As those of you who read me frequently will know, I am a critic of those who would blame the acts of madmen and extremists on their political enemies. On this point I believe I am consistent. I objected strongly to those conservatives who blamed the shooting at the Family Research Council on the Southern Poverty Law Center. I publicly criticized those on the right who blamed a shooting spree in California on MSNBC, Piers Morgan, and co. And I knocked harshly those on my own side who blamed anti-cop protestors for the assassination of two police officers in New York City. I will continue to so object, regardless of whether I happen to like or to agree with the people who are being blamed. If we are to live in a culture that hosts a robust political debate, we cannot shame our more outspoken types when their words are picked up by criminals. Yes, obliquely blaming her opponents for the shooting in Charleston might help Hillary Clinton get to the White House. But it does not help America, or the ideals for which it stands. Words do not pull triggers, people do. We are either for personal responsibility or we are not.
It is thus that I read with horror this morning that Bill Maher had jumped onto the blame-the-television bandwagon. As you might expect, I have many profound disagreements with Maher. But he is usually strong on the question of speech. Unlike many, he does not cower in the face of violent Islamic extremists who would silence their critics. Unlike most on his side of the aisle, he has little time for political correctness or for neo-puritanism. And, unlike the progressive movement to which his hit show caters, he has been admirably outspoken against our ugly tendency to crucify in public those whose private views contradict the zeitgeist.
Yesterday evening, alas, Maher elected to join with the hacks and the partisans, and to blame the shooting in Charleston on conservatives in the media:
Bill Maher’s gloves came off on Friday, as the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher slammed the right wing for influencing the warped worldview of [the shooter], the vile terrorist who shot nine African-Americans to death in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in order to, he said, “start a race war.”
Specifically, Maher criticized right-wing media, including conservative-leaning news organizations like Fox News, The Drudge Report, and The Daily Caller, for helping to mold the racist mind of [the shooter].
“Well, we can never tell why someone snaps, but I bet you I can tell ya where he got his news,” Maher said. “I looked at [The Daily Caller] the last week, it was a lot of stories about black people. Same with Matt Drudge. I think they present a really twisted view. I’m not surprised this guy thought they’re ‘taking over the country.’ Obviously, he has a warped mind, that’s going into it, but I don’t think it was video games. And I do think the media is responsible to a degree. I wouldn’t say we should be droning Fox News, but we did drone Anwar al-Awlaki because he inspired people. He didn’t do terrorist acts, he just inspired them.”
A neutral observer might say, “Really?” Leaving to one side the many obvious problems with this approach — I shall not repeat them all here; you can find my case repeated many times in my archive — there is probably nobody in the country who is more poorly placed to level this critique than Bill Maher. Indeed, for better or for worse, Maher is precisely the sort of person who is likely to one day find his words scrawled inside a serial killer’s manifesto. His whole goddamned shtick is to find a target he dislikes, and then to vilify it over and over and over again while his audience claps away. Per Maher, conservatives are ruining the country; Republicans are fascists who, according to one of Maher’s guests, should all be dead; Islam is full of terrible and dangerous ideas; Christians are irrational rubes who are standing in the way of progress; and if only we could get rid of most of the “rednecks,” America would be a great country. Individual figures, meanwhile — say, Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, etc. — are there to be ripped apart, often in an extremely personal way.
Naturally, Maher is within his rights to behave as he wishes, and to attack anyone with as much vim as he deems appropriate. Indeed, I would defend his right to do so any day of the week. But to spend your Fridays verbally berating your opponents and then in the next breath to turn around and to suggest that doing so leads inexorably to mass killings; well that’s a little bit much. If the “media is responsible,” then so is Bill Maher.