Bill Maher: it’s not the words he used, it’s how he used them

Our fear of the “N-word” only makes it stronger, but Maher used it for a cheap laugh. This is not acceptable and he knows it.

Bill Maher stepped in it on his last show and now a lot of people are calling for his head. He (and HBO) have apologized, and for the moment it doesn’t look as though the network has any plans to sack him, although that could change.

At issue is this exchange between Maher and frequent guest Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb), who invites Maher to visit Nebraska.

Sasse: We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.

Maher: Work in the fields? Senator … I’m a house nigger.”

This sort of controversy isn’t new to Maher, who uses his position to poke – hard – at a range of prickly socio-political issues facing our society. This is work that needs doing. In a world where our “leaders” refuse to do the right thing under any circumstances and in which journalism has largely abdicated its historical role of exposing corruption and excess, the task of holding those in power accountable has fallen to artists and comedians (as it always has – this is not a new dynamic). If no one shines a light on the evil among us, then it’s free to suck us deeper and deeper into the darkness.

If what I’m describing doesn’t sound at all familiar to you, welcome to America. Is this your first visit?

If we were keeping a running score, we’d find that I’m usually on Maher’s side. He’s smart as hell, he’s excruciatingly funny, he has a useful mean streak and he’s not afraid to speak truth to power. Literally, across the desk to power, as his guests routinely include conservative and establishment “moderate” figures who are the very face of the disease afflicting us.

I say usually. But not always. Bill gets it wrong on occasion. Take the recent Milo Yiannopoulos controversy. I really don’t agree with Maher’s decision to give the punk a platform, but I understand the point he was trying to make and I believe he made the call in good faith. Sometimes with agitators like Maher you have to accept a little bad with the good. Nature of the game. Now, if you’re put off by smarminess and condescension, I get why he may grate on you.

In this case, though, Maher fucked up. Badly. Not because he used the “N-word,” but because of how he used it.

As I have made clear here before, I think our terror of speaking that horrible epithet aloud under any circumstances only lends it more power. It shouldn’t be bandied about casually, but we have made those two syllables so taboo that when they are spoken the impact is positively nuclear. Shattering. Traffic-stopping.

A quick review of our archive indicates that I have used the term in S&R posts 17 times over the past decade, and twice I have specifically used “house nigger.” So I’m positioned to compare and contrast what Maher did with what I have done. Ultimately it comes down to purpose and context.

For me, that word is a stick. I do not use it against blacks, I use it against racists. I use it to mock, because in my experience few things are more effective at making a point about racial hatred than the racists themselves. If you want to know the depths of their ignorance, the best way to learn it is simply to listen to them speak. Take this example from the past week:

When I want to make a point about racism, then, nothing is quite as powerful as putting the words in the mouths of the guilty. I don’t believe in sanitizing a racist rant by typing “n—–.” That lets the hillbilly off the hook. It makes them seem a tad less evil, and if I do that I’m aiding and abetting.

I also don’t believe in letting people euphemize their way to a more “respectable” place. In a 2012 piece on the insensate vitriol aimed at former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, I put the screws to boxer Bernard Hopkins, who tried to say something ugly without owning it.

But that bit of barking gongbattery was nothing compared to the bombshell that boxer Bernard Hopkins dropped on D-Mac the other day. The headline of the story actually puts it mildly: Boxer Bernard Hopkins questions Donovan McNabb’s blackness.

“Why do you think McNabb felt he was betrayed? Because McNabb is the guy in the house, while everybody else is on the field. He’s the one who got the extra coat. The extra servings. ‘You’re our boy,”‘ Hopkins said, patting a reporter on the back in illustration. “He thought he was one of them.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Bernard Hopkins just called one of the NFL’s most successful quarterbacks, a likely Hall of Famer, a house nigger. Not that he means it in a bad way, of course. He goes on to say that he thinks McNabb is a “nice guy. I’d trust him around my kids.” Well, duh. Massa didn’t invite the cannibals up to the house, right?

I did all I could to make this passage sound as mean as I could because a point needed making about Hopkins. Had I tap-danced the way he did it might all have passed as innocuously as a routine celebrity beef.

In other words, I employ that nasty word to make a point about nasty racial injustice and hatred.

This isn’t what Maher did, and he knows it. Go back and read the exchange. Maher was making no point, he was condemning no evil, he was calling no racist to account. He simply tossed “house nigger” out in a moment of light banter, as a way to get a laugh.

I’ve never seen anything from Maher to suggest that he’s a bigot. I know that a number of people disagree with me, and in particular he has been assailed for his comments on Islam. To be sure, he has laid blame for Islamist terror on the doorstep of the religion.

My take is a bit more nuanced. I’m an atheist, you see, and I’m not blind to the actions, through the millennia, conducted in the name of one god or another. Extreme (and simply inaccurate) interpretations of Islamic teaching fuel some of the worst atrocities in our world today. Period. Of course, the same is true (and has been for centuries) of Christianity. And Hinduism. And even Buddhism, which is popularly painted as an inherently peaceful ideology.

Truth is, the world is full of bad people and we have a world full of religions that they can turn to for justification of their hatred and violence. Sure, they can act on their innate impulses without religion, but make no mistake – nothing is quite so inspiring as the knowledge that killing innocents is God’s will.

This doesn’t mean all Muslims are bad. Duh. Or Christians. Or Hindus. Or Buddhists. The indictment isn’t about all the individual worthy adherents. It’s about the political structure of these large organizations and the belief systems open to all manner of corrosive interpretation.

So I do not agree with those who call Maher a bigot. I think there’s a real, important conversation to be had around these issues, although I have no hope whatsoever that this conversation is going to be had anytime soon. Maybe this is another post entirely.

In the end, Maher is right to apologize. He messed up. Badly. He used weaponized language casually, gratuitously, in service to mere entertainment. This was wrong for all the obvious reasons, and more importantly it was wrong because in doing so he diminished his own credibility and kneecapped his mission to draw serious attention to critically important issues like racial injustice.

It takes years to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it. I don’t know how bad the fallout will eventually get, and when all is said and done he may lose his show.

Regardless, that one line hurt his brand badly, both in the eyes of those who hated him to start with as well as with those of us who respected him.

Bill has some work to do.


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