Politics & Policy

Maher-ophobia at Berkeley

What are students so afraid of hearing from Bill Maher?

A few weeks ago, when actor Ben Affleck’s precious little tirade on the evils of “Islamophobia” presented Bill Maher with the rare opportunity to play the villain on his own television show, I thought perhaps Maher might learn something from the experience. As I can attest from personal experience, it is rather lonely in the Token Conservative’s chair, the audience’s ruthless ideological conformity and the tendency of the bookers to flood the stage with disciples rather than apostates combining to engender a hostile environment for the heretics. At one level, it is an invigorating experience: The Alamo comes to mind. At others, it is futile, attempts to puncture the bubble being met by a wall of hastily strung-together buzzwords that are intended primarily to identify the speaker as a “racist” or an “ignoramus” or as a lackey for the rich and the well-connected. Unlettered as his contribution was, that Affleck had pushed Maher into the corner and given him a solid taste of his own shtick struck me as being an interesting development indeed. Perhaps, I mused, he might notice what shouting does to public reason?

I am, of course, unsure whether Maher has reflected upon the incident at all. But if he has not, perhaps he will be pushed into doing so now? “Sooner or later,” Freddie deBoer predicted, in an essay that I cannot recommend with enough vigor, the social-justice police are “going to come for people you do like.” And so, at last, they have. Per the Daily Californian, students at UC Berkeley who were informed this week that Maher was to be their commencement speaker have “sprung” into action and demanded vehemently that the invitation be rescinded. Thus far, a Change.org petition that was spearheaded “by Marium Navid, who is backed by the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian Coalition, or MEMSA, and Khwaja Ahmed, an active MEMSA member” has received over 1,400 signatures. Among its core complaints? That Maher believes Western civilization is “not just different,” it is “better”; that “the Muslim world has too much in common with ISIS”; and that “dealing with Hamas is like dealing with a crazy woman who’s trying to kill you — you can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her.” “Too many students,” the petition claims, “are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities.”

Naturally, Berkeley can do whatever it wants. And yet those seeking to exclude Maher should be brutally honest about what they are asking for. To the terminally silly, vapid slogans such as “Free Speech, Not Hate Speech” may sound cuddly and persuasive. To the less credulous among us, however, they are recognized for precisely what they are: an attempt to rationalize the brand of we-are-the-world dogmatism that is currently — shamefully — en vogue within the academy. Maher has no legal right to speak at Berkeley. But, as John Stuart Mill correctly observed, a healthy culture of free expression requires all of us to look farther than the authority of the magistrate and to actively indulge those who would dissent from the crowd. When students say that this is “not an issue of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of campus climate,” they are in abject denial, merely replacing one word for another. As far as I am aware, Maher is not proposing to come dressed in a Nazi uniform, nor does he intend to parade around the quadrangle with a rifle slung over his back. Rather, he is coming to give a talk. Whatever changes to the “campus climate” might result from his presence would, then, be the result of his words and of nothing else besides. H. L. Mencken observed that “when somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.” So it is, too, with speech. If they were to acknowledge this, the more perceptive among the class of 2014 might inquire as to what exactly their peers’ stance says about them and about their university. Maher’s appearance, campus senior Alex Chang frets in the Californian, “could definitely ruin someone’s graduation day.” If this degree of intellectual emasculation is typical among his peers, one cannot help but wonder how Chang will fare in the outside world.

Amusingly, the affair has only served to bolster Maher’s trenchant criticisms of both liberalism and Islam. Rarely, I suspect, has a news outlet written a sentence as grimly comical as this one:

“Islam is the only religion that acts like the mafia that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing,” Maher said during the episode, which is cited on the students’ petition as an example of Maher’s “hate speech.”

Because Maher suggested that Muslims are intolerant and that they will shut down those who criticize their religion, Maher has criticized their religion and must be disinvited from speaking. 

One wonders if we are honestly expected to believe that it is a coincidence that the backlash against Maher has started in the last month. In recent years, the man has described Sarah Palin as a “c***” and a “twat,” and he has casually taunted her son with Down Syndrome, Trig, for cheap laughs, terming him a “retard.” Elsewhere, Maher has expressed fervent hope that Vice President Dick Cheney would die, has cast anybody of a conservative disposition as a redneck intent on destroying civilization, and has proposed that, all in all, the United States is “a stupid country with stupid people.” His attacks on Christians are legendary, his irritation with the church of his upbringing having prompted him to make a polemical movie in which he castigated people of faith. Catholics, Maher has joked on television, are “schizophrenic” morons, who believe that they are “drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god.” Must I go on?

As valiantly as the Berkeley dissidents attempt to appear ecumenical — “Maher,” Marium Navid proposes slipperily, “insults people of all religions and backgrounds,” and to the extent that he has urged people to “rise up against religious people and religious institutions and take action” — the implications are glaringly obvious. Nobody is the slightest bit concerned about the possibility of Maher’s “ruining the graduation day” of Mormon, Southern, Christian, or pro-life students — and nor, I daresay, would this pushback have moved beyond idle grumbling if it were Republicans who were likely to be offended. (The last major address at Berkeley was given by none other than Nancy Pelosi.) Rather, as Maher himself might note, this is about his condemnation of Islam, which religion is at present so reflexively privileged above almost everything else in the hierarchy of progressive pieties that one cannot imagine who among us would not be sacrificed if its adherents expressed discomfort. If Ayaan Hirsi Ali is unwelcome at Brandeis for having excoriated a religion whose followers have subjected her to genital mutilation and attempted to take her life, what chance has a comic on HBO?

Buried within the dissenting petition’s collection of apparently unutterable sentiments is Maher’s charge that “today, feminine values are now the values of America, sensitivity is more important than truth, feelings are more important than facts.” It would be difficult to imagine a more damning confirmation that this is indeed the case than that, for having exhibited the temerity to issue harsh judgments on a religion that one is not supposed to disparage, Maher was deemed too likely to hurt the feelings of college students to be permitted to speak in public.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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