As a secular humanist leftist, I was first drawn to Real Time with Bill Maher, several years ago, because of Bill Maher’s critiques of the religious right. The smug pundit is skilled in the art of carefully crafting a lofty persona—a persona a critical viewer will soon find to be an untenable façade. He, the sagacious, purely rational “progressive,” knows all the answers; He, the open-minded white liberal is immune from any and all prejudice; He, the controversial comic, perforates cultural taboos with his dry wit alone (well, and his million-dollar paycheck). Maher is simply a “truth-lover,” out there on the front line, crawling through the trenches, duking it out with all of the world’s evils: religion, the G.O.P., and… religion. At times, we are asked to pity him for the colossal cultural cargo resting upon His enlightened shoulders, for his unrelenting defense of “free speech” (use it or lose it), for his challenging power (some of it at least), for the endless problems that come with being a rich straight white male celebrity in this cruel, cruel world (life’s hard). Fans fall over themselves to defend their secular master, Maher the martyr, against these cruelties.
In little time, however, I came to see that many of Maher’s critiques, lacking in substance, make up for their evidential deficiencies by appealing to thinly-disguised racist, sexist, and classist stereotypes. In place of attacking ideas, Maher tends to attack character. In the following work, part three of the “Bill Maher, Worse than Glenn Beck” tetralogy, I will investigate how these character attacks, taken together with Maher’s “politically incorrect” (read: oppressive) comedy, reinforce the very racist and sexist stereotypes he claims to oppose, and demonstrate that everyone’s favorite liberal comic in fact reeks of privilege, white supremacy, and misogyny.
In the first part of this article, I wrote about how Maher’s anti-Islam bigotry leads to his unflinching support for brutal U.S. intervention in the Middle East (“My favorite new government program is surprising violent religious zealots in the middle of the night and shooting them in the face” Maher exclaims enthusiastically). I noted his relentless partisanism and dogmatic support for Obama and the Democratic Party, a small handful of exceptions notwithstanding. I first hinted at Maher’s racism in his racialized conception of Islam. In many ways, Maher sees himself carrying the new “White Man’s Burden,” censuring the Arab and Muslim world for its “backward” ways, while failing to recognize the role the imperialist West has played in consistently destroying democracy and propping-up dictatorships in the region.
In this column’s second installment, I wrote further of what I called Maher’s “anti-religious fundamentalism,” and how it informs a most, er, uninformed global perspective. I devoted much time to what I find to be the principal example of this perspective: Maher’s diehard support for Israel.
In this final episode of this series, I will consider Maher’s classism, ableism, and attacks on those with mental illnesses in the name of “comedy.” I will conclude returning to a reflection on the danger of Maher as a figure, culturally understood to be on the “left,” who siphons much of the actual leftist energy in this country into doctrinaire, reformist support for the center-right (Democratic) party line.
Up there with Fox News, as common butts of Maher’s “jokes,” aside from Muslims, aside from Arabs, aside from the religious, aside from—as we will see in the final part of this article—the economically disadvantaged, the mentally ill and more, are both people of color and women. There is no shortage of examples.
Let’s jump right in. In one of the more well-known instances, Maher warned his viewership before the 2012 presidential elections, if you’re thinking about voting for Romney, you better watch out. “Black people know who you are and will come after you.” What a knee-slapper, Bill. Good one! In another, when Obama (predictably) refused to fight for any serious punishment for B.P.’s 2010 gulf oil spill, instead of criticizing him as, you know, a person, Maher criticized him as a black man. “I thought when we elected a black president, we were going to get a black president,” Maher lamented. “You know, this [oil spill] is where I want a real black president. I want him in a meeting with the B.P. CEOs, you know, where he lifts up his shirt where you can see the gun in his pants. That’s—‘We’ve got a motherf-cking problem here? Shoot somebody in the foot.’” HOW FUNNY. He’s not racist, Maher assures us. He loves Obama! He voted for Obama! He donated one million dollars to Obama’s campaign!
This white man’s racial litmus test is not limited to Obama. Maher infamously applied it to Wayne Brady, putting both men in the non-“real black” group. Brady publicly rebuked Maher and, criticisms of his response aside (Racialicious noted its transphobic and gendered elements, criticizing it for “engaging in dude-bro rhetoric”), warns us about the consequences of Maher’s racism. “When Bill Maher says something like that [i.e., a racist statement], he has a segment of America’s ear. So when he says that, it’s okay for somebody at home to go ‘That’s right, [this stereotype must be true].’” One should note that Brady’s comment applies equally well to Maher’s misogyny and other forms of oppression. Maher has a segment of America’s ear, that is to say, a good chunk of the country’s Democrats. When he makes his trademark ignorant imperialist and “comical” racist and misogynist comments, he consequently perpetuates the existence of the very prejudices on which they are based.
To Maher, black men are simply stereotypes to be used as joke material. Back in February, in regard to Herman Cain working for Fox News, Maher 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.” Boyce Watkins recalls “Maher once made a joke to Dr. Cornel West about Dr. West ‘making booty calls,’” writing “I cringed while watching West, a devout Christian and Professor of Theology, uncomfortably wiggle his way out of the joke without becoming offended. Only a misguided individual would assume that Dr. West understands or engages in regular ‘booty calls’ just because he happens to be a black man. Maher would never have targeted such a joke at Joe Biden.”
Watkins likens Maher to “the guy who hangs out with Italians and thinks that every cool Italian is a member of the mafia.” In another article, he notes Maher’s defense of Paula Deen when it was discovered that she had continuously used the n-word. If rappers use it, why can’t she, Maher asks? After joking about Chris Brown “beating the sh-t” out of Deen, he laments that “all black people” are one of the only “approved groups who get a pass on the n-word.” This is the extent of Maher’s understanding. The difference between a member of an oppressed group and a member of an oppressor group using an oppressive term is completely beyond Maher, as is linguistic appropriation and redefinition as a form of empowerment in a racist society.
Racism, still deeply ingrained in US culture, is even more deeply ingrained in the English language. Language is far from neutral. Yet, for Maher, words are just sounds. They have no histories of oppression. Maher’s conception of freedom of speech is not only a freedom to say what he wants, but a freedom from the negative consequences of what he says. His conception of freedom of speech is all or nothing. If someone condemns his, or others’, use of a racial, misogynist, or another kind of oppressive slur, it’s an “attack on free speech”; it can’t possibly be an attack on bigotry, on oppression.
“The new racism is denying racism,” Maher correctly observes. He, nevertheless, fails to see the ways in which he is a “new racist.” Per always, he turns instead to the Republicans, detailing their worse crimes—in this case their ludicrous notion that reverse “racism” (a myth if there ever was one) is somehow worse than actual racism. Next to the proto-fascists on Fox “News,” every liberal does in fact seem positively leftist, anti-racist, and feminist. Significantly, Maher, like a good white liberal, does not deny that reverse racism exists, but merely that it’s not worse than actual racism; in a rhetorical sleight of hand (tongue?), he shifts the blame, avoiding the difficult issues.
In order to prove they are not racist, white liberals resort to a number of strategies. Perhaps most prominent among these is the ubiquitous “I have black friends!” defense. Some take it further: “My girlfriend” or even “My wife is black. How could I possibly be racist?!” In the “Racism 101” section of the excellent blog Resist Racism, bullet point nine states “A claim to anti-racism cannot be made based on any variation of the ‘black friend defense’ (Mexican boyfriend, Asian wife, children of color, etc.)” (See: Michael Rapaport’s character in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled). The subject of Maher’s past black amorous partners, a subject his defenders never fail to bring up in an attempt to work around allegations of racism, is quite telling in these regards. Maher has a reputation in pop culture for dating black women. And it is here, in fact, where we can see some of the most candid cases of racism.
In 2004, Maher faced a palimony suit from ex-partner Coco Johnsen. Johnsen accused Maher of “subject[ing] her to physical and verbal abuse, including ‘insulting, humiliating and degrading racial comments.’” Maher publicly denied the allegations, “describing her as a would-be extortionist who launched a campaign to embarrass and humiliate [him],” claiming she did the same thing to a previous partner. The case was eventually thrown out, given a lack of evidence. I am not interested in speculation, finding it superfluous here, given the extensiveness of evidence on Maher’s racism. I will leave the reader to come to their own conclusions.
Joe Hagan published a long piece on Maher last year in New York magazine, in which he cites an interview with Maher’s subsequent partner, Karrine Steffans: “Bill wants someone he can put down in an argument, tell you how ghetto you are, how big your butt is, and that you’re an idiot. That’s why you never see him with a white girl or an intellectual.”
Even the racialized jokes Maher makes on his television pulpit aside, Maher’s personal life clearly does not reflect well on his supposedly “progressive” inclinations. Hagan begins the aforementioned article describing Maher’s “Indian-art-themed bachelor pad [with] stone panels of the Kama Sutra over the mantel.” “You know how the Indians are,” he tells Hagan, presumably because, in his mind, they’re all the same. White man picking and choosing elements of another culture, with no relation to said culture; using them to decorate his house—classic cultural appropriation. Definitely not racist though, I mean, c’mon, he voted for Obama.
Poet Staceyann Chin eloquently explains how “all oppression is connected.” In a testament to the intersectionality of oppression, while writing of Maher’s interpersonal relationships, Hagan notes, “Maher has never quite shaken the reputation he’s a misogynist. Even right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, a friend, told him on his show that the proof was in ‘every single thing you say about women.’ ‘I’ll take the rap for some of that reputation I have,’ he says now. ‘Some of it was just me being insensitive or trying to get a laugh.’” Insensitive? He says “insensitive,” we say “misogyny”; insensitive, misogyny, insensitive, misogyny. “I’m a pottymouth, not a misogynist,” Maher contends. Yet all the evidence attests to the contrary.
When Maher is ideologically opposed to a person, and that person is a woman, Maher never fails to bring it up. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he consistently referred to Palin as a “c-nt,” claiming “there’s just no other word for her.” Critiquing Palin’s absurd ideas was not enough for Bill. He also had to call her a “dumb tw-t.” Making gendered attacks on Palin is not an isolated phenomenon. Maher throws Bachmann in as well, calling both “b-mbos.” In the ensuing cyclone of controversy, when asked if he regretted the gendered attacks, he brazenly refused to apologize.
The National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) publicly denounced Maher for the insults. Fox News, The Daily Caller, and numerous right-wing “news” sources (understandably) jumped all over it. Just another prime example of how Maher damages the left. Lisa Bennett, Communications Director for N.O.W., called out Maher, along with the rest of the misogynist “progressives” out there: “Listen, supposedly progressive men (ok, and women, too): Cut the crap! Stop degrading women with whom you disagree and/or don’t like by using female body terms or other gender-associated slurs. OK? Can you do that, please? If you think someone’s an idiot or a danger to the country, feel free to say so, but try to keep their sex out of it. Sexist insults have an impact on all women.”
In the Daily Kos, Kaili Joy Gray beautifully articulated why, although Palin is “hyper-partisan, painfully ignorant, pathologically dishonest, chronically unethical, intellectually unconscious, and jaw-droppingly stupid,” “we must defend her.” Sexism manifests itself in all aspects of a patriarchal society. In the criticism of female conservatives, he can see it rears its ugly head even in the left. Upon Thatcher’s death this year, a wave of critiques came from the left, some not criticizing Thatcherism and the absolute horrors it brought to the British people, but attacking Thatcher as a woman, calling her “witch” and “b-tch.”
Maher, a fan of calling women he disagrees with “witches,” still denies any allegations of sexism. “It’s not because they have breasts; it’s because they are boobs,” he insists. His audience wails, men hooting; the three male guests clap. Unnoticed is the fact that Maher’s only female guest isn’t clapping. But, hey, it’s not because Maher is a misogynist; it’s obviously just because she can’t take a joke. “Now I’m not saying that sexist doesn’t exist and isn’t real,” he lectures us—in an argument parallel to that of racism above—“but we can’t throw around the word ‘sexist’ just to stop people like me from” criticizing Michelle Bachmann.
In Maher’s mind, those critiquing him for misogyny fall into one of two categories. They are either one, conservatives trying to silence his criticism, or two, feminists simply “looking for something to be mad about.” Melissa McEwan, at the blog Shakesville, who has been keeping track of Mahler’s unmitigated misogyny through the years, notes “Maher routinely mistakes for ‘offended’ what is actually contempt.” His use of oppressive language oppresses people, not “offends” them. When he continuously refers to Palin as a “hockey mom,” as if that’s the determining factor of her entire being (Why didn’t he ever refer to Romney as a “soccer dad”?); when he declares “Ann Romney has never gotten her -ss out of the house to work,” (He’s careful to add, right after, “No one is denying that being a mother is a tough job,” yet he still has no problem criticizing her “just” being a “housewife”); when he sits by, in silent approval, as his guest Mark Maron makes what essentially amounts to a rape joke (for those who contest the “rape joke” classification, remember, 10-14% of married women have been sexually assaulted by their husbands), Maher is participating in the very sexism whose existence he acknowledges.
Although the preponderance of the examples of Maher’s misogyny are gendered attacks on conservatives, what are particularly illustrative are those of women (whom he constantly refers to as “chicks”) with whom he agrees. “You make a poor choice of words, and you have to go away,” Maher laments, right before making a joke about “Hilary Clinton’s c-nt.” In one of his “New Rules,” back in 2008, Maher cracked his own rape joke, claiming “there is a clear path to the nomination for Hillary. She just needs to raise a lot of money; she needs to woo a key group of super delegates and she needs Reverend Jeremiah Wright to rape a white woman.”
Liberals have a problem in this country, a serious, serious problem… Well, liberals have a lot of problems, but high on this list, generally speaking, is an overwhelming failure to recognize that structural systems of oppression still exist. To Maher, for whom racism and sexism are “almost dead,” their only remaining traces can be found on the right. “If you are racist, you are probably a Republican” he declares. How could Democrats possibly be racist?! C’mon, I mean the Democratic President is black! To hold that racism and sexism are still alive and well on the U.S. “left” is a crime of the highest order in his eyes. Yes, Republicans are incredible fools in their insistence that we live in a “post-racial” society, yet most white Democrats are hardly any wiser in their insistence that we are close to living in a “post-racial society.” Calling Maher racist and sexist is a surefire way to anger these Democrats (the last two columns’ torrents of hate mail should attest to this).
One of the reasons many liberals are so taken aback at these seemingly extreme allegations is a shallow, myopic understanding of racism and sexism. A pithy, stingingly accurate quote made its way around the anti-racist Tumblr circuit a few months ago: “Things white people consider to be racism: 1. direct, open involvement with the KKK 2. poc [people of color] saying something about white people 3. literally nothing else.”
Maher is the kind of person who thinks prefacing a racist statement with “I’m not racist, but” automatically excuses you from being racist. Sorry, that’s not how things work: Yes, You’re Racist. Racism, and sexism, run deep; they are systemic and structural. If you truly want to end them, you must change the system and the structure in which they are cultivated. Simply saying, “Oh, I’m not racist/sexist” does not mean you’re magically not racist/sexist. In a racist and patriarchal society, you either actively resist racism and patriarchy as an anti-racist and feminist activist, or you passively reinforce their existence. “You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” Zinn reminded us.
Liberals’ reluctance to recognize Maher’s bigotry is symptomatic of a widespread unwillingness of most white and/or male liberals to admit to their own racism and sexism. “Maher can’t be racist/sexist, the idea goes, because I agree with everything that Maher says. If Maher’s racist/sexist, that means I am too. And I’m definitely not racist/sexist—my best friend is black/female/whatever!”
Maher is always the first to call Republicans out on their overt racism and misogyny—and he never fails to do it histrionically at that. In the same day, in the same breath, however, he has no problem making racist, gendered jokes. Maher’s “non-racism” is of a superficial, liberal variety, the kind with which one raucously deprecates others for their racism without checking one’s own.
This is what makes Bill Maher so dangerous. Maher is one of the most well-known figure on the U.S. “left.” Yet this is a man who is so confident that he is immune from prejudice that he writes to the world, asking people to please stop apologizing for offending others. As I wrote in the first part of this column, “unlike Beck’s, Maher’s bigotry is cozily nested within a liberal framework, a framework whose adherents have genuinely fought against particular forms (but, significantly, not all forms) of oppression and injustice. The bigotry thus is not seen as such by the preponderance of liberals watching it; it becomes the accepted way things are. ‘Democrats can’t be bigots! Republicans are the ones who are bigots!’ the binary logic goes. The liberal’s, Maher’s concomitant bigotry becomes normalized not as concomitant bigotry but as concomitant fact. Maher’s bigotry and Maher’s message come to be inextricable; one cannot exist without the other. McLuhan rolls in his grave; we have ignored his premonition: when bigotry is the medium, bigotry is the message.”
Other factors are certainly at work here; I do not deny that. Structural forms of oppression, like society itself, are by no means monolithic. From one perspective, Maher thrives on controversy, and making racist and sexist jokes is a reliable way of generating controversy (and ensuring high television ratings). From another, “Bill Maher is a satirist!” many (mainly white male) apologists argue. The idea is that, by engaging in racist and sexist stereotypes, Maher is trying to subvert them. Perhaps, for some individuals, this is a possibility. In the case of satirists from less privileged groups, it is particularly effective (the example of Richard Pryor’s comedy comes to mind). It is a much more complex issue when it is a member of an oppressor group engaging in the stereotypes. The line is thin, and it should be remembered that not everything a satirist says is satirical. It is much too easy for privileged satirists to get away with whatever they would like, disguising any bigotry as satirical material. I suggest we push back, and a turn a critical eye to Maher and his cultural empire. The burden of proof is on the privileged, and the only proof Maher has presented has been in the opposite direction.
The truth is the bulk of Maher’s controversy is bereft of any significant cultural critique. His controversy tends to be controversy purely for the sake of controversy. Maher’s official YouTube channel describes him as “irrepressible, opinionated, and of course, politically incorrect.” He embraces such a portrayal. Bill’s, like many white males’, unwavering distaste for so-called “political correctness” is merely an expression of his unwavering distaste for people criticizing his bigotry. Just as the “new racism” is denying racism, “politically incorrect” is often the new euphemism for “bigoted asshole, proud of his privilege (and not apologizing for it).”
Maher thrives off of his ability to say whatever he wants, to insult any and all parties—regardless of power dynamics, regardless of gradients of privilege, regardless of histories of oppression—and face no repercussions. He, the powerful, “opinionated” white male millionaire is “irrepressible.” Muslims, people of color, women, the less economically privileged, they are all the ones that are oppressed. Not Maher, and he knows it. He isirrepressible. He stands proudly at the top of the pyramid, and he not only laughs at all “below” him, he makes fun of them, of all of those keeping the very system that is responsible for his privilege going.
As we reflect on these critiques, we must remember that, when we laugh at Maher’s (or any other’s) oppressive jokes, we are preserving the very systems of oppression upon which they are constructed. That people find racist and sexist jokes funny is not only a comment on the comedian telling them; it is a comment on the people laughing. Racist and sexist jokes offer a rare clear glimpse into the mechanics of oppression, into the cultural moving parts behind and the systemic, structural nature of white supremacy and patriarchy.
On Real Time with Bill Maher, on countless other television shows, non-fiction and fiction alike, the audience is given cues when to laugh. It is in ways like this that systems of power self-propagate. The laughing track is no neutral tool. It has a particular purpose; it is one of the new arbiters of the status quo. It does not, at first glance, seem as dangerous as the gun—at this point history’s most successful arbiter—yet it is equally iniquitous. Someone chooses when to flip that switch.
What we consider “funny,” just like what we consider “beautiful,” “delicious,” and most other things, is largely culturally conditioned. When we hear oppressive jokes and laughter is genuinely induced, from within us, instead of laughing at others, we should be laughing at ourselves.
Ben Norton is an artist and activist. His website can be found at http://bennorton.com/.