Because he is a big Obama booster, likes higher taxes and hates drug laws, Bill Maher has long had a reputation of being a liberal. Maher’s shtick for over 20 years has been that of the edgy truthteller who says what needs to be said regardless of offending anyone, right or left.
Increasingly however, in the post-Jon Stewart, post-snark age of liberal politics where the stakes are higher and class conflict is slowly replacing hipper-than-thou mockery, how useful is a '90s anti-PC relic like Maher to progressives? Many liberals seem to view Maher as a somewhat-problematic truthteller who generally falls on the good side when it comes to the major issues. This reputation seemed to develop after Maher’s old show, "Politically Incorrect," was canceled. Maher had made a comment about how the 9/11 hijackers were not actually “cowards” like President Bush had insisted; he had touched a third-rail at the height of “with us or against us” sentiment.
Advertisers began pulling out and many ABC affiliates stopped airing episodes. Maher’s show was canned, at the same time he began picking up First Amendment awards. One such honor described his efforts like this: “[Maher], as host of Politically Incorrect, spoke out at a time when Americans were being encouraged to abandon the Bill of Rights in exchange for the false comfort of ‘national security.’"
Like so many others during the Bush era, Maher’s moment was severely misunderstood by critics and supporters. Maher wasn’t questioning the war effort, railing against the abuses of John Ashcroft or asking a deeper question about American foreign policy when he made his infamous remarks. He was agreeing with anti-Obama conspiracy loon Dinesh D’Souza, a panelist on his program, who said, "Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life, none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.''
Maher replied to D’Souza’s assertion: ''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, it's not cowardly.''
Maher wasn’t opposing U.S. foreign policy but Clinton’s at-length imperialism, and tacitly cheering on Bush’s more direct boots-on-the-ground approach. By accepting D’Souza's premise that the 9/11 hijackers were warriors he was casting the conflict as an existential war, not a routine police matter. The fact that his sound bite was misunderstood is a testament to his being inarticulate, not subversive. Indeed, Maher was helping advance one of the core arguments of the Bush administration post-9/11; that this was a new conflict against a great and sprawling enemy who would not be easily deterred.
On an episode later in the year, Maher clarified his comments: “The most important things are honesty, my bond with [my audience], and my country. My country is a lot more important to me and I may have spoken insensitively in these sensitive times. And I told the military who, if anyone watches this show for eight years knows, I’ve been the biggest military supporter there is.”
Maher expanded upon these views in an episode that December:
“The people who say war is not the answer, and I certainly champion their right to say that, and I relish the right to ridicule them for saying that. It’s funny that I got in trouble for what I said and I’m so right-wing on this. I was not dissenting. The dissenting opinion is, we shouldn’t go to war, and there are plenty of people in America who believe that..but if you’re going say war is not the answer, well it is if the question is, how are you going to drive the the Taliban from power?
"War is never something we want to go into, but at times, believe me, it’s the only thing to do. It’s the right answer. And it was the right answer in Serbia, we should have stuck with it more in Somalia. I think countries around the world look to us as the superpower to take boots off people’s necks and we should do it more. And I applaud what we’re doing over there. I think the people over there are thrilled that war came to Afghanistan.”
Maher’s views haven’t shifted much since fall 2001, yet he continues to maintain a certain level of liberal cachet. This is not a few isolated incidents, but a long history.
If you are still agnostic on the issue, perhaps this list will change your mind once and for all.
1. That Time He Declared ‘Underzealous Parenting’ Leads to Overzealous Policing: After video surfaced of South Carolina officer Ben Fields violently ripping a student from her desk and arresting her, Maher told his studio audience that parenting was the real culprit. While he acknowledged that it was “horrendous to treat a child like this,” he said he has “sympathy for people in authority” who get mad when kids don’t listen to instructions.
2. That Time He Expressed Concerns Over a Demographic Threat of Muslims Created by Refugee Crisis: Here’s Maher worrying that all the refugees might make Europe “less moderate and tolerant.”
3. That Time He Justified Israel Killing Palestinians Because 'People Die in Wars': During a show from summer 2014, Maher asked his panel why there were protests over Israel and not Islamic terrorist groups. When guest Reza Aslan pointed out that people are often protesting the United States government’s financial connection to the occupation, Maher shot back: “It's a war. It's a war that Hamas started and somehow when Israel reacts to this they have to do everything that doesn't kill any civilians. People die in wars. Now, I've said this before on this show, if the situation was reversed, Hamas would kill every single person in Israel. The reason why that is not happening is because they can't. Because they can't doesn't make them good, it makes them weak.”
4. That Time He Joked the President Should Kill Antiwar Activist Medea Benjamin With a Drone After She Interrupted the President’s Speech in Protest.
5. That Time He Said He Was Fine With NSA Spying Because He Trusts Obama: “I’m okay with [illegal NSA spying] now that Obama’s in office,” Maher said in 2013. “I’m kind of trusting of him. But President Ted Cruz? Where this is going would bother me.” Maher added, “The fact that a city can be just demolished in one second kind of tips the scale for me. I’m not saying to look into your emails is the right thing, I’m just saying, I’m not gonna pretend it’s ’cause I’m brave; it’s ’cause I’m scared.”
6. That Time He Defended the Iraq War/Bush By Saying Iraq Was Like the U.S. in 1786: Here’s a Maher point from 2013: “If you looked at America in 1786, didn’t look that great, right? And I also must say, I’ve got to admit, it’s a country that’s standing. I thought it wouldn’t be. It’s actually doing better than I thought it would be. Is it a great country? No. Does it have a lot of problems? Yes. But there actually is a country standing there.”
7. That Time He Compared Jay Leno to Israel: When Maher inducted his friend into the Television Academy Hall Of Fame, he gave a speech comparing Leno to Israel. He explained the curious comparison like this: "He’s not perfect, but he’s held to a standard that no one else in the world is expected to live up to other than him.”
8. That Time He Said the Vietnam War Was Necessary Because It Allowed Ronald Reagan to say, 'Tear Down That Wall' Years Later: Here’s an amazing moment from the days of "Politically Incorrect" in 2001: The assembled panel includes the late Christopher Hitchens, actress Whoopi Goldberg, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, and conservative radio host Dennis Prager, debating the morality of the Vietnam War. “How do you stop evil, if not with greater force?” Maher asked, referring to the Vietnamese fight for independence.
After Goldberg asks Maher to defend U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, he responds with a very creative interpretation: “It was so Reagan could stand there and say ‘Tear down this wall’ and at that point the Russians could go, 'You know what, the Americans have proved to us that they’re willing to stand up to the bully.' If we had not fought Vietnam, Reagan could not have had his photo-op and this Cold War would never have ended.”
9. That Time He Said Arab Men Need Civilizing and Dating Them Is 'Not Good': Like many New Atheists faux-liberals Maher only bothers with feminism when it serves as an excuse to bash Muslims. In 2011, in an argument with Tavis Smiley over sexism in the Middle East, Maher insisted that “civilization begins with civilizing the men” and “Talk to women who’ve ever dated an Arab man. The results are not good.”
11. That Time He Said Israel 'Had Cause' to Use a Nuclear Weapon: “I love Israel,” he added, “but you know, if you fuck with them they will blow the fuck out of you.”
16. That Time He Told Rep. Keith Ellison that the Qur'an Is a 'Hate-Filled Holy Book': This was part of an argument Maher was trying to make about the unique threat Islam poses to western society. His next point? “They are trying to get nuclear weapons, I don’t think Tim McVeigh would ever have tried to get a nuclear weapon….”
17. That Time He Compared Hamas to a 'Crazy Woman': In true Maher form, he used his considerable Twitter following to reduce both the Palestinian resistance and women to cartoon versions of themselves, tweeting, “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.” He sent the tweet at the height of Israel’s assault on Gaza, which left over 1500 Palestinian civilians—and six Israelis—dead.
18. That Time He Called a Black Lives Matter Protestor a 'Fucking Idiot': In February, South Carolina activist Ashley Williams wanted to confront Hillary Clinton for using the term "superpredator" in the 1990s, which has since been denounced as dogwhistle racism. In response, Maher lambasted Williams, calling her a "fucking idiot" for daring to attack a Democrat.
19. That Time He Mocked the Serbs as NATO Dropped Bombs on Them: There’s nothing Maher likes more than supporting U.S. wars abroad under the guise of edgy truthtelling. In 1999 when the U.S. was bombing Serbia, he took time out to mock those being bombed:
So let me be the first to say I am so sorry that supporting a genocidal regime has turned into such a hassle for you. I'm sorry if our bombing has delayed the delivery of your J. Crew catalog or screwed up your commute. And by the way, if I were you, I would write a strongly worded letter to the transit authority, because I've seen your bridges, and frankly, they're a mess. [laughter and applause] Believe me, we would never have started bombing them if we realized it was keeping you from getting to Tae-Bo class. So maybe what you yuppie fascists need to do is stop supporting an evil dictator who is hellbent on eliminating an entire people just because their ancestors kicked your ancestors' asses 600 years ago. Let it go. You're yuppies, get some therapy. [laughter] Get your moral clock working. Let me give you a hint. If in your language you have ever used the phrase, "can I get to the mall if I make a left at the death camp" [laughter] you might be a redneck.
The NATO bombing campaign killed 2,000 civilians.
20. That Time He Mocked an NFL Player Allegedly Choking a Woman and Called Her a 'Bitch': While it turned out Merriman was indeed innocent, Maher managed to mock the idea of domestic abuse, telling his audience, “Stop acting surprised someone choked Tila Tequila! The surprise is that someone hadn’t choked the bitch sooner.”