The Rockaway Irregular
The other night I watched Bill Maher on HBO and felt, when it was over, like I’d been on another planet. Actually, it felt like many other discussions I’ve had recently with those who style themselves politically liberal. Indeed, it was little more than a series of endless diatribes by Maher and his guests directed against Bush, Republicans, conservatives, big business and those they called the “Jesus Freaks” of the religious right. Maher is actually very funny when he gets going but his political views often seem to lie somewhere between Karl Marx and Bugs Bunny.
In his earlier show (now canceled) he used to play a more even-handed game, as I recall. (And he did take a single, almost obligatory swipe at Bill Clinton when he made a joke about the former president in New Orleans, presumably to demonstrate a bit of balance.) But he’s clearly come out of the closet with guns blazing now as he pursues his Republican political targets with a previously unknown abandon.
In between his righteously indignant use of four letter expletives in referring to those with whom he has political disagreements, he found time to call President Bush a “clod” and to flash a series of unflattering photos of the president on screen. Well, it is a comedy show, I suppose, so what else is one to expect?
As Maher and his panel of guests warmed to a discussion of the recent events surrounding Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, Maher continuously turned the spotlight on alleged federal missteps in responding, laying this solely at the feet of the Bush administration, who were, he joked, supposed to be competent but have now shown themselves to be anything but. When one of his guests, an African-American woman writer named Mary Frances Berry noted that all levels of government had, in her view, failed to live up to public expectations during Katrina and its aftermath, Maher, amazingly, cut her off in mid-sentence and re-directed the discussion onto Bush and the Republicans alone, crowing as he did, that this is “Bush’s Waterloo” and that the Republicans are finished now.
It was clear that the “discussion” he was conducting was nothing more than a Bush bashing symposium and no digressions from the official line would be permitted. As Maher and his guests laced into their perceived political ‘foes’, from Bush to Cheney to Rumsfeld to Chertoff to Brown . . . and even Pat Robertson (who, of course, is not part of the administration) . . . and as another of Maher’s guests, Michael Eric Dyson, filibustered about how racism lay at the bottom of it all, Maher, the audience repeatedly erupted in massive howls of applause.
Watching Maher and his buddies in action, I saw, as never before, that this has long since ceased to be about ideas and facts. It has become, to all intents and purposes, a battle of wills and the left, in its growing frustration from ongoing political defeats, finally smells conservative blood in the water. It’s true that, along with the gratuitous insults directed by Maher and company against political conservatives and the administration, there was, an occasional idea thrown in. But the ideas were never seriously discussed or considered by Maher and his guests. Each claim, however outrageous, was met by cheers and the mutual approval of the panel members, though even this barely slowed the pace of the competing tirades, as one guest jumped in after the other to top his or her predecessor in an orgy of self-congratulatory cleverness directed at the president and his administration.
There was no time to consider, and no one on the show with any apparent interest in actually thinking about, any of the ideas that lay behind their sometimes outrageous claims. The “discussion” seemed mainly to be about a kind of flag-waving, as though each participant was competing with his or her cohorts to raise the banner ever higher so that those in the audience, who were expected to simply agree with whatever was being said, could rally round. It was a call to political arms and about backslapping one another at the anticipated downfall of a common political enemy.
As Maher and his companions guffawed over the claimed failures of the federal government to act effectively and in a timely manner to save New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, it had the odd feel of a liberal victory party.
Frankly, with this kind of mind-set, I don’t see how there can be any room left for political dialogue. The political left, as evidenced by Maher and company, surely isn’t interested in discourse at this time (if they ever were). They just want to finally drive those Republicans out of Washington, as Lenin used to say, by any means necessary.
Indeed, Dyson said as much when he lambasted mainstream Democratic politicians for not taking every available opportunity to go after the president and Republicans. He said they had to learn to be more “opportunistic”! (Didn’t that used to be a bad thing? And doesn’t the left routinely castigate Republicans for allegedly acting in that way?) It seems that it’s not a matter of winning with better ideas for these folks but of using every opportunity to tear down and wear down their opposition.
Although those of us who still believe in dialogue and discourse will continue making our case to the small number of Americans who may yet be open-minded enough to listen in these days of increased national polarization, I can’t help thinking that real discussion and genuine inquiry into public policy questions now seem to have been rendered futile.
What a travesty for the political life of our nation.