Bill Maher's right-wing paranoia: What his comments on racial politics really reveal

Speaking about Netanyahu's racial appeal for votes, self-described "liberal" comic conveys a distinctive ideology

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 24, 2015 2:12PM (EDT)

  (HBO/Janet Van Ham)
(HBO/Janet Van Ham)

When he is defending his sweeping condemnation of the Muslim religion, Bill Maher inevitably proclaims himself to be "the real liberal" implying that those who don't see things his way are impure in some way. He's said it numerous times on his show and in interviews such as the one he did here at Salon with Elias Isquith claiming that standing on liberal principles (as he defines them) even against people who might be oppressed minority is what makes him "the liberal in this debate."

The problem as he sees it is that Islam itself is illiberal and therefore anyone who subscribes to it must be held equally liable for the intolerance of the most intolerant of Muslims. In his famous exchange with Ben Affleck he said to his guest Sam Harris:

"You and I have been trying to make the case that liberals need to stand up for liberal principles.Freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities, including homosexuals, these are liberal principles that liberals applaud for but then when you say in the Muslim world this is what's lacking, then they get upset.

Obviously this is not what liberals get upset about. Indeed, one of the more fatuous claims by the right is the ridiculous assertion that what they usually depict as the debauched left is in cahoots with al Qaeda or ISIS. They are unlikely allies to say the least. And there are very few liberals who are anything but appalled by the repressive governments he's talking about.

The fact is that liberals get upset when Maher and his friends claim that Islam is uniquely and inherently violent and that all societies in which Muslim populations have some form of social and political power operate the same way simply by virtue of the fact that they are Muslim. This is patently untrue. Muslims are as different from one another as the members of any other religious tradition which should be obvious since they are in sectarian conflict with one another in the middle east, have small pockets of fanaticism in some countries and large numbers of fanatics in others and still others live completely peacefully in pluralistic societies such as the U.S. There are a billion Muslims in this world, only a small few of whom are violent. Most liberals believe that to tar all of them with the acts of a few is inflammatory and just plain wrong.

Perhaps we can set that aside for the moment and simply agree to disagree. In his view he is taking a principled stand against fundamentalist intolerance. But how to explain his latest comments defending the comments of Benjamin Netanyahu in the final days of the Israeli election complaining, "Arab voters are going en masse to the polls, left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses." Maher said:

“I guess that is racist, in the strictest sense — he’s bringing race into the equation. But, first of all, like Reagan didn’t win races with racism? Or Nixon? Or Bush? Like they didn’t play the race card? Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, remember that? Remember Willie Horton?”

Real liberals don't say that racism doesn't work. It's that it's wrong. But he didn't stop there:

“I heard a lot of commentators here say, it would been as if Mitt Romney, in 2012, on the eve of the election said, ‘black voters are coming out in droves to the polls. But I don’t know if that’s really a great analogy. I think that would be a good analogy if America was a country that was surrounded by 12 or 13 completely black nations who had militarily attacked us many times, including as recently as last year. Would we let them vote? I don’t know. When we were attacked by the Japanese, we didn’t just not let them vote, we rounded them up and put them in camps.”

I've got a better analogy for him. Not too long ago there was a nation run by white people, surrounded by "black nations" and filled with oppressed black citizens who were very hostile to it. It is called South Africa. And principled liberals didn't think their system was such a great idea and they certainly defend the white South African overlords simply because they felt afraid of losing power. Ronald Reagan did, as did most right wingers. And so did the other Republicans who Maher mentions using racist language to get elected. Liberals, on the other hand, believed that black South Africans should have full citizenship. Certainly they thought trying to prevent black people from voting, whether over there or here, was a very illiberal thing to do. Liberals were on the right side of history on that one.

Interning the Japanese was an immoral blight on America's record for which the nation apologized and made reparations. The president who signed that reparations bill was none other than Ronald Reagan. The internment happened more than 70 years ago during a period when open racism was a normal part of American society. Today, the only people who support such a horror are Maher's right wing buddy Ann Coulter and her fellow travellers like Michelle Malkin.

Apparently in order to be a "real liberal" Bill Maher believes that one must not only condemn Islam, one must now also defend a politician using racist language against his own citizens in order to get elected. Indeed, in Maher's view it seems that any behavior is justified when one feels under threat.

Maher sees himself as the one true liberal who calls out intolerance wherever he sees it. But he's remarkably tolerant when it comes to irrational, racist demagoguery.  It may have escaped his notice but conservatives always feel under threat and always have a reason to "take the glove off." It's their primary organizing principle. That's not liberalism. It's good old fashioned right wing paranoia.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

African Americans Ann Coulter Benjamin Netanyahu Bill Maher Hbo Israel Michelle Malkin Race Racism Ronald Reagan