Tag Archives: Bill Maher

Bursting the bubble

Bubble Rain.  Source:  Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.
Bubble Rain. Source: Steve Jurvetson, Creative Commons license.

Reza Aslan has had an interesting week in the limelight.  A few days following an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, he became the newest viral video sensation when an “interview” he did/was subjected to on Fox News garnered an impressive level of coverage, for both the stupidity of the questions he was being asked and his unflappable calm in responding to them; akin, as some have observed, to a teacher instructing a babbling child.  As he mentions in the clip, Aslan is an impeccably credentialed academic who has made a career of studying and writing about religion, and so, to be interrogated repeatedly by a person whose education beyond fourth grade is dubious (at least based on this clip), “why does a Muslim want to write a book about Christ?” is probably the intellectual equivalent of being asked who he’s wearing on the red carpet tonight.  The embarrassing affair veers further of the rails when she begins badgering him about why he hasn’t revealed that he’s a Muslim before (he has, on multiple occasions), as she panders to that sizable portion of the Fox demographic that presumes Muslim = al-Qaeda.  The blatant anti-intellectualism would be galling if it weren’t so unsurprising, if one did not have to assume that the interviewer’s questions were prepared and approved enthusiastically (with frat boy giggles, in all odds) by a cynical producer seeking to perpetuate an insular, terribly biased view of the world for the benefit of Fox’s ratings.

Bill Maher is fond of pointing out that conservatives live in a bubble where they cannot accept anything that challenges how they choose to view the world.  It is quite possible the person conducting the interview with Aslan was so committed to this mindset that why a Muslim would write a book on Christ simply would not compute.  When you sacrifice the scary world of the unknown for the comforting confines of dogma, of course the curiosity of others becomes impossible to understand.  That’s why you get members of Congress (on science and technology committees, of all things) claiming defiantly that we don’t need to worry about global warming because God promised Noah he would never flood the world again.  But this notion that one should stay inside the lines, refrain from asking questions about things we don’t understand and (horrors!) actively explore topics that interest us despite their seeming to have no relation to our own lives, goes against the very notion of human progress.  If we don’t venture out of the cave we don’t discover fire.  If we presume that the earth is flat and there is nothing beyond the ocean sea, I’m writing this post in England right now (actually, I’m probably scrawling it in ink on parchment).  If we accept that the moon is made of green cheese we don’t have Apollo 11.  We have to ask questions about things that are foreign to us.  We have to examine viewpoints that contradict ours.  In the case of persons of faith, it’s what strengthens that faith – for unchallenged it is not faith at all.  For those of us who choose not to walk the religious path, it’s gathering those elusive nuggets of truth that help us sort out our own thoughts on What It’s All About.  And that sometimes means examining religion too, even if Fox News can’t understand why we would do it.  Curiosity is a trait borne of hunger, from a dissatisfaction with the distasteful notion of accepting things as they are.  Being unwilling to accept limits.  Curiosity is what makes us smash through those limits with an iron fist and reach for what’s hidden on the other side.  You never know, it might be something good.

We are fortunate to be living in this time, when the world has geared itself like a finely-tuned clock toward the indulgence of curiosity, when information is readily available to those who seek it out.  The human thirst for progress has led us here, centuries from the era when the Fox News illiterati whom we now laugh at with millions of snarky voices were once those who would have had us burned at the stake in a heartbeat for uttering a single syllable against their ridiculously narrow view of the cosmos.  Millions of opinions on just as many issues are published every single day and we are free to sort through the noise to find the songs we want to add to our ever-expanding repertoire.  Why would a Muslim want to write a book on Christ?  Because he can.  And we should want to read it for the same reason (in a happy ending for him, Aslan’s book Zealot has hit #1 on Amazon’s rankings this week).  That’s how we learn.  Which, one supposes, is the real danger to the folks like the purveyors of Fox News who rely on closed minds to replenish their bank accounts – fill a bubble with too much knowledge and it bursts.

Give me Maher!

With the recent political swing to the right in Toronto, first with Rob Ford, then with the Conservative GTA wins in the federal election, you’d think there wouldn’t be much of an appetite for Bill Maher’s brand of comedy in Hogtown.  But a packed Massey Hall couldn’t get enough of him last Saturday night.  For 90 minutes the master of taking the piss out of the American right-wing was slicing and dicing the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum, to a crowd that thankfully doesn’t have to face the prospect of a ballot with any of those names on it, but was still informed enough to understand just how deserving of mockery those targets are.  (Curious how Rick Mercer might have done with a set on Stephen Harper and Rob Ford in Texas – I’m guessing crickets, and that’s nothing against Mercer.)  To any regular viewer of HBO’s Real Time, some of the wisecracks were familiar.  But Maher delivers them with such verve you can laugh at them again and feel like it’s the first time.  It’s all still hilarious, and ever so true.

Those of a certain political inclination inclined to dismiss Bill Maher as a “loony leftie” miss the point.  His politics, and by extension his comedy, isn’t about left and right, it’s about intelligent and stupid.  Maher is, like Aaron Sorkin in many ways, if not an idealist, then at least someone who prefers to be led by smart and curious people and has no patience for the kind of false populism that celebrates the mediocre and the small-minded.  Religion is a particular bugbear for him – among the best jokes of the night was a bit about how the West has learned to ignore its religious leaders (in contrast to fundamentalist regimes abroad) and a prediction that the Pope will one day be nothing more than a  float robotically blessing the onlookers in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade.  For Maher, looking to the imaginary guy in the sky for answers is the refuge of the foolish, and he saves his most bitter disdain for scheming politicians like Rick Perry who prey on that naivete to win votes.  I don’t suspect Bill Maher would have as much of a problem with the likes of Perry and Bachmann if they didn’t parade their faith around like a political prop.  It’s when faith is used in lieu of reasoned arguments that gets Maher’s hackles up.  These aren’t the William F. Buckleys of decades past laying out their case in thought-out paragraphs spiced with Latin.  Today it’s Southern-accented fire and brimstone and the all-consuming, earth-ending threat of gay marriage.

The conservative comedian Dennis Miller, for all his verbal calisthenics and classical references, these days comes off only as sad and angry – not in the rebellious sense, but more in the mold of that kid at the party who was only invited because his mom pulled some strings.  Miller’s repertoire has become a tired litany of ramblings about Joe Biden’s hair and Nancy Pelosi’s makeup – he’s mainly upset because his team didn’t win.  Bill Maher, on the other hand, remains fresh and inspired because he doesn’t really care which team wins – he just wants both teams to be better.  His targets are anyone he sees to be dragging the whole cause down:  a refrain repeated often during the show, with a hand covering his face was “I’m embarrassed for my country.”  He isn’t afraid to take shots at President Obama either, bemoaning what he sees as a pattern of capitulation to the Tea Party extremists in Congress who are determined to see him fail.  But what bothers Maher most is what he sees as America’s hypocrisy-fueled descent into idiocracy; an electorate swayed by celebrity into voting against their own interests time and again, and a political movement that claims to be for the common man but is in fact backed by billionaires and underpinned with a very real, very ugly swath of racism.  The fact that he’s out there making jokes about it, even to a foreign audience, suggests that he thinks there is still hope – if the good people can find their feet and their guts and start taking the power back.

You might miss that message amidst all the laughs, and the occasional side ventures into the never-ending mine of the perplexity that is male-female relations.  But Bill Maher knows that the best way to serve up wisdom is with a smile.  You come out of his show with your sides hurting and your mind thinking.  Maybe the way we beat these guys is to make them ridiculous.  It’s certainly a lot more fun than hate.