Your mileage may vary, of course, and I know he has had his moments over the years. He got fired for being a lone voice against the irritating pap that passed for analysis in the wake of 9/11, a casualty of political correctness during the exact sort of time when political correctness is most prevalent, and the alternative is most needed. (And the irony is that his show was called, “Politically Incorrect”, though obviously ABC didn’t actually want him to follow up on the concept of his show.)

But…Maher really, really bugs me. I have a few longstanding gripes with the guy. I suppose I should say that I am a Christian, but I’m not offended by the existence of atheists, just as I’m not offended by the existence of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. I know the “atheism is a religion too” argument causes many to bristle, but let me assure you that that’s not my point. The only people who are angry that reasonable people disagree with them are weak people who don’t trust their own system of beliefs and are too freaked out to change it. This is not a new debate. But Maher…he rejects religion as just a set of fairy tales, though he prefers a slightly different set fairy tales. Really, what Maher conveys is ignorance, a smug dismissal of stuff he considers bad, and an embrace of stuff he considers good, whether he gets it or not. He doesn’t bother to understand what’s in either category. Embracing anti-vaccination claptrap is the opposite of the scientific mindset. And regardless of whether you think it’s true or not, religion has long been an important part of human societies. To merely dismiss it all without a thought is to close off an entire avenue to understanding human nature. To want to understand, to know, is a foundational liberal value. It’s the opposite of dogma. Maher’s stance is not the sign of a liberal-minded person with a curiosity about the world, is all I’m saying.

But this isn’t a new story. I guess what brings me to write this is that Maher’s not really much of a progressive. He’s perhaps of the left, but that’s not the same thing. I’m writing this because I was bothered by the man using language that degrades women. Now, to be fair, the women in question are appalling in pretty much every way. I can see the temptation to be controversial in a position like Maher’s. But this reminds me of when conservatives rushed to say that Constitutional rights didn’t apply to anyone who wasn’t an American. Either they’re the things we believe in, or they’re not. I don’t believe in special rights for one group over another (though occasionally fairness and equality aren’t exactly the same thing, which is why I support programs to help the poor). Human rights must be universal rights, and this is especially true of the people we can’t stand. The urge to dehumanize the people we dislike the most is so strong and so constant throughout the course of human history. You can see it in the conservative reaction to Barack Obama–there seems to be a need to reduce the man to some sort of one-dimensional caricature that can be easily vilified and dismissed. Foreign-born jihadist, Kenyan anti-colonialist, college Marxist, closeted Alinskyist–they don’t make sense on their own or go together, but there is such desperation to reduce the man to a stereotype of some sort. I can certainly understand the urge to do it to Palin too, but it must be resisted. Her team’s protestations aside, I feel as if Palin has been rejected based largely on her actual flaws instead of by invoking stereotypes, and this is a good thing. To reduce a person to a few superficial (or just invented) components and then to condemn them is the opposite of liberalism–it’s the source of much that is bad in the world. Reading stuff like this just reminds me that I need to be careful when criticizing Palin and the rest of her ilk, lest I fall into a similar trap.

To me, Maher is just as bad as the people he targets, just from the other side. He might be “of the left” but his worldview is devoid of actual liberal values. This is eminently possible–really, just look at any communist country for proof. To the extent that Maher extols something like science, it is an assertion and not a lived value. To the extent he abhors sexism, it is because the “bad guys” do it, not because he finds it personally disgusting. Words, as they say, are cheap, it’s what you do that matters most. So I say no thank you to Bill Maher. If I wanted kulturkampf of the ill-informed variety I would have registered as a Republican in the first place.

And this is because such ugliness requires a little beauty to offset:


Lev filed this under: , ,  
  1. Kevin Ortiz says:

    Oh please, this is all about him being anti-religion. Pure and simple. Your attacks on his “liberal” credentials is silly, Ive never heard him call himself a liberal (he may have at some point, but thats not what he shoots for). So he wouldn’t care if you say hes not a liberal.

    What do you mean by him dismissing religion? Do you mean he didn’t bother to learn about it first? Then you must of not seen his documentary, he knows a lot more about Abrahamic religions than most priests.

    “To merely dismiss it all without a thought is to close off an entire avenue to understanding human nature”

    So let me get this straight, one can’t be a progressive unless we accept religion? I reject religion and hope to get rid of it completely (in my Utopian dreams). So I must not be a progressive because thats just mean, right?

    When has Maher ever pretended that religion is not a huge part of human history? THAT is his whole issue, that why he dislikes religion so much. If he didn’t think it was so significant then he wouldn’t bother talking about it.
    I also reject the notion that being anti religion means you just dismiss it or be ignorant about it. I have spent hours conversing with religious people and trying to understand them and how they think. Its a false choice to say that being anti religion means “dismiss it all without a thought”

    Your only argument in this whole piece is Mahers position vaccines, in this you are completely right, I don’t know what the hell he was thinking or if he changed is position since then, but this ONE particular sign of weirdness is not enough to dismiss him. Not for me anyway.

    Im writing this kinda rushed and half assed so sorry about my grammar.

    • Lev says:

      Hi Kevin,

      I didn’t think that anyone seriously believed Maher wasn’t a political liberal--in all the political commentary he does he takes the liberal end of the issue, including his irritating, “Obama just needs to get in their faces and then everything will be good” sermonizing. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t the case, but whatever. He can be what he wants to be.

      As for my gripes with him, don’t misunderstand me. Of course you can be without religion and be progressive. I’m not using liberal in a domestic politics sense, more in the broader sense of the world, as in “liberal democracy” which does not mean a democracy led by the ideas of the Democratic Party, or the Labour Party, or any party. It means, broadly, an emphasis in tolerance, education, individual liberty, and respect for other people. I realize these are different uses of the word, I apologize for the confusion, it’s an irritating scholastic distinction I know. Maher might well be “progressive” but he’s hardly a bastion of any of those classically liberal values. This guy made a movie (Religulous) where he basically picked out one crazy wacko after another and paraded them in front of his camera and in a mean-spirited way mocked what they believed, with constant mugging at the camera, as if to say, “Can you believe these nuts?” In what sense is this helpful to anyone, other than people who merely want some proof for why “Jesusland” is full of idiots? That doesn’t help anyone, it’s just divisive. I much rather prefer the approach of a Chris Hitchens, who actually does try to play major-league ball with people of substance. But Hitchens is a public intellectual who actually wants to convince people of what he believes in. Maher is a comedian and entertainer.

      Here’s why it bothers me: no, I don’t expect every person who doesn’t believe in religion to be an expert in it. But I do think that at the very least, one should know the basics of an argument so that they can understand their own choices better. That’s all. That’s why I’ve read about Judaism and Islam, and it’s why I’ve read plenty of Hitchens too. A lot of people don’t have time to read, say, the Bhagavad Gita, or 700 pages of Reinhold Niebuhr. I understand that. That’s why pundits play a very important role in our society. So, if you’re a pundit making comments about religion, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect a greater amount of fluency on the topic than most. Hitchens, admittedly, has a lot of knowledge here. Maher, though, usually has a few shallow points to make at best. Admittedly, I’ve mostly seen him in interviews and in his movie, I don’t watch him all the time, so maybe I’m missing it, but knowing his stuff on religion relative to a bunch of handpicked kooks isn’t that impressive.

      Kevin, I’m sure you’re a thoughtful person, and I appreciate your passion. And I admit that I don’t watch Maher very often because I think he’s a mean-spirited crank who’s pretty ignorant about any number of things, though he has his moments. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know. But don’t generalize one specific example here outward--I do not believe in stereotypes, I just don’t like being misrepresented any more than you do. But regardless, even if he can stump some knowledgeable people, the notion that “religion poisons everything” simply isn’t true. It’s been a force for good and bad, sometimes at the same time (the civil rights struggle, for example). Both religious and nonreligious societies (Soviet Russia and China, for example) still fight wars and do horrible things to each other. I think the “religion poisons everything” debate is interesting because it’s almost utopian, that if we can just change that we can really move ourselves along. Maybe so (I doubt it), but I think the corruption of human nature runs a lot deeper than that. Agree or not, but this is all more complicated than a yes/no question. You can say that getting rid of religion is worth doing in spite of that, but once again, this is much more nuance than anything I’ve ever heard of Maher. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me not to be to thrilled about it, just like I’m sure you’re not thrilled with what, say, Pat Robertson would say about what you believe.

      Anyway, that’s all I have. Okay, now let the deluge of angry responses begin!

      • Kevin Ortiz says:

        “It means, broadly, an emphasis in tolerance, education, individual liberty, and respect for other people.”

        When Tavis Smiley was on on RealTime a few weeks ago and the issue of Egypt’s treatment of women was being discussed, Smiley was essentially excusing them by saying we’re not so good at that ourselves, Maher properly called him out and said “When you tolerate intolerance, you’re not really being a liberal” I don’t tolerate intolerance, promoted by Abrahamic religions. It was almost hurtful to my eyes how stupid Smiley looked, trying to make religious fundamentalists look not so bad, for the sake of being nice and tolerant.

        “in a mean-spirited way mocked what they believed”
        You answered this yourself a few sentences later: “Maher is a comedian and entertainer.”

        “but knowing his stuff on religion relative to a bunch of handpicked kooks isn’t that impressive.”

        One doesn’t have to handpick any kooks, just read the texts they claim to be holy, and point is made.

        “the notion that “religion poisons everything” simply isn’t true. It’s been a force for good and bad, sometimes at the same time (the civil rights struggle, for example)”

        Yes. The black churches that, back then, fought for civil rights for blacks, is now getting in the way of civil rights for gays. Speaking for myself, when I say religion poisons everything, I mean the time to get rid of religion is now, we don’t need it anymore.

        “Okay, now let the deluge of angry responses begin!”
        What? No, no anger! :P

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