Let me start with an admission: I don’t find Bill Maher funny and I’m convinced that no one else does either. His guests rarely laugh out loud in any convincing way, but rather maintain a strained rictus grimace at every groaner, as though in the inheritance-based thrall of a particularly racist but rich father-in-law. Without Maher’s own cues (you can tell he’s got a zinger coming when the balls of his shiny cheeks rise toward his eyes like they’re ready to salute or fuck whatever comes out his mouth next), I’m not sure anyone would know that a joke just happened. The time he’s spent looking around to make sure people are laughing adds up to the average lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise. Jokes die and go to hell before Bill Maher knows they’re dead, then he uses their mirthless wake to blame the politically correct for not getting it. I say all this so that, on the slim chance Maher ever sees this, he can reassure himself in the knowledge that my contempt for him has, at least initially, aesthetic underpinnings. I thought he was a hack before I knew he was a bigot.
Discussing Maher is potentially a waste of time. Even those without new releases to promote, longstanding friendships with him that apparently trump their supposed progressiveness, or toxic ideologies to flog have been giving him a wide berth for a while. And for those who feel like whatever cause they need to espouse is to be valued over avoiding someone who calls trans people “weirdos” and says ISIS and Islam are the same thing, it’s unlikely they’ll, at this juncture, turn down a TV appearance. But Maher remains inexplicably popular, the original “rogue” Twitter account, all machismo and liberal pandering bluster, and this past Friday, he brought Milo Yiannopoulos onto his HBO show, Real Time. It was a cringe inducing, seemingly endless display of obsequious protester bashing and fag jokes, but by god it got folks riled up, so now’s as good a time as any to revisit Bill Maher’s place in our culture as serial faith-misunderstander and smug truth-bomb bore. We were promised jetpacks and instead we got this Jamie Kennedy-looking motherfucker spouting “liberal values” horseshit to the DNC end of the Gamergate spectrum.
Getting the Milo episode out of the way, let’s just say if that if open and vigorous debate is your ostensible steez, then it’s good and proper to actually debate. That’s not what happened with Milo. Maher made gay jokes, defended Lena Dunham, and found common cause in hate for Muslims and the trans community. His other guests for the evening said “fuck off” a lot and bathed in applause, but there they were, trying to split the difference between taking a fascist seriously enough to appear on a panel with him but not enough to do their homework. They didn’t destroy Milo. They “destroyed” him, only in the Facebook share sense. It was an embarrassing shitshow for all involved. But if it somehow took Milo’s appearance to reveal Maher’s true form to you, perhaps you have some reckoning to do with your own Islamphobic bullshit. (Just a few days later, finding the line that even Trump conservatives won’t cross, Milo managed to take himself down, but his views were already a cornucopia of awfulness—the pedophilia aspects just cast Maher’s judgment in an even dimmer light.)
Whether Maher himself has always been an Islamophobe or if it’s just some late-career Hitchens pivot is up for debate. Some argue that his early and, to my mind, correctly vaunted moment of courage was when, post-9/11, he acknowledged that flying a plane into a building, while inarguably disgusting on every conceivable level, is not something one must necessarily call “cowardly”; his more recent critics, usually coming from the anti-imperialist left, claim that even then, the statement was said in the service of accentuating the evil of Islam and pushing for Western retribution. Not knowing the man’s heart, but preferring a robust narrative arc, let’s assume good faith in that show-cancelling utterance. He was okay, and then, as man goes from crawling to walking to walking with a cane, he now sucks.
As late-night monologues have long been the first refuge of the white tool bag, it’s of little value to dwell too long on Maher’s. They are, taken as a whole, just as smirking an examination of “what’s in the news” as the rest. Even his most ardent defenders refer mainly to the guests on Real Time. And, for the most part, his guests are fine. If seeing Tomi Lahren (again with this most meaningless of Internet praise) “destroyed” or “eviscerated” is satisfying on some primal level (and it is), then there’s value there. His discussions with people like John Legend, Sarah Silverman, and even Ross Douthat can be illuminating. They’d likely be equally worthwhile moderated by any gregarious grump—say, Colin Quinn—but credit where it’s due. And even if Maher’s grotesque palling around with Kellyanne Conway grates the soul, he’s certainly not alone in that regard; silver-haired boys’ club types love that asshole. And while we’re being generous, we can even, for now, set aside Maher’s tiresome anti-PC shtick: presumably he has some sort of soul/damnation arrangement with the ghost of Bill Hicks that requires he misunderstands “maybe call people what they wish to be called” as some sort of magical reverse Spear of Destiny election loser.
But, for a free speech absolutist, Maher sure doesn’t have many Muslims on the show who will challenge him. Part of the problem is that, in the last few years, most (such as Reza Aslan or Rula Jebreal) have not seemed eager to reappear on a show hosted by a man of Maher’s weird obsessions. But it is also clear that Maher has decided on his narrative that Islam is “the motherlode of bad ideas” and cannot be dissuaded—not by empathy, the sheer overwhelming number Muslims just living their lives, or history itself. He’s had enough (non-Muslim) guests, like Ben Affleck, try to very simply and calmly explain how deranged he’s become, which only reinforces his notion that they are all “self-loathing liberals.” This is his religion now. So Maher will happily join Sam Harris in slandering Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, albeit for reasons that seem to have more to do with Berkeley and how she hurt his feelings than any Sharia Law nonsense. (His willingness to use Sarsour to throw the Woman’s March under the bus is also entirely consistent with how he treats many of his female guests.) If Sarsour were actually on the show, he’d be forced to interact with someone who puts into actual progressive action all his liberal posturing and who wouldn’t find his chummy bigotry endearing. Instead, he invites Trump supporters like Asra Nomani and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nodding thoughtfully while using their bodies and lives as a shield for his particularly specific brand of warped Zionist-infused atheism.
As disappointing as it may be that Obama finally appeared on his show, undoubtedly in an attempt to marshal any spare vote for Clinton that he could, it’s no wonder he demurred for so long. Maher helped set the tone from the left that allowed the very idea of a “Muslim president” to fester until it could be deployed (and interpreted) as a slur—to suggest it was an inherently insulting proposition, and that the lie should have mattered one way or another, even if it had been true. (And if Obama’s a secret Muslim, he made for a garbage double-agent; he could have at least closed Guantanamo.) Maher can denounce Trump all he likes while genuinely thinking that people not finding him amusing is the reason Trump won. It’s the solipsism at his core: he wants to smoke pot and say “faggot” and cosplay Denis Leary and make broad denunciations of a religion that he, like all of them, barely understands. Environmental policies aside, for all his Trump bashing, he seems more offended by the president’s general bumbling than his politics—in Trump’s greatest fearmongering, the discredited idea of a clash of civilizations, the two men are the least strange of bedfellows. It’s just a question of who’s the bigger spoon.
Myself, being a center-leaning leftist and vegetarian, Bill Maher occasionally says things that make me feel nice. I nod my head along with everyone else when he badmouths the current president or says I’m smart and pretty because I live on the coast. It’s nice to feel nice. For someone who rails against the left for focusing too much on “feelings,” he studiously tells his base what they want to hear. And, as I said, he’s a competent moderator. But what’s relevant now, under Trump/Bannon, is Maher’s view of Islam. Like a lot of pop-culture atheist pundits, Bill Maher hates all religions equally but Islam the most. He’s taken it as a personal crusade to “reform” the religion, because this is an alternate timeline where Trump is president, Dennis Miller lives in Maher’s strangely popular skin as a libertarian/liberal hybrid, and the last one hundred years of American foreign policy never happened. There are no Dulles brothers, no Soviet/English/American razing of the Middle East, just an obviously evil Islam in desperate need of the wisdom and sure hands of a late-night carny and Richard Dawkins’ sentient dandruff, Sam Harris. Sam Harris, that excretory creep, who cries about Obama not saying “radical Islam” with a revealingly glib, “Presumably, he’s not been bombing the Amish,” as though the bombing is correct, but the refusal to name and shame is the issue.
Muslims are not—and there’s no way to put too fine a point on this—human beings to these men. They talk about them the way the Victorian English would talk about anyone right before they set up shop and stole all the tea. That Sam Harris could be held up as a determiner of what’s ethical and reasonable tells you what you need to know about Bill Maher’s worldview at this point. There’s no shortage of resistance in the media to Trump; what’s relevant is Maher’s bigotry and scorn for Muslims. Let his love of marijuana and the whales be rendered as footnotes. With a Steve Bannon as co-president, and all that entails, liberal pieties are so much chum when coupled with a bigotry that satisfies the needs of the state.
So I’m glad that people are turning on Bill Maher, even if the renouncement would have perhaps held more weight during the Obama years, back when killing Muslims was a cause shared across the American body politic. But from the comfort of my New York apartment, overlooking One World Trade Center, able to scan and delete hateful online comments left for my Muslim fiancé before she sees them, I have the luxury of saying, “better late than never.” Not that I think Maher (or Harris, or even Milo) shouldn’t have a platform. I call for no boycott or defenestration, though I’d shed no tears at either. It’s simply that Bill Maher is a fatuous joke-murdering dogmatist, a colonialist gibbon who spent so long fucking nuns that he can’t even get joining the church right, and opts instead for a cheap unthinking atheism that resembles the dullest tentpole revival. If he was ever funny, or wise, or worth a good goddamn in any respect, that time has passed. If his decline results in finding his true calling as a mentor to online cultural-blip fascists with bad posture and worse postures, I wish him exactly as well as he deserves.