Bill Maher, Freedom of Speech, and the War on Terrorism

Recently comedian, and host of HBO television program Real Time, Bill Maher, presented a commentary on freedom of speech, which is odd because from his commentary it seems that Maher has absolutely no idea what that phrase, ‘freedom of speech’, even means. The crux of Maher’s argument seems to be that if I do not like what you have to say, and take steps to ensure that the microphone into which you say it is either reduced in size, or stripped from you entirely, then I am violating the ‘liberal’ tradition of freedom of speech. Maher likes to use these monologues on his show to occasionally target his own side, liberals, for criticism. So, two of the prominent examples of this poor, poor behavior Maher cites are the tendency for liberals to castigate certain kinds of speech as hateful, bigoted, or racist, and the online campaign to pressure Rush Limbaugh’s commercial sponsors into ending their economic partnership with his program.

First of all, ‘freedom of speech’ has absolutely nothing to do with most of what Maher said in his monologue. The only pieces of the monologue to which such liberal values and traditions as ‘freedom of speech’ applies is the example of the anti-Semitic comedian in France who was recently arrested for his comments about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and the criminal statutes in France that target Holocaust denial. Everything else in Maher’s monologue is completely, utterly, irrelevant to the issue at hand; that issue being ‘freedom of speech’ of course. Now, it is not a surprise that Maher takes such a position on this issue. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks Maher was fired from his television show ‘Politically Incorrect’ on ABC because of his comments that firing cruise missiles from thousands of miles away from one’s target is cowardly, as the U.S. military had done in the years before 9/11 in its attempts to assassinate Osama bin Laden, while hijacking planes and flying them into buildings is not.
Not to mention all the times he has been targeted for protest, and boycott, because of his criticisms of religion. Maher, being a comedian and political pundit, relies quite heavily on his ability to proffer his opinion on television, and on stage, in exchange for handfuls of cash and is therefore quite sensitive to any efforts to punish certain forms of speech. But, ‘freedom of speech’ only applies to speech targeted by the government for censorship. It is irrelevant in the context of someone offering an opinion I do not like and my taking steps to criticize, condemn, and punish the other person. How exactly does Bill Maher think that the conversation around such issues as sexism, racism, or political issues of any kind, evolve without this back and forth process of reward and punishment?

Now, let us examine this concept of ‘freedom of speech’ within the context of capitalism. Capitalism is a class system with certain power relations. So, who really has ‘freedom of speech’, and what do they say with such freedom? Certainly the handful of corporate conglomerates that control so much of what Americans read, watch, and hear each day have a greater amount of ‘freedom of speech’ than I do with this measly little blog. What do they have to say with the untold amount of resources at their beck and call? Their speech is deliberately designed to reinforce specific social and economic relations, relations that sustain and perpetuate the very circumstances that result in their continued presence as arbiters of permissible speech. So, we have speech that either seeks to promote the status, or speech that seeks to undermine it; speech that seeks to aid the afflicted, or speech that seeks perpetuate their affliction; speech that seeks to undermine oppression, or expand its hegemony. Purveyors of capitalist ideology such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher ultimately have one thing in common, despite their other ideological divergences, and that is ensuring that those without real power are left with no voice beyond corporate sponsors such as themselves.

Finally, Maher offers another critique of liberals as it relates to ‘freedom of speech’ and violence. Maher offers quotes from liberal journalist Glenn Greenwald, and a protest sign he witnessed during the protests that took place during a recent commencement speech he was asked to give to a graduating class at Berkley University that stated “Islamophobia kills”; clear comments about the role that anti-Muslim speech plays in creating the ideological context for the violence inflicted by the Western World on Muslim countries that so often kills innocent people rather than, or along with, the violent extremists. Maher disagreed, offering instead the AK47s, beheadings, and the planes into buildings, as examples of… what, I do not know. Maher seemed to be trying to make the case that it is the violence perpetrated by terrorists that provokes the violence of the Western World.

But, given the syntax of his previous sentence, in the context of the quotes he provides, it seems as though he is removing the responsibility for the violence inflicted on the innocent by the Western World in Western Asia from the governments perpetrating it, and placing that responsibility with the innocent victims of that violence, and those deserving it. Nevertheless, what Maher seems unable to recognize is that acts of terrorism such as those perpetrated on Charlie Hebdo do not occur in a vacuum. They are not unilateral acts of violence, but are instead instances of violence and counter-violence. The violence carried out on the streets of Paris is one battle in an ideological war being waged by the Western World against Islamist extremism. And Maher seems incapable of recognizing that both sides need an ideological infrastructure in order to rally supporters to their cause. Islamic extremists use the Koran, and the Western World uses the racist cartoons of outlets such as Charlie Hebdo, among many others form of political discourse, to convince its people to support military interventions in Muslim countries. And this is not even accounting for the true nature of this conflict, which is the necessary economic expansion and domination of Global Capitalism over every market on the planet.

In the end most of these considerations are beyond the contemplative power of a mind such as Bill Maher’s. Maher cannot see his misunderstanding of the notion of ‘freedom of speech’, much less the power relations of a class system as capitalism, and the role that economic imperialism plays in this conflict. So, while he may oppose direct military intervention of Western Asia by government like France, Britain, or the United States, he will support the underlying War on Terrorism because of his distaste for religion. I too have a distaste for religion, and agree with much of his criticism of Islam, but as a savvy observer of geopolitics it is clear to me that this conflict ultimately has little to do with religion beyond the fact that Islam has become an ideological system for opposing the hegemony of Global Capitalism and therefore must be targeted. As it stands, it seems unlikely that the grand American jester Bill Maher will ever understand that.

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