Should celebrity activists shut up for now?

Janeane Garofalo and Bill Maher have both opposed the war with Iraq. But now that the fighting has started, they offer contrasting prescriptions for protest.

Published March 21, 2003 4:23PM (EST)

Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo, both comedians and stand-up artists, often provoke people to try and shut them up. Maher's loaded comments in the wake of 9/11 caused such a furor -- along with an advertiser boycott -- that his show, "Politically Incorrect," eventually was dropped by a shell-shocked ABC. And Garofalo's appearances on the cable news circuit consistently criticizing the White House have made her the naughty celebrity poster child of the right, getting targeted by the New York Post as one of the celebrity "Saddam lovers" whose products we should boycott.

They've both been consistent critics of a U.S. war with Iraq: Maher from his new, advertising-free home at HBO, where his show, "Real Time with Bill Maher," airs live on Friday nights, and Garofalo from her act and on the road, where she's hit the ground as an almost full-time activist.

But they have distinctly different prescriptions for what to do now. When Salon talked to them both, not long after the bombs started to fall, Garofalo was planning a trip to the soggy protests in Time Square, while Maher, planning his show in Los Angeles, said that while "we can't shut up indefinitely if we think our country is headed in a horribly wrong direction," he doesn't think now is the time.

And they both had thoughts about what should happen on Oscar night. Their interviews follow, Garofalo first.

So, are you going to protest?

Garofalo:The strange thing about it being called a "protest" is the news, in its way of having redefined certain words in the English language -- i.e. "fair," "balanced," "compassionate," "diplomacy," "dissent" and "protest" -- they have managed to take those words away from us and redefine them and use them in a disparaging way. So you know, if you want to call it a protest, I call it a peace march, or a peace standing-around, I suppose. That's it: a peace standing-around. But I'm going to go to Times Square at 5 p.m., and then continue to show up at Union Square at 5 every other day, if I can.

Plus I'll continue to do any interviews or things of that nature that can contribute in any way. I think I'll stay away from the belly of the beast, like you know, I won't be going on Fox News and stuff like that any more. It's just really rather absurd to even participate on Fox or MSNBC, or maybe even CNN, which is maybe a little better than the other two.

But it's a huge audience. Isn't it worth it? Or is the experience that bad?

Garofalo: It's not always a bad experience. It's case by case. It's not even network by network. Because I have had some very decent interviews on Fox. Rita Cosby, Tony Snow -- Bill O'Reilly has even been interesting. Some of the other ones, I think it's embarrassing for both of us. They don't seem to have any self-awareness. They seem to think it's only the person who comes on who has a rough time, but unfortunately ...

But are you boycotting them because they're not treating you well, or because they're too conservative, or ...

Garofalo: No, no. I've done it. It's clearly sort of counterproductive. For the most part, Fox has decided to waste the American public's time with the straw man of celebrity bashing, and it's just another diversionary tactic. It's just another way to avoid the issues.

But there are a number of reasons the networks are as bad as they are. First of all, the level of debate in our culture has degraded. There's a level of crassness. Secondly, you have the FCC deregulation in 1996 which made less and less corporations able to own more and more outlets, and they downsize them and eliminate certain facets of their foreign bureaus, and that's the problem.

If you're talking about Fox or the New York Post, [they] are under Rupert Murdoch's tutelage, and clearly have an agenda, which is pretty much to do P.R. for the State Department. But there are things that underserve the public in all of these outlets. They don't disseminate particularly thoughtful or nuanced information with a historical context or global perspective. What they all seem to be doing is underserving the public.

If you're talking about cable news, there's obviously not a lot of incentive to be thoughtful or nuanced. They claim, of course, that they are being populists. But you're saying they pander to our worst instincts.

Garofalo: I wouldn't say that Fox is deliberately courting the sociopaths. Maybe Ann Coulter does, or some of those right-wing radio people. Or Mike Savage on MSNBC. When MSNBC hires Mike Savage, then, you know, it's as if they're throwing in the towel. When you hire Mike Savage after firing Phil Donahue, what you're basically saying is, we're not even going to make an attempt here to edify. We're just going to make a shameless rating grab.

Why do you think you're being singled out so much on these shows, and by the media in general? The Post, yesterday, put you on a list of entertainers whose work people should boycott.

Garofalo: You know what is so funny about that is they're giving me way too much credit for having work to boycott. It's so funny when people talk about me being blacklisted since I'm not even on the works-fairly-often list. It would be extraordinary to blacklist me. So in a way, the New York Post has given me a lot more cred there.

I don't think anybody who is seriously looking for news is going to read the New York Post. I think it's a great paper if you like sports or erroneous gossip. Or if you want to read about the boycotting of the Dixie Chicks. But again, it's a time-waster, it's a way for these hawks, and these hawk publications, who have pushed us to the brink of this disaster, to now [have] us look the other way. It's like, "Don't look at the man behind the curtain, look at Susan Sarandon!"

But the worst I've heard, I think, is where they had "Trash the Chicks" day, and certain radio stations in the South asked listeners to put their Dixie Chicks paraphernalia into a trash can, and they'd light it all on fire. And then some people would drive over it with tractors. Now that is Third Reich stuff. It's the worst of human nature, and it's unfortunately being stoked by talk of war.

But dissenters are going to face even tougher criticism now that we're at war. You know that we will see mothers of G.I.s on television, talking about how much the protests upset them. How will you respond?

Garofalo: I would say, again, that it's proof positive that there is no liberal media. If we had truly liberal media, if we truly lived in a functioning democracy, that kind of knee-jerk, reactionary, pseudo-patriotic, sycophantic bullshit would not be a part of any newscast.

Beyond that, I would say to the person that I completely understood, but that the peace movement seeks to keep your son or daughter alive and bring them home soon. I would say, if you want to get angry, you should talk to Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Perle and Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Bush, who seem to me to have absolutely no respect for your son and daughter. They are extremely cavalier with your children's lives in that they've put them in Iraq, on the ground, in a war we don't have to be fighting.

But there was a moment, Feb. 15., when the protests were really ...

Garofalo: Eight million people.

... able to force a response from the White House. A forced, condescending response, but ...

Garofalo: We forced condescension from him. I think that made those gentlemen more determined to go. Fuck the masses. They're not doing this for us, anyway. It's not like public opinion factors into this at all. This plan has been set in motion for years.

But if that's how you feel, why bother to protest?

Garofalo: Because you never know where the change will come from. My self-esteem is way too high not to resist. You absolutely have to make it known that you will not be rolled over, and that you will not let history roll right over you. I mean, I was always advocating diplomacy. It's not like I was a person living in a tree [saying], "No war ever!" or "Guns are wrong!" I could never have been more reasonable advocating diplomacy, and trying to get information from my news. That's all I was always after. Trying to push the news to be custodians of fact and watchdogs of government, which they have absolutely seemed to deny. And secondly, I was always pushing diplomacy, and to let the weapons inspections work.

But I can see some people saying, look, you're upset about protests against the Dixie Chicks, why can't I be upset about your protests?

Garofalo: Oh, you can be upset about it. You can obviously say so. That's actually fine. I think everybody's First Amendment rights are not in question here. Although there are people who seek to overturn actors' First Amendment rights. [laughs]

There's actually this woman in North Carolina who is seeking to overturn the First Amendment rights of actors who oppose the war. Honestly. I'm not kidding.

Is that what she's saying?

Garofalo: No, I'm actually being much, much more articulate than she is.

What is she doing?

Garofalo: She has a Web site, where you can go on and sign a petition. And she's raising money to air a commercial to stop celebrity pundits. Of course the celebrities who support the war, like Bruce Willis, are fine. She's also been on Fox News a number of times. So what does that tell you?

OK, before you go. The Oscars ...

Garofalo: Typically, those type of functions are not the sort I usually participate in. But if I was nominated or presenting and it was this week then I would definitely not go.

You wouldn't be tempted to use it to make a statement?

Garofalo: I feel like it would be mocked, dismantled. It would be treated as if it was treason. And they would actually waste valuable news time with it, you know? I wouldn't want to give news organizations that kind of ammunition. But it's just not a way I would want to spend the first week of war. It wouldn't feel right to me, but I wouldn't condemn anyone for doing it.

I do think it was wrong at the Grammies, and what they're doing at the Oscars, which is applying this gag rule. It's such a shame we can't discuss this.

Even though you say you wouldn't say anything if you went ...

Yeah, I wouldn't want to, but the fact that we can't? What are they saying, that we're living in a post-democratic era? I guess they are. I guess we live in a post-democratic time.

Bill Maher interview

You have a show now where you can say anything you want, and you've been overtly critical so far of the White House's march toward war. But what do you do now?

Maher: I think the key thing that's different from other wars with the wars we fight now is that they're really short. So I don't think it should be too much of a burden for anybody to hold their tongue for the three days to a week that it takes us to fight a war. If it drags on, I think absolutely we have the right to speak out. It has to be that way -- we can't shut up indefinitely if we think our country is headed in a horribly wrong direction.

The two points I would make is that given that wars are so short, and that there's fighting in the field, they do get conflicting signals, the message doesn't necessarily get through that we support them even though we protest the policy. Again, I don't think it's too much to ask that we hold our tongues for a few days. But not indefinitely.

Earlier I asked Janeane Garofalo about how she would deal with critics of protesters, say mothers of G.I.s who will go on TV and and say that protest is disrespectful of their sons. But do the mothers have a point?

Maher: One of the themes of my stand-up show, that I'm about to do on Broadway, is that it's important to be able to keep two opposing thoughts in your mind. Thats what we seem to have such a hard time doing. It drives me crazy when they say things like, "You're pro-Saddam if youre opposed to this method of fighting terrorists."

I read an editorial, I guess it was in the New York Times, that said the United States State Department lists 13 countries that have chemical or biological weapons; it lists 16 countries that have at least the shadowy links to terrorists that Iraq does. That's what we're afraid of. It's not direct enough, and this idea of a "war of choice," well, some of us think that there should never be such a thing, that war should be only when you absolutely have to. That Afghanistan was a justified war because we were going after the guy who hit us. A kid threw a rock through our window, and we went to his house to kick his ass. And on our way home, we're apparently kicking his cousin's ass. Who didn't really have anything to do with throwing the rock through the window.

I think that's the point the protesters are making, and it's a commonsensical approach.

OK - so why can't they keep saying that now, while we're at war?

Maher: Well, look, for six months, we've all been making these arguments about whether we should do this or whether we shouldn't, so we've heard it all. We've heard their side, they've heard our side. So at the point when we go into war, those arguments are a little dated.

My side says, "He never really was in league with al-Qaida, that's a trumped-up charge." And that's what bothers me about this. Wars that start on shaky premises, be it "Remember the Maine," or the Gulf of Tonkin, or that Saddam Hussein is working with bin Laden, whatever it is, when you start a war on a shaky premise, it makes me nervous.

However, now we've heard it all, so there's no need to keep rehashing it. That, to me, is beating a dead horse. Now we're on to a different phase. The war has started, let's just hold our breath and hope that the human suffering is minimal and then start arguing about what we do now that we own Iraq.

Your show, though, has a debate format. And in your first four broadcasts, you've been arguing about whether we should go to war. What do you this week?

Maher: Well, I think what we're going to talk about is what I'm talking about with you. What is the propriety in wartime. And then I think we want to talk about the future -- what is the right approach of basically an occupying force in Iraq. I know the administration thinks that we'll be held as liberators, and there is going to be some of that, and we are to a great extent liberators.

But we're also going to be occupiers. We thought the Vietnamese would love us, remember? You just got to get to know us! You will love it! I'm not sure that crowd in Washington gets it, that what we're selling is not what they're buying. Certainly they want freedom from the tyranny they live under. But they might think that we're not free because we're imprisoned by materialism, and godlessness, and that sort of stuff. Everybody's idea of freedom is different.

But when does this grace period end, when there shouldnt be criticism of war?

Maher: I can't give you a numerical date like six weeks. We just have to see how it goes. Obviously, in Vietnam, people went along with it for several years ... and then the tide really started turn. Back then we were less cynical, it was sort of our first test of whether we were going to go along 100 percent and back the government no matter what they did. I think now, because we have been through that experience before, people are not going to wait a couple of years if they think it's a quagmire.

In this case, it probably won't be a war, it will be a peace that might be a quagmire, keeping the peace there.

At the Oscars, there will surely be some acts of protest - some performers won't show -- but there will also be very tasteful and somber appearances and speeches by people not really saying anything. What's better?

Maher: To me that's the wrong call. Either do it or don't do it. But if you're going to do it, show the world, you know, what we're fighting for. Which is, of course, lavish overindulgence. Get out there in your cheesy tit suit. Say something stupid about your agent. Thank God and your mom and have all of us make fun of your dumb headdress. Don't take that away from us.

By Kerry Lauerman

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Iraq War