The Mendacious Bill Maher

[Don’t tell me you actually watch Real Time with Bill Maher. For a guy who criticizes the media, and in particular the left-wing media, as enthusiastically as you do, it seems inconceivable that you would be a regular viewer of something as superficial as this.]

The seventeenth season of Real Time commenced this past Friday, and with it, I have something to watch consistently again. I consume an exhaustive amount of media, far more than the average American, which is saying something; and yet, I don’t watch television. I will watch clips of news shows on YouTube, but when it comes to regular viewing, I’m a non-participant, and that makes me something of an anomaly among the American people.

[It does, indeed. You don’t watch anything? When was the last time you followed any program?]

Breaking Bad was the last television series I watched from start to finish, and that saga wrapped in the fall of 2013. Since then, I’ve watched nothing. Actually, I did watch the first two seasons of House of Cards, the second of which I believe I finished in January or February of 2015. That was definitely the last show I kept up with, Real Time with Bill Maher notwithstanding.

[So, you don’t know anything about Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Americans, etc.?]

Nothing at all. My roommate is a big fan of shows like Family Guy and F is for Family, so I have seen a few episodes of those since he moved in, but otherwise, television isn’t my thing.

[Do you have a fundamental objection to television? Do you think it’s evil, or something?]

Not necessarily. I used to be a serious film buff when I was in high school, so it’s not like I have some philosophical objection to visual media or visual storytelling. There are, however, a number of significant differences between film and television, the most prominent being the relative lack of intellectual and creative control in the latter.

[How do you mean?]

Simply speaking, a film is a film. It is a single, self-contained entity with specific thematic focus. A television series, on the other hand, is a shapeless substance that can last indefinitely, and which, in its potentially infinite reach, can meander. As the seasons go on, the writers and producers can lose sight of their original purpose, and in their creative wandering, they can become lost. Clearly, this isn’t always so, as was proved in Breaking Bad, but there is always that omnipresent element of improvisation. In every case, the folks behind the scenes are, at least to some extent, making it up as they go along.

[Except, of course, for a limited series of a dozen episodes or something—but then again, a limited series really isn’t anything more than an exceptionally lengthy film.]

Exactly. It’s the lack of structure that troubles me—not because the program is inadequate, per se, but because there is a diminished design.

[So, in this case, it’s not the ends, but the means, that trouble you?]

You’ve got it. My criticism may be unfair—

[It may be, but that is a discussion for another day. We won’t concern ourselves with it right now, especially because that criticism, whether valid or invalid, doesn’t apply to a show like Real Time with Bill Maher.]

Correct. Real Time is not a form of narrative or creative storytelling. It’s just discussion. We don’t watch Real Time and compare it to Hamlet; we compare it to The Ingraham Angle or CNN Tonight.

[Neither of which you watch regularly.]

No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire episode of either of those shows. I usually listen to Laura Ingraham’s weekly radio interview with Pat Buchanan, and I have seen clips of the Angle, but the show is way too bland to stomach for a full hour. Ditto for anything to be seen on CNN.

[You don’t think Real Time with Bill Maher is bland?]

Oh, it’s much worse than that. Real Time with Bill Maher is perhaps the clearest illustration of left-wing pseudointellectualism on display today. Beneath its veneer of humanist rigor and nonpartisan comprehension is a carnival of apologetics for the Democratic Party. The ringleader of the circus and his many clowns belong to an aristocratic social club, membership wherein is granted only to those who prove that they will prostitute themselves to the DNC. The conservatives permitted onto their court are harlequins, stock villains greeted with insincere decorum who are to be struck down by the mightier players before the curtain call.

[My, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed this intensity in you before.]

I used to be a transgressive writer, but I lost my taste for polemics around this time last year. You can’t be bilious without making yourself sick. However, in the case of Real Time, I’ve seen enough to have developed some very definite ideas about Bill Maher and what he is trying to do.

[So, you’ve been watching Bill Maher for a while. When did you first encounter his work?]

When I was in high school, I found my way to Concord and watched Religulous. I had never heard of Bill Maher before, but at the time, I was very interested in New Atheism, also know as militant atheism, and so, ridiculing religion for a hundred minutes seemed like a delightful way to spend an afternoon. And I enjoyed the film, but even at the age of sixteen, I could tell there was something wrong with it, something lacking.

[Something that, if articulated, would prove that it wasn’t quite as thoughtful as Maher would have us believe?]

Exactly. I’m still an atheist, but I’m not a militant atheist anymore, largely because I have come to understand that, even if religion is irrational, it is not the cause of irrationality in human beings. It has become very clear to me that the most spirited critics of religion, the most prominent of which is probably Richard Dawkins, have placed the cart before the horse: they want to address religion as an entity in and of itself, and their subsequent analysis is terribly shallow, even petty.

[That is another subject we probably shouldn’t dive into right now. We probably ought to save it for another time. However, I see what you’re saying: Religulous attempts to offer a penetrating, though-provoking analysis of American religiosity, but it really doesn’t have much of substance to contribute to the conversation. You don’t gain anything from the film, except for talking points, of course.]

Right, and that is the problem with Real Time, as well: the show is presented as “straight talk”, as a refreshingly honest look at American politics and culture, but in reality, it only draws us into the dogmatism of the Democratic Party. Real Time perpetuates our ongoing struggle with tribalism, as well as the issue of “opinion as language” that we have discussed in other posts. There is only one message that one is permitted to take away from Real Time, and that is: “The Democrats are the good guys and the Republicans are the bad guys.”

[And such a message is hardly refreshing: there are plenty of other programs offering a similarly insular interpretation of the left-ring paradigm. I suspect, then, that this is your issue: it’s not the partisanship of Real Time, but Bill Maher’s insistence that it is nonpartisan—and exceptionally nonpartisan, at that. It is the dishonest claim of objectivity, rather than the bias itself, that gives you pause.]

You got it. Bill Maher is hardly unique in this; no political commentator opens a show by saying, “I’m a partisan hack who specializes in misinformation and distortion!” However, Real Time has, at least in certain circles, been given a degree of credibility or respectability that, conspicuously, has not been extended to a show like Hannity.

[One remarkable difference is that Hannity purports to be a news show, whereas Real Time is more of a straightforward talk show. The difference may seem to be frivolous, but I think the true point of departure is the culture: Hannity appears on Fox News, but Real Time is broadcast by HBO.]

The distinction being, Hannity is supposed to be objective and factual, but Real Time has the right to ideological license. That’s all very fair, but it reveals only the failure of Hannity to live up to its own higher set of standards; conversely, it says nothing about the achievements of Real Time. The failure of one, even the greater failure, is not the success of another.

[Why do you think Bill Maher fancies himself as a hard-hitting analyst? He certainly believes that he is doing something the other political commentators of America are not.]

He cusses more frequently and devises crude sexual insults. That’s about it. Intellectually, there’s nothing laudable about his program, not even in comparison to the cable news shows.

[But why does Maher argue precisely to the contrary?]

Because he cusses. Maher has built a name for himself by expressing refined frustration: when the other mainstream commentators are expressing inexplicable timidity, he will stand up and shout, “This is bullshit!” That is what gets his audience riled up: his willingness to mock the lily-livered frankly and unambiguously. He has made a name for himself with his “New Rules” segments, in which he delivers a personal monologue about some political, social, or cultural issue. For years, his commentary seemed to be exceptional, if only because it wasn’t laden by the indirect, awkward language of polite society. However, his individuality in this respect has faded, ever since Donald Trump arrived on the scene.

[Because Trump doesn’t speak like a traditional politician, but even his special brand is shrinking, as imitators of his style have emerged: notice the rather limited response to Rashida Tlaib’s call to “impeach the motherfucker”. Ten years ago, she may have been ordered to resign her congressional seat; today, hardly anybody seemed sincerely concerned.]

We have to move past the enfant terrible routine: I was impressed by that kind of behavior when I watched Religulous, but I like to think I’ve grown up just a little bit since high school—

[Keep telling yourself that.]

—and I can’t get riled up over someone cussing. Maybe part of the problem is Trump: when you hear the president deliver an immature insult twice a day for more than two years, controversy for controversy’s sake becomes an awfully tough sell.

[I suspect we’re seeing some of this in the muted reaction to the left-wing media’s horror stories about bigotry in America. For example, this latest story about the Native American man who was confronted, for lack of better word, by the boy in the “Make America Great Again” hat . . . as soon as the story broke, you could tell that this wasn’t going to be the much-contemplated tipping point in our active culture war. Alas, that didn’t stop CNN from describing the story as “heartbreaking”.]

The intensity of 2017 could never be sustained. The media must be thankful for the shutdown and the Democratic House, without which our agitated blood would stagnate and cool. However, some of us have tired of the cyclical propaganda, and we find such material to be nearly unintelligible. In the case of this story about the Native American, I understand that there is no reason to panic.

[And in the case of Real Time with Bill Maher?]

Once you strip away the polemical titillation—in other words, once you become disillusioned—it becomes all too apparent that, far from a robust and candid critique of American culture, Real Time is just one branch of the tree of propaganda tended to by the Democratic Party. Bill Maher touches on a number of different subjects, and occasionally even entertains a mainstream conservative perspective, but by the closing credits, he will have reminded us to return to the Democrats, who will shelter us in the trying times to come.

[Is this why he can pass himself off as a man of variegation? All because he momentarily considers some of the right-wing positions without trembling in disgust?]

These days, the standards for political decorum are frightfully low—abysmal, quite literally. When any political position can, and often is, described by opposition as “an assault”, it is courageous to permit your critics to complete a sentence—and, all too often, to start a sentence. Bill Maher has attracted his fair share of left-wing condemnation through the years, usually because he has invited so many conservative politicians and pundits to his show. In a different time, this used to be called a discussion; today, it is known as “giving a platform” or, even worse, “granting legitimacy”.

[“Granting legitimacy”. Sounds like “granting clemency”, or “granting asylum”, doesn’t it? As if our political adversaries are fugitives from an enemy country, or something.]

Hey, you just might be on to something there: when conservatives appear on Real Time, Maher is quick to thank them for “stepping into the lion’s den”. He understands that his audience, which is unmistakably left-wing, will automatically disagree with anything and everything the conservative has to say—although, in recent years, a very sizeable market has emerged for conservative critics of Donald Trump, several of whom are regular guests of Real Time, and who seem to get the crowd fired up to an extent that even the most popular progressive is unlikely to reach.

[Do you believe that this respect for Maher is misguided, that he doesn’t deserve credit for allowing conservatives onto his show?]

No. As I said, civilized interaction with one’s political opponents is hardly heroic, nor is it unique: there are plenty of examples of progressives squaring off with the hosts of Fox News. If there is a difference with Real Time (and I’m not sure there is), it is probably that Maher typically grants his interlocuter the benefit of the doubt, momentarily entertaining his or her perspective, and replying to it with a minimum of flippant vitriol—to the conservative’s face, at least. He reserves his bilious contempt for the “New Rules” segment, a time when he suddenly has no qualm about describing conservatives as idiots, fools, traitors, charlatans, and psychopaths.

[Do you take issue with this characterization? I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle in your original description of Maher and his minions. “Prostitutes for the Democratic Party”, did you call them?]

To be clear, I am referring to Maher and the producers of the program, not to those who watch the program and like it. I would probably say nothing if Maher were to refer to elected Republicans as psychopathic frauds, but when he refers to conservative voters as traitors to their country, that is when I become perturbed, especially when the program is advertised as a thoughtful, balanced assessment of American political culture. If you market your product as a tabloid, I will judge it on those terms; when you present it as the fruit of an enlightened mind, then it must be held to a higher set of standards.

[This sounds like the same argument many people make about Trump’s indecorous behavior: it is one thing for an entertainer to make shocking statements, but quite another thing when the rhetoric is delivered by the President of the United States.]

Exactly. And that is what I find so troubling about Real Time: it is consistently advertised as the surefire antidote to the political toxicity of the Trumpish Age, but even a cursory breakdown will prove that the program actually contributes to the intellectual pollution. The conservative argument is allowed to stand for a moment, but it is invariably reduced to a straw man, which is shattered by Maher’s destructive methods. The conclusion inevitably reconstructs some progressive position, one which is to be accepted by the audience without further question, lest the liberal movement be thwarted by the frightening effects of sustained, directed thought. And it’s very frustrating to see people praise the show as something constructive, as something laudable: as stated previously, it is really just a circumlocutory apology for the Democratic Party masquerading as pop philosophy.

[Was there anything about this week’s episode in particular that bothered you?]

Oh, there was enough to write a whole other article.

[Then why don’t we continue this discussion in a separate entry?]

Very well.

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