Maher Wants Controversy Without Controversy

Bill Maher wrote an editorial for the New York Times requesting one day a year when people can evidently say controversial things without accountability.

The answer to whenever another human being annoys you is not “make them go away forever.” We need to learn to coexist, and it’s actually pretty easy to do. For example, I find Rush Limbaugh obnoxious, but I’ve been able to coexist comfortably with him for 20 years by using this simple method: I never listen to his program. The only time I hear him is when I’m at a stoplight next to a pickup truck.

When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham.

I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone.

Where to begin?

First, I never pegged Maher as a pussy but this is really, really weak. It sounds like he wants the latitude to say controversial things without having to face the consequences — the controversy. Yeah, Bill, I want to drink unlimited amounts of alcohol without eventually dying from sclerosis and disease. But, sorry, there are consequences to free speech. We can mostly say anything, but if we step on toes, you can rest assured the toes will shout back.

As for the lame ham pudding metaphor, the more appropriate metaphor in the case of Limbaugh, who is providing PR cover for heinous and misogynistic Republican laws, would be to say the ham pudding is poisonous and people are going to get hurt unless we stop the ham lady from passing out tainted ham. It’s not that the ham simply tastes bad. It’s harmful. Limbaugh’s words are egging on Republican anti-choice, anti-contraception laws. That’s not just obnoxious — it’s harmful to women. It’s endlessly frustrating that a smart guy like Maher doesn’t see this distinction. (And I repeat: I really like Maher, which is one of several reasons why this pisses me off so much.)

Further, smart people know where to draw the line and how far to carry backlash. Backlash against Limbaugh is proportional to 20 years of racist and misogynistic remarks in a political forum. Janet Jackson’s nipple? Way, way, waaaay overblown backlash. Either way, if you deliberately engage in controversy, a free society is allowed, and in some cases obligated, to respond. There are no free rides. Likewise, if Maher wants to challenge me because I called him a pussy here, fine. I’ll be happy to debate his points.

Limbaugh isn’t going anywhere. He will never be fired. We can only hope his influence will be marginalized. Ignoring him won’t make that happen. Maher hasn’t ignored things he finds offensive about religion or the religious right. Instead he invested his time and effort into creating an entire film about it. He hasn’t ignored things he finds offensive about the treatment of animals. Instead he served on the PETA board — one of the most radical boycott-driven groups in the world. And his entire career on television has been about speaking out against wrongheaded policies and people.

So, Bill, if you want an America without backlash against dangerous or stupid people… you first.

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  • http://twitter.com/SugaRazor Razor

    Incredibly well said… and I would like to make PETA go away forever.

  • GrafZeppelin127

    Bob, I love your stuff, and I love Bill’s stuff, so I’m not taking sides here. I didn’t take away from the op-ed what you did; I think what was of greater concern to Bill was the epidemic of demanding apologies, particularly of demanding that person [X] apologize for something that person [Y] said or did, just because [Y] is vaguely associated with the same political cohort as [X], even more particularly where the person demanding the apology was not the target of whatever [Y] did or said.

    Maybe another way of putting it is, the epidemic of [A] demanding that [B] apologize for what [C] said about [D]. And not even that [B] apologize to anyone, let alone apologize to [D], or that [C] apologize to [D].

    To wit:

    THIS week, Robert De Niro made a joke about first ladies, and Newt Gingrich said it was “inexcusable and the president should apologize for him.” … The first lady’s press secretary declared the joke “inappropriate,” and Mr. De Niro said his remarks were “not meant to offend.” So, as these things go, even if the terrible damage can never be undone, at least the healing can begin. And we can move on to the next time we choose sides and pretend to be outraged about nothing.

    This week, President Obama’s chief political strategist, David Axelrod, described Mitt Romney’s constant advertising barrage in Illinois as a “Mittzkrieg,” and instantly the Republican Jewish Coalition was outraged and … demanded not only that Mr. Axelrod apologize immediately but also that Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz “publicly rebuke” him. For a pun! For punning against humanity!

    Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

    For years we’ve been hearing demands that this or that politician “apologize” for something that some completely unrelated person did or said, and then even more fake outrage is ginned up because the politician “refuses” to apologize for the unrelated person, which of course “proves” that the politician “agrees with” or “is just as [insert negative characterization here]” as the unrelated person. It’s infuriating.

    I think what Bill is also talking about, including the Costco ham metaphor, is a trenchant point, which is that people tend to drastically overreact to the words and behaviors of others that really amount to very minor affronts. (It’s the principle behind road rage.) There’s no need to turn the hate meter up to 11 and declare a jihad against everyone who cuts you off or who asks the cashier a couple of questions while you’re waiting in line at the CVS.

    That was my take.

    • http://www.twitter.com/bobcesca_go Bob Cesca

      So people are demanding apologies. Who cares? How about this: we take Maher’s ham pudding advice and ignore the demands for apologies that arise from trivial trespasses? Just because an apology is demanded doesn’t mean the offending party has to apologize. Eventually the outrage dissipates — unless it’s really serious.

      • GrafZeppelin127

        How about this: we take Maher’s ham pudding advice and ignore the demands for apologies that arise from trivial trespasses?

        Oh, I agree, but is the issue the demand itself, or is it the sentiment that gives rise to the demand that we should be concerned about? Or is it the psychological effect that hearing the demand is intended to produce in the listener? Of course the demandee doesn’t have to apologize, and of course we’re all free to ignore the rhetorical excesses of politicians (and non-politicians as well) and all manner of phony ginned-up outrages, and what this or that figure’s “refusal to apologize” is supposed to “prove.” Those making the demands are not really talking to the person they’re demanding apologize. They’re talking to their own cohort in an effort to validate their feelings about that person, and create an association in their minds between that person and the offender, and by extension the offense.

        Maybe what Bill is complaining about is not just fake outrage but the psychological games people, especially politicians, play that are built around fake outrage and ridiculous demands that [X] apologize for what [Y] said about [Z]. I thought the crux of his argument was the idea of “pretend[ing we] can barely continue functioning until they apologize;” maybe the idea is that if you keep playing mind games like that, you condition the mind to keep playing the game; the pretense becomes self-fulfilling, the game becomes real.

    • jewelbomb

      “For years we’ve been hearing demands that this or that politician
      ‘apologize’ for something that some completely unrelated person did or said”

      While I get the basic thrust of your point, it really doesn’t apply in the case of Limbaugh (who is the implicit subject of Maher’s op-ed). For one, Limbaugh is not “unrelated” to the modern Republican party. He has, in fact, been their de facto mouthpiece for over two decades. He was made an honorary member of the House Republican Caucus in 1994, received personal accolades from President Reagan, and has featured Party higher-ups like V.P. Cheney on his show regularly.

      Further, this isn’t about “something” that Limbaugh said. It’s about a sustained three-day-long personal attack comprised of outright lies and misinformation. It’s about smearing a political opponent repeatedly in the most vile terms possible because she dares to voice a different opinion in a civil, dignified manner. This isn’t a simple slip of the tongue or an uncouth comment or two. This is the guy’s worldview. This is what his constituency wants and expects from him.

      Otherwise, and I may be wrong here, I haven’t really heard anyone asking Republicans to apologize for him. I have heard people ask prominent Republicans to comment on whether or not they agree with or approved of what he said and did. How is it out of bounds to ask those who have aligned themselves with, and benefited from, his prominent position whether or not they agree with his disgusting tactics?

      • GrafZeppelin127

        I’m not saying it is, and I agree that we typically don’t hear anyone asking Republicans to apologize to anyone because of something Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity or Andrew Breitbart (R.I.P.) or Sarah Palin or Ted Nugent or Victoria Jackson or Donald Trump said about anyone. Typically, this tactic goes the other way. And Rush Limbaugh’s influence over, and within, the GOP is an important distinction (among many) between his offense and Bill Maher’s alleged offense, which apparently all Liberals™ are now accountable for.

        I just didn’t get the sense that this op-ed was about Limbaugh or the Sandra Fluke kerfuffle, the latter of which was not even mentioned. Yes, Bill has talked about that in other fora and basically if not defended Limbaugh at least objected to the idea that Rush “should be made to disappear” because of what he said, which was mentioned in this op-ed, but overall it seemed, at least to me, to be about something else.

        • jewelbomb

          Honestly, I was only able to read the excerpt from Maher’s column that was quoted above (stupid NYT paywall!), so it may be that his larger point was about something else. That said, it does seems likely that the impetus for his op-ed was the Fluke incident since he’s rehashing here the same arguments he’s made elsewhere in direct response to boycotts against Limbaugh’s sponsors.

          I guess all I’m trying to say is that all incidents of “fake outrage” aren’t created equal. In fact, I guarantee that for many (myself included) the outrage here isn’t fake at all. I’m still pretty damn pissed even now, and I like to think that I have a pretty high threshold for such nonsense.

          Finally, simply as a representative member of the human race, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for the entirety of Sean Hannity’s oeuvre. Seriously, that dude degrades all of us.

  • D_C_Wilson

    I think Maher, having been the target of boycotts himself, is just a mite too sympathetic to Rush’s plight even if he doesn’t agree with Limpballs on most things.

    Maher’s ham lady analogy is a bit off base. While it’s true that if we don’t like the “ham” we can choose not to eat it. On the other hand, taking Bob’s tainted ham scenario a little further, if Costco finds out that one of their suppliers is shipping tainted ham, Costco has the right to take their money to another supplier. As a business, Costco doesn’t want to be known as the store that sells tainted meat because people will shop elsewhere. That’s the market at work in its purest form.

    That is what Rush’s advertisers have chosen to do: Not have their money and brand tied to Rush’s hateful and misogynistic rants. I’ll lump the band Rush and Peter Gabriel into this as well as they have decided not to have their music associated with Limpballs either. All of the businesses that have abandoned his show know that women spend money too and they don’t want to be known as the company that supports misogyny.

  • http://twitter.com/lfathman Liz Fathman

    “the ham lady.” I love it!

  • mrbrink

    Maher should know better than most that if you show up to the block party acting like a belligerent fucking asshole threatening women and ridiculing people of color you shouldn’t be surprised when you’re politely escorted the fuck out.

    • Dan_in_DE

      Amen, Brink.

      There’s a very important point here beyond the one Bob is making. Yes, it’s “inspiring” the R party, captive to their tea party-freakshow base, to craft redmeat legislation that rolls back civil rights. But it is also simply dangerous to let people use public airwaves for hate speech. In fact, it is illegal. It’s just that, for one thing, it’s hard to define just what kind of speech incites violence against women and minorities and what doesn’t, and moreover, we have weak and ineffectual agencies responsible for policing the use of public tv and radio broadcasting, who have inexhaustible concerns about protecting the delicate ears of the listening public from naughty words (especially the sexual), but don’t seem to give a rats ass about hate, fear-mongering and violence.

  • Victor_the_Crab

    Bill Maher is WAAAAAAY too full of himself to be in the same class as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.