For a while now, I’ve been toying with the idea of running a weekly feature wherein I examine the propaganda of Real Time with Bill Maher. The only problem is that I would have to start watching Real Time again, which I haven’t done since April. I used to watch it every week, just to monitor mainstream political thought, but it has become so repetitive and flavorless in the Trumpish Age that enduring it achieves little more than a lingering headache. Formerly a lighthearted, if shallow, examination of American political culture, Real Time is now a pompous, funereal ritual in which half-a-dozen indignant millionaires ask themselves one question for sixty minutes straight: “How can we defeat Trump in 2020?” Sometimes I wonder what will happen if Trump is re-elected and the last four seasons of Real Time are suddenly negated, invalidated as a historical curiosity, like a survival guide to Y2K. Should this come to pass, then subscribes to HBO might have a legitimate claim to a refund.
In the meantime, examining Bill Maher’s logical failings is a tough sell. Watching his program is deeply unpleasant, and my exercise, if sustained for a full season, could become as joylessly ugly as Real Time itself. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot this past week, watching as much as I could before his guests’ strident squabbling descended into an unbearable cacophony. But prior to their meltdown, I did find something worth assessing, even if we never take this project up again: at the beginning of the episode, Maher chatted with Samantha Power, one of President Obama’s ambassadors to the United Nations.
If you’re a veteran viewer of Real Time, then you might be saying to yourself: “Oh, let me guess: another apologist for the American government is here to reassure liberals that federal corruption was unfathomable prior to Trump’s inauguration.” On the one hand, yes, that is Power’s message condensed. It’s an appalling lie, of course, a demonstrable falsehood, but this felicitous revision of American political history is becoming more ubiquitous each day, as our anticipation of Power’s comments would suggest. The supposedly independent media regularly hosts retired government officials, all of whom have a corrupt interest in promoting their sanitized records, and only seldom do they field any serious questions. In brief, we bear witness to the marriage of media and state, a fascistic arrangement that is hardly exclusive to Fox News and Trump.
But on the other hand, there is something atypically troubling about this woman, Samantha Power, glorifying her own career in government. I’m not sure how many of Maher’s viewers were familiar with Power ahead of last week’s episode of Real Time, but all were reassured, if not mollified, as soon as he mentioned her connection to Obama. What he failed to mention was Power’s campaign to persuade Obama to launch a military offensive against the Libyan state. Much material has been produced on Hillary Clinton’s imperialist influence in the Obama Administration—on the Libyan subject, especially—but less has been written about Power, who, according to at least one report, may have convinced Clinton vis-à-vis Libya. Did Clinton, ever the enthusiastic warmonger, really need to be swayed on the opportunity to assault and obliterate a defenseless nation? And was Power really the bloodthirsty sophist in wait?
These questions could make for a fascinating interview, but that wasn’t quite what Maher had in mind. Like all of his contemporaries in the corporate media, Maher is forbidden to mention Libya, lest his viewers learn of the shocking—and, as of yet, unfinished—story of the American invasion and annihilation of an organized society. This story is being overwritten, blotted out and displaced by a laughable narrative of swift, seamless liberation effected and achieved by the indefatigably benevolent Yankees. This overwriting is performed, not just by the imperialists who are planning to pen subsequent chapters in Venezuela in Iran, but, as one would expect, by those who wrote the initial story, too. Samantha Power is one such malicious author, revising her own autobiography until it becomes hagiography, and Bill Maher is her impotent editor, correcting nothing, accepting everything.
Although the invasion of Libya isn’t mentioned in their conversation, still there is no lack of horror. Power begins by depicting herself as a victim, if you can believe it, a victim of what she describes as “horrible gendered metaphors”. She quotes an official, presumably a man, who said: “When we go into this negotiation, we gotta go in ‘open kimono.’” While I should thank Power for giving me an idiom that I will be sure to use in the future, really, we must be professional and, unlike Maher, challenge the authenticity—not of her account, but of her victimhood. If she is implying that, as a woman in government, she encountered directedly sexist disrespect, then she must explain how, at the same time, she and Clinton—and another woman, Susan Rice—successfully pressured the President of the United States to expend significant military resources on a completely unnecessary foreign invasion. It is very distasteful, these attempts by privileged and powerful women to co-opt the struggles of lower-class women, but then again, this interclass masquerading is all too common in politics today.
Furthermore, if Power wishes to complain of cultural misogyny, then she would do well to examine the gruesome aftereffects of her invasion of Libya. Sexual slavery is a serious problem in the post-invasion landscape, so ubiquitous that auctions and markets are held in plain view—“in the open air”, as it is usually described—with sadly little in the way of meaningful protection and effective recourse. To be fair, there has been modest coverage of these markets in western media, probably due to the subject’s shock value, but there has been even less mention of prostitution as a desperate solution to rising poverty, this rising being entirely attributable to the American invasion. In light of these disheartening conditions, could there be anything more tasteless, anything more ironic, than Power’s petty objection to the use of an indelicate expression?
Power, Clinton, and Rice certainly entered their discussions with Obama “open kimono”, and they were no more bashful in their approach to the invasion itself. In the eight years proceeding, none of these women has repented or apologized, and in her discussion with Maher, Power exhibited an ominously enduring enthusiasm for American military intervention. It would be remiss to diminish the passion of her jingoistic concupiscence through a secondhand summary, so we might quote her statement at length:
“There are more non-democratic countries in the world than democracies … The most backsliding that is happening right now is within established democracies, like this one, and freedom is in decline. But it’s also a venue to challenge those countries in terms of their treatment of women, or in terms of their inability to deal with extremism in their midst, or their looking the other way from the recruitment of child soldiers.”
Her perfidy presents a dissimulating puzzle, the solution to which may not be nearly as evasive as it seems. What is her message? Clearly, she believes in American exceptionalism, an idea that has remained undefined, even by the most aggressive of political philosophers. Here, she would define it as America’s cultural and moral supremacy: this nation is superior to all others because it doesn’t need to be challenged . . . or, perhaps because it cannot be. No foreign government will successfully petition America’s treatment of women—even though, as Power seems to forget having said, this country struggles with sexism, too. No external military, with the possible exception of the Israeli, will be called upon to help us wrangle our extremists—even though, as Power concedes when she speaks of freedom “in decline”, there are some truly extreme individuals running ship in the federal government today. And of course, no substantive critic will overseas will ever accuse us of seeking child soldiers: we don’t recruit our children until they’re fourteen years old.
Might we return to her declaration that, in America, “freedom is in decline”? What does she mean by this ominous observation? Does she mean that America is unwell, or that America is plagued? If America is defined by its inexorable defense of political freedom, and if, in America, “freedom is in decline”, then she can mean only: “America is in decline.” Nevertheless, she considers it the responsibility of this unwell, plagued, and declining nation to “challenge” other countries, though she does not explain what such a challenge entails, and more than she names the specific freedom or freedoms that are in decline. In any case, how can an unwell, plagued, and defining nation stand atop the global hierarchy? Shouldn’t it be displaced by a strong, healthy, and ascendant nation, by its cultural, moral, and spiritual successor?
Undoubtedly, Power intended something more affirming and optimistic, but it is awfully difficult to accept her blissful, insouciant vision. Does she believe the American government treated Libyan women properly? What about the orphaned children, some of whom will decide to enlist in terrorist organizations to avenge their parents’ deaths? Relatedly, is she pleased with our military’s inability to contain ISIS, which campaigned for power in the aftermath of the invasion? Not even President Obama put a happy face on this latter failing, describing it as the biggest mistake of his presidential tenure. I find it highly improbable that Power would have forgotten such a significant statement, and much likelier that she has deliberately ignored it—although to be fair, Bill Maher doesn’t seem to be thinking about it, either. At one point in the interview, he reminds Power: “Obama’s foreign policy doctrine was famously summarized as, ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’”
Power tries to end the interview on a high note by reassuring the liberal audience, and the American people generally, that “we have a democracy that is the envy of the world.” Another reference to American exceptionalism, that enchantingly nebulous notion that has sustained the Resistance, as it calls itself, in the Trumpish Age. Perhaps it is this desperate, dishonest, despairing defense of a failed political fantasy that enervates us, that demoralizes us until we have no choice but to begin “backsliding”, and then do we know “freedom is in decline”.
Hmm. Maybe we can make the most of this. Maybe we can have more fun than Maher and his gang of movie stars, pseudointellectuals, and war criminals. Maybe it’s time to get back into Real Time.
Start the clock, Bill. Your time is up.