A comedian on the news page? Well, yeah, if the comedian is political satirist Bill Maher.
For nine years Maher spent each weeknight overseeing one of the more insightful shows found on the tube, bringing a mixture of thinkers and celebrities (and even thoughtful celebrities) from across the political spectrum to debate events on his show “Politically Incorrect.”
Then terrorists attacked the United States, and a few days later he made an observation that proved to be the height of political incorrectness. Maher said that those men who hijacked four jetliners and sacrificed their lives to plow them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, in his opinion, brave. Not right, mind you. Not justified. But, simply, brave. And the people who hurl Cruise missiles at their enemies from thousands of miles away — namely us, as in U.S. — were cowards.
The reaction was fast and furious. Advertisers fled. Maher took a load of flak. And by June, the show was history.
Maher didn’t cry in his beer. He threw himself into a new book, When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden, which is due out in November. And he’s still got stand-up to fall back on, with an area appearance scheduled Friday.
Getting booted from the airwaves has been “kind of a mixed blessing,” says Maher, talking to the Metro Times from his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. On the one hand, after nearly a decade of hosting his nightly show, “I’ve really been enjoying not having to go a job every day.”
Then again, when he picks up the daily paper, “I’d love to weigh in on all this going on right now.”
“All this” in particular being the likely war with Iraq.
True to form, Maher starts the interview with a joke.
“For years, Hussein has not admitted two things. One is U.N. inspectors and two is that his mustache makes him look gay. It makes me wonder what else he’s hiding.”
A self-professed libertarian, Maher says that “going to war with a sadistic asshole like Hussein” doesn’t much bother him. “But this particular operation,” he adds, “smells a little trumped-up, a little suddenly urgent. In attacking him now, what I mostly worry about is, are we going to cause more catastrophes than not for ourselves? If the U.S. was to go to war in Iraq, is that going to make the rest of the billion Muslims in the world hate us even more?”
Not all terrorists are the product of Islamic fundamentalism, of course. A prime example is our own homegrown Timothy McVeigh, who used a truckload of fertilizer to level the federal building in Oklahoma City. But the potential recruiting pool for future McVeighs — that is, anti-government militia types — is minuscule compared to the one Osama bin Laden and his ilk are trolling through.
“There’s no doubt Iraq is a huge canker on the body of the world,” says Maher. “But is going to war worth it? What good is having this huge operation if the operation itself kills you?”
For the most part, though, questions such as this are largely absent from the mainstream media. Take the war in Afghanistan, which, judging from most of the media, isn’t even occurring. But the real blame for that, he argues, lies with the American public.
“The press, very much like politicians, respond to pressure from the public,” he observes. “And what the American public cares about is who’s winning ‘American Idol,’ not about what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s as if, after Sept. 11, a lot of minds just froze. And it was like, ‘OK, Bush is a genius now. We don’t have to worry about that anymore. We don’t need to ask questions anymore. Just let them go ahead a do their thing, blowing the shit out of people. Go for it, and we’ll get back to watching “Survivor.”’”
What’s plaguing America, says Maher, is “mass complacency.”
“We talk a good game about how America was transformed by Sept. 11, but at the end of the day what did we really do? We put flags on our cars.”
As for the political theatrics being played out around the issue of invading Iraq, Maher doesn’t see much spine being demonstrated on the part of Democrats.
“It took the president to personally insult [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Daschle, saying Democrats don’t care about the security of the American people, before he would fire back.”
“Especially during a time of war, you need what the British used to call the ‘loyal opposition,’” says Maher. “But the Bush administration has done a wonderful job of blurring the line between being part of the loyal opposition and being a traitor.”
Maher personally felt that sting last year when he had the temerity to suggest that someone willing to sacrifice his life for a cause could be brave.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded by denouncing Maher, saying, “Americans should watch what they say.”
“Americans don’t need to watch what we say,” Maher counters.
Or, we shouldn’t have to. But, as Maher proved, giving word to unpopular thought in the land of the free can certainly have repercussions.
“Tell me about it,” says Maher. “I’m an example that there are repercussions. But it’s not so awful to lose your job. It’s better to lose your job than to lose your soul.”
Bill Maher will appear Friday, Oct. 4, at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, 44575 Garfield Road, Clinton Township. For information, phone 586-286-2222.Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]