When Politically Incorrect aired its first show after the 9/11 terror attacks, on September 17, 2001, the program’s host Bill Maher uttered the words that would define his career going forward. Agreeing with panelist Dinesh D’Souza’s assertion that the 9/11 hijackers, who had led the most devastating attack on US soil in a generation, were warriors, Maher doubled down on the idea, labeling the US military machine as cowards:
We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly.
It would prove to be a pivotal moment for Maher. His entire shtick had been based on bucking the establishment and saying what others wouldn’t say. But in the immediate post 9/11 era, such comments were seen as outrageous. The nation publicly shamed the comedian for his commentary. Advertisers fled the ABC show. Politically Incorrect was formally canceled in the early summer of 2002.
The comedian learned his lesson. He realized he needed to align his focus more with the political mainstream. The once subversive voice of premium cable became nothing more than a tame mouthpiece for American militarism, xenophobia, white supremacy and male societal dominance.
Maher’s career began in the 1980s. The young, sharp comic was one of a group of young guns that included Dennis Leary, Mitch Hedberg and Bill Hicks. At first, Maher didn’t have the success of the others, although he was by no means unsuccessful. Instead, Maher bounced around from standup slot to standup slot, starred in a few terrible films, and tried his hand at comedic writing.
Maher wouldn’t find steady and reliable success until 1993, when fledgling cable channel Comedy Central gave him the chance to marry his comedic sensibilities with his talkshow chops.
The New York Times observed in its review of the opening episode that the show had potential:
Actually Politically Incorrect, obviously working on a weekly budget of $3.98, has the look of a Saturday Night Live sketch about how political correctness might be handled on a small-town public-access channel. The effect is curiously endearing.
Politically Incorrect ran for four seasons on Comedy Central. In 1997, ABC bought the show. By then Maher was the newest “buzz boy” of late-night television (Orange County Register, 1/2/97):
With his pickup by ABC, Buzz Boy Maher now is Big League. But PI will stay the same heady TV cocktail, down to its wild mix of guests, crumbling-Acropolis set and Maher’s satirical monologues—which once included a goofy eulogy for serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer—as Maher continues the show’s unusual serio-comic bent.
Maher found his niche and would leverage his personality power to drive his show’s conversation in a more and more provocative direction. Never outstandingly popular with viewers, Politically Incorrect nevertheless drove conversation and water cooler talk amongst the politically active in the mid- to late-1990s.
Until 2001 and Maher’s infamous commentary on the 9/11 hijackers.
The remarks led to a firestorm. Maher warranted a rebuke from the Bush White House. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Maher’s remarks were inappropriate and that in the wake of the attacks ”people have to watch what they say and watch what they do.”
“This is not a time for remarks like that,” the press secretary said, “There never is.”
This authoritarian talk was in keeping for the administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Artistic expression that was seen as detrimental to the country and the mission of the Bush administration was consistently marginalized by legal and socially pressured means in the years after the attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Clear Channel radio stations were forbidden to play a list of songs related to New York, explosions, and protest.
Maher wouldn’t have to wait too long to get back on the air: in 2003, HBO premiered Real Time With Bill Maher, an hour-long talk show where the acerbic comic sparred with guests on the left and the right on the issues of the week. It was a homecoming of sorts for Maher, even though he had only been off the air for a year.
Maher’s new show focused on the Bush administration’s failings and faults, without the constraints of advertising and basic networks. Profanity and adult subject matter reigned supreme (the show is in its 14th season). But what the show has never focused on, at least from the host, is challenging the dominant narrative of the Global War on Terror.
Maher learned his lesson. Defying the conventional wisdom on the United States’ war-making in the Middle East was a no-go. Instead, the comedian tilted towards an atheist evangelism that is more and more an obvious smokescreen for his xenophobic bigotry towards the Global South and support for American hegemony.
Maher’s book, When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism, explained his new worldview: “When the enemy gets to your citadel, your prided epicenter, everything’s in play.” Therefore sacrificing one’s privacy at the altar of authority was not only a necessity, but also one’s patriotic duty. They hit us where we live, we must never let it happen again:
Now that 9/11 has shown that civilians are in play—why don’t we the people have a Secret Service, too? A discriminating professional force to guard the places where large crowds gather.
Lest you think “discriminating” is being used here in an innocuous way, Maher elucidates:
We’ve been brainwashed into believing that it’s a sin to discriminate. But discrimination doesn’t mean racism; it means telling unlike things apart. Iowa grandpas and nine-year-old girls from Ohio are simply not looking to visit “a painful chastisement upon the Western infidels.”
Of note here as well is that When You Ride was published in October 2002, after Politically Incorrect had been shuttered and before Real Time would debut. In the interim, Maher made sure to send a midterm election telegram to the political power brokers of the mainstream: He was aware of his mistakes. He would not challenge the narrative in any substantive way again. He would channel his fervor into bigotry directed at the right people.
Maher’s bigotry has been increasingly hard to ignore in the past two years. While never the most tolerant or open minded of individuals in his public persona, Maher’s in-show and out-of-show comments have ramped up the anti-Muslim hate since 2014.
2014 was, of course, the year when the Israeli military bombarded the Gaza Strip for seven weeks. Maher spent much of the conflict defending the Israeli military on Real Time, positioning the destruction of Gaza as a reasonable reaction from the overwhelming military force of Israel against an underfunded guerilla resistance.
Perhaps Maher’s most revealing moment over that summer was a tweet he sent out on July 17:
“Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her”
It hits all the notes for a well-crafted 140 character expression of Maher’s id:
1. It uses metaphorically misogynistic, abusive language.
2. It defines the oppressed in an unbalanced conflict as “crazy.”
3. It implies that the aggressor, the dominant military power of Israel, has been forced into the position of reaction, ignoring any context.
4. It perpetuates the mythology of the right and good Western power fighting against the crazed hordes of Islam.
Maher’s problems with women are well-documented. He’s been in the kind of continual low-level trouble someone with an extensive history of an undercurrent of anti-woman rhetoric might be expected to, and he likely gets more breaks than he should because of his vocal endorsement of reproductive rights and anti-discrimination. His politics might be in the right place, but they align with the dominant narrative. His beliefs are another story. A filmmaker who has worked with the comic on his show describes him as a “misogynistic asshole” who “doesn’t think women are smart.”
His issues with women are similar to his dismissive and ugly views on Islam—the Gazans in this case are first emasculated into the “woman,” a typical move for a misogynist that implies weakness on behalf of the “womaned.” They are “crazy” and Israel, the strong Buchanesque hero, finally loses his patience and hits back after “hold[ing] her wrists” for so long.
Maher seems to take issue with the ethnicity of Islam’s adherents as well as with Islam itself; in 2011, he tried to make enlist women into his xenophobic crusade thusly:
“Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good.”
But whether based in religious or ethnic bigotry, this kind of imperialist claptrap feeds the narrative of American and Western supremacy— just the crowd that Maher is working to ingratiate himself to.
This impulse couldn’t be clearer in Maher’s commentary on the increased surveillance that has followed the GWOT. Time and time again, Maher’s HBO show and his media appearances fuel the comic’s belief that an increasingly authoritarian USA is a necessary evil for security. Read this excerpt from a recent interview he did with the Phoenix New Times, and try to imagine that instead of a famously “subversive” comedian, a government surrogate is speaking it on CNN:
Every single law-enforcement person I’ve seen talk about it in the last month or so has said we’re blind now. We don’t know what they’re thinking. We don’t know what they’re talking about. So, obviously, this is a problem that is going to have to be dealt with.
We all want our privacy; that’s important. But I would maintain that the old rubric, I think it was said originally by Benjamin Franklin or somebody like that, somebody from that era, who said those who would give up their privacy for their security deserve neither and did not live in the era of nuclear weapons. I’m sorry, but the stakes are just a lot higher.
But as many, many commentators and experts have pointed out, the kind of collect-it-all surveillance Maher is pushing for is actually counter-productive for security. After all, if this kind of data collection were helpful, the San Bernardino attacks would not have happened in the first place. The FBI would have detected the plot through their analysis of the available information.
But this is not the dominant narrative, and therefore it is not the ideological reality that Maher wants engage with on any level. Instead, he took the opportunity San Bernardino afforded him to hit the religious background of the perpetrators. For Maher, the only sacred cow that needs to be taken down is religion—a safe position in the 21st century.
The atheistic debate on religion has evolved (or devolved) to the point that the debate is less between two philosophical points of view and more between the good upstanding reasonableness of the West and the savage ignorance of the Global South. Maher and fellow “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have contributed to this view of an ideological struggle between rationalism and reaction.
The undercurrent of xenophobia and racism that this political philosophy requires was on full display last April when Maher implied that the political beliefs of Dutch politician Geert Wilders—whose views include banning the Koran and the mass deportation of Muslim immigrants—were not only reasonable but realistic in the face of the Muslim hordes at the gates of the West.
“I just wish there was somebody who could make the case in a way that wouldn’t have them be put way out there as a bigot, because there is a case to be made,” Maher said on the after-show YouTube segment “Overtime.”
After 14 seasons, Real Time has become a political talkshow staple. The program is a destination for media figures, politicians and superstars. Bill Maher, who saw his brand threatened by his off the cuff comments in the wake of 9/11, made the necessary adjustments to maintain that brand’s viability.
You won’t find the comic who dared to point out the complexity of modern warfare or imperialism on Real Time—not anymore. Now the show’s host is another parrot for the war machine, squawking out increasingly outrageous bigotry aimed at perpetuating the status quo.