears his smug elitism on his sleeve. But it’s his views on Islam, more than anything else, that have made him an ongoing target of the left’s derision. True, now more than ever it may feel like the right thing to do to take the opposite of whatever position the Trump administration and its horrifying ilk are — or consistently take positions that don’t even appear to benefit them — but that’s intellectually dishonest. Maher’s right when he says that Islam, like the other two monotheistic faiths, is illiberal specifically because it subjugates women, gay people, and minorities. He’s also right when he says that, because Islam hasn’t been forced to bend to the forces of modernity in many regions — and because its radicalized adherents are so radical that their goal is to kill en masse — it represents at this period in our existence an especially pernicious danger. 

This doesn’t mean Muslims should be discriminated against, since the argument here is over ideas and not individual people, and it definitely doesn’t mean Donald Trump should be able to block Muslims or those from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. That’s quite simply un-American.

But here’s the thing: Whether you agree with everything he says or believes, Bill Maher is undoubtedly on the correct side here overall. He may have some views that differ from what the purist left sees as necessities, but the purist left have already proven that they’ll never be satisfied and they’re more than willing to burn it all down rather than compromise. They’re a path to inevitable loss again and again and again. (Remember, for a good, long time they would publicly beat up on Jon Stewart, of all people, as well.) Maher regularly takes on that segment of the left — the intransigent, humorless scolds who seek to quash or hide from language and ideas they disagree with — which is why they don’t particularly like him and will seek out any reason to argue that he’s somehow a “bad liberal.” But he’s not. He holds to some pretty high standards of what liberalism has always meant and, what’s more, he’s been an invaluable weapon in the war against Donald Trump, having gotten underneath Trump’s thin skin to the point where he was threatened with a lawsuit by our current president. This isn’t to say that liberals or anybody else should give a free pass to anyone who pisses off their adversaries, but now more than ever we need people like Maher, those with a big forum and an even bigger determination to use it to take on this nightmare White House.

To break it down in simple terms, because nobody knows how to assemble a circular firing squad like liberals: Bill Maher isn’t the enemy. He’s a guy who uses his powerful forum to espouse views that generally further liberal causes. It’s one thing to criticize him for individual viewpoints you maybe have an issue with but another thing entirely to rant about how he’s some kind of monster because he doesn’t conform to whatever the hell you adamantly believe someone must to be a part of your very particular fold. The enemy should be incredibly obvious at this point and it’s imperative that we use every responsible weapon in our arsenal, even the insufferably smug ones, in the war against that enemy. I personally disagree with Maher on a number of issues and have throughout his lengthy career as a political comic, but I accept that in the end he’s on the side of the angels. What this means is that I hear him out even when I find him wildly off-base but have continued to allow for our differences because there’s far more I agree with him on than disagree — and I acknowledge that he’s an authoritative comic voice against a horrifying common foe.

Even the recently recirculated clip of Maher seeming to make excuses for Mary Kay Letourneau’s relationship with now husband Vili Fualaau — which began when Fualaau was only 12 years old and Letourneau was his teacher — while repulsive if Maher wasn’t simply being tongue-in-cheek, deserves both a direct question and an opportunity for an answer. “Do you still think that? How? Why? If not, what changed your mind?” Maher has earned more consideration than Milo for the simple reason that despite what some on the left may think, Maher hasn’t actually been a geyser of vile rhetoric the way Milo Yiannopoulos has. (And before anyone dares argue this, no, it has absolutely nothing to do with the distinction that Maher’s comments involve a heterosexual relationship and Milo’s a gay relationship; child molestation is child molestation, and at the age of 12 and 13 — Maher’s pet case and Milo’s, respectively — child molestation is absolutely what we’re talking about.) But again, there’s a difference between holding an ally’s feet to the fire and ignoring everything that ally has done to make him or herself an ally and just tossing that person aside. 

Make no mistake, though: The vendetta some on the left have against Maher accomplishes nothing. It’s self-defeating, in fact, as so much of what the left does is. It balkanizes a resistance that at this moment in the history of our fragile republic needs unity to survive. I disagree with the many on the left to the point of apoplexy — to the point of literally and figuratively being in a different political party than them altogether — but if they’d be willing to in the name of standing against Trump I would proudly stand with them. I’d stand by Maher. Hell, I’m willing to form a coalition with those on the other side of the aisle with whom I have a whole hell of a lot of fundamental ideological disagreements, provided they’re good, reasonable people and understand that Trump is a horror-show — an existential threat to our democracy. This just isn’t the time to be beating up on any decent human being who might be willing to count him or herself a friend and fellow resistor to this madness.

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