Tag Archives: real time with 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.

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Kicking stupid to the curb

There’s a person in the U.S. who thinks abortion should be banned because fetuses masturbate.  There was another one a few weeks ago who claimed that yoga was a gateway to Satanism.  Are these the random ravings of a guy on a street corner with a cardboard sign proclaiming the imminent arrival of the apocalypse?  No, they are statements made in seriousness by elected officials.  People who have managed to convince a sizable number of other people to entrust them with a position of real power and influence.  On last Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, one of the panelists, herself a Republican (oh yeah, the aforementioned remarks were both made by Republicans, as if you needed to guess) thought the “masturbating fetuses” comment represented a tipping point, and that sanity would begin to reassert itself on the right wing.  What has become abundantly clear over the last decade where politics is concerned is that there is no such thing as a tipping point anymore.  Every time we think we’ve reached the limit of the pendulum swing towards “the crazy,” someone else doubles down.  And someone else doubles down again on that someone else.  Forget tipping points – we’ve fallen off the cliff, and we’re competing to see who can scream loudest on the way down.

Last year’s comedy The Campaign was supposed to be an absurdist take on an escalating battle of nutbars for a congressional seat, and as star Zach Galifianakis observed, they found themselves out-absurded by real life.  Birtherism, “You lie,” the 47%, “legitimate rape,” Sarah Palin, anchor baby terrorism, unborn self-pleasure and Downward Dog apparently now being a reference to Cerberus, absolutely none of this meme-ready dumbassery, enough to cost any one of us regular folks our jobs and our friends were we to utter them in public, has been able to persuade the general public that something is rotten in the state of our discourse.  Rather, ideology has been entrenched in cement.  In the past I compared it to how fans support sports teams with unfailing devotion, but that may have been inaccurate.  Even the most dedicated fans will criticize their team from time to time, and the most zealous will go at their chosen squad with profane hatchets if they are dissatisfied with how the season is going.  Not so in politics.  Usually, an elected official who gets rightly excoriated for saying something inane and insulting will do the “I misspoke” non-apology apology routine and turn the incident into a fundraising plea by complaining that the big bad mainstream media is picking on them.  The lemmings will duly empty their wallets in response, and the rest of the world will shake its head at the same old story playing out again and again.

Living in a democracy means that theoretically, any citizen should be able to step up into a position of leadership so long as they have been properly elected by a majority of voters.  (The role of money puts the lie to this basic assumption, but let’s just go with it as a key principle for the sake of my argument here.)  That does not mean, however, that everyone living in said democracy is capable of governing, just as the guy who sits on his bar stool bitching about the Leafs does not actually possess the skill set to coach them to a Stanley Cup victory.  The canard that “the system is broken” is repeated ad nauseum to justify a cynical attitude toward public institutions.  Even those in power rely on the “everybody does it” excuse – see the Canadian Conservatives trying to deflect justified public outrage at their Senators’ grotesque abuse of taxpayer-funded expense accounts by flinging blame back at the Liberals (who have been out of power for seven years).  Justin Trudeau had it right when he said that the solution is not abolishing the institution, it’s choosing better people to populate it.  I feel like I say this a lot, and yet, it bears repeating – why is the bar set so catastrophically low for what we expect from the people we choose to govern us?  If our only qualification for electing someone is a suit, a flag pin and a series of poll-tested sound bites, why do we then act surprised when things go wrong?  It’s government by the lowest common denominator, and it keeps rolling along with the inevitability of the seasons and the tides.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Imagine going on a job interview – it doesn’t matter what the job is – and whatever question is asked, just pivot to how important family values, faith, low taxes and supporting the troops is to you.  Which outcome is more likely – landing the corner office or never hearing from the interviewers again?  Let’s delve deeper into this situation.  What are you usually asked when you’re being interviewed?  Questions about your experience as it pertains to this new role, ability to function as part of a team, aspirations for your potential future with the organization, your general character.  When one considers the lofty esteem with which the private sector is regarded (as compared to the piss poor reputation of the public sector), why should its standards for hiring not apply equally to choosing from a slate of candidates for office?  If you want the best government, should not those selected to take part in it boast the deepest, most relevant resumes, and a corresponding depth of character and empathy for one’s fellow human being?  If governing is supposed to be serving the public, you would think that a general like of the public would be a critical qualifier for taking part in it, which seems rarely to be the case.  We are inundated with angry elected faces spewing hateful rhetoric against everyone and everything that is wrong with this country, but of course, it’s the greatest country in the world and it’s perfect and infallible and hooray for freedom and support the troops.

Sorry to get off on a rant there for a moment, but I’ll bring it back to earth again.  There has been a confluence between the world of reality TV, which bases its revenue model on attracting viewers with displays of stupidity, and the world of politics.  The ensuing treatment of the stupid in our civilization, where it is better to make noise than speak substance, leads to tolerance, expectation, and finally glorification and celebration of stupidity.  Will the “masturbating fetuses” congressman apologize, resign in disgrace and spend the rest of his life asking his customers if they want fries with that?  Nope, he’ll be re-elected, handily, and continue to give the world the benefit of his inexperience and ineptitude.  And people will suffer, directly or indirectly, because of it.

Unless, as the Lorax said.

Never before in our history have we been so equipped to take stupidity head-on and kick its drooling, mouth-breathing hindquarters to the metaphorical curb.  We walk around with repositories of infinite knowledge clipped to our belts, packed with tools to root out willful ignorance.  We don’t have to be spoon-fed with what the self-propagating media machine is serving us in the name of getting us to buy things – we can become active pursuers of truth, and exposers of the foolishness that left unchecked will lead our civilization the way of Rome.  When we complain about congressional gridlock, or free-spending senators, we must accept the blame for gifting such unworthy persons with the responsibility to make decisions for us, and the resulting course of our country.  We need to vet these people better before we decide to trust them, and to hold even the most noble of souls rigidly accountable once in office.  And we have absolutely no excuse not to do it anymore.  The resources are at our fingertips.  It has never been easier.  It takes only the will to use them.  One click to start to make the world a better place.  Is the status quo really preferable?  Are we just morbidly fascinated to see what comes next, what new Caligula or Nero will dare present himself for our appraisal?

How well did that work out for the Romans?

The road from ideology to idiocy is paved with tanks

A patriot defending against tyranny.
A patriot defending against tyranny.

So this morning, I’m following this Twitter exchange between Van Jones, former advisor to President Obama, and some mostly anonymous American gun lovers who are blowing collective gaskets (or is that muskets) over measures announced by the President this last week to try and curb armed violence in America.  The righties are coming at Jones with the suggestion that ever-more-powerful arsenals are needed by “the people” to combat government “tyranny” (the latest buzzword, like socialism, used to define a paranoid’s impression of some indefinable monster lurking in the shadows:  “I sure don’t know what it is, but I’m damn sure agin it!”)  Jones counters by asking what would be enough for these same people to be able to successfully subdue U.S. soldiers acting on behalf of this hypothetical tyrannical government – chemical weapons, nukes even – and calls what his opponents are suggesting, i.e. firing on American servicemen and women, treasonous.  At which point one individual says Jones is being ridiculous and in the event of this prophesied calamity of Biblical proportions, “the soldiers will be on our side.”  To which I’d say, please see Square, Tiananmen.  But it got me thinking about the course of the entire discussion, where no minds will be changed, no needles will be moved and no one will come away with anything but a heated temper and a more intractable position on the issue.  We act like this is a phenomenon unique to the era of Fox News and infinite blogs and talk radio shows, but the power and the rigidity of belief, whether it is political or spiritual, is one of the defining aspects of humanity.  We’ve seen in countless examples how it is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse.  The noblest accomplishments we have ever achieved have come from strong beliefs, and sadly, so have our greatest evils.

As a liberal humanist, I’ve chosen my spot on the spectrum and have as much of an ideology as the next guy.  Yet I temper my beliefs with reason and my own personal notion that faith unchallenged is not faith:  one must question everything and back up one’s claims with concrete, scientific, provable evidence.  And one shouldn’t linger in the comfort of one’s own “side,” as it were – you owe it to yourself to look at what the opposition thinks and try to figure out the reasoning behind their points of view.  As I mentioned in my piece a few weeks ago about the Newtown shooting, the obsession with guns comes from a place of fear – as does a great deal of the conservative mindset.  Fear of the untrustworthy, the indigent, the other.  Bad people. Bad people are coming to hurt you, so you need a gun to protect yourself.  Bad people want to steal your money and spend it on other people, so you want taxes cut.  Bad people overseas want to blow you up for reasons you can’t understand, so you want a huge military arsenal to defend your shores.  Bad people want to force you to sleep with men.  Bad people want you to stop going to church.  Bad people this, bad people that.  There seems to be a need to collect all this fear and focus it against a single, identifiable target, hence the evil liberal menace, stoking this fear into the hatred that naturally follows.

Fear, of course, isn’t unique to conservatives.  Liberals fear plenty of things – the devastation of our planet due to wars, environmental pollution or outright greed, religious extremists forcing antiquated and in many cases physically harmful doctrines on the masses, losing our democratic voice to an ever-encroaching corporate plutocracy.  The major difference I see in how a liberal approaches the world is that for liberals, there are no absolutes – and we are more willing to admit that we might be wrong.  On Real Time with Bill Maher a while back, someone, I can’t remember whom, was sparring with a climate change denier and made the argument that if he was wrong about global warming, no big deal, but if the denier was wrong, everyone and everything on Earth would die – so why not try to mitigate the problem anyway?  But a conservative will cling to the same tenets no matter how many times he is proven to be in error; for him, flexibility is weakness.  There was a story a few months ago how Senate Republicans suppressed a study that proved conclusively, through decades of evidence, that tax cuts do not spur job growth.  Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, during our 2011 federal election, kept insisting that corporate tax cuts were desperately needed or this hazy figure of “400,000 jobs” would be lost.  The meme was repeated, unquestioned, ad nauseum by friendly media and likely helped throw more than a few votes his party’s way.  Less than a year later Flaherty was out begging corporations to please oh please if you wouldn’t mind sir, kindly use your hoards of cash we just gifted you to hire a few folks, y’know, if it’s not too much trouble.  Yet you won’t see Flaherty calling for his tax cuts to be repealed, no matter how much red ink is generated, how much proof he is shown that said cuts are as helpful to the economy as fairy dust.  Night after night conservatives yell the fallacy that “tax cuts increase revenue!” as government after government that follows their approach spirals down into deficit and debt (see:  Greece).  Either it’s a massive conspiracy to “starve the beast” – personally, I don’t think most people are that clever – or these folks genuinely believe the fiction they’ve been sold, and like all conservatives, won’t change their minds no matter how often their approach flounders in the practical world.

Ironically, there is a singular example of a near-universal experience of a belief being undone by reasoned analysis.  Nearly all Western children grow up believing that Santa Claus delivers gifts to them every Christmas Eve.  Yet as they age, cracks begin to appear in the story; perhaps some wisenheimer at school brays snottily, “You know it’s just your mom and dad, right?”  (I still remember the name of the kid who did that to me – thanks a lot, Chris Campbell, wherever you are.)  Perhaps they start to do the math and realize it’s physically impossible for one man with one sleigh to deliver billions of toys in less than 8 hours, and they’re less and less satisfied with the explanation that it’s because Santa is magic.  How many adults, even conservatives, still believe in Santa Claus?  But the same method of examination and deduction fails for almost everything else, resulting in decade after decade of the same flawed ideas being offered up regardless of how badly they’ve gone in the past.  It’s like how in Ontario, Conservative leader Tim Hudak has reignited a debate on privatizing the LCBO (the government-owned corporation that manages the sale of alcohol throughout the province and generates loads of income to fund our social programs), despite the utter financial shambles that was his party’s decision to sell off our only toll highway to a Spanish corporation for a song when they were in power, and which we’re still paying for.  And just like how for the National Rifle Association, the answer to the problem of guns in schools is more guns in schools.  Part of this, as I’ve pointed out, is their executive looking out for sales opportunities for gun manufacturers, but this absurd notion would still be defended to the death (or to the cold, dead hands, as they like to put it) by regular rifle-lovers with no financial interest in the outcome.  Apparently, to admit one’s logic is perhaps flawed is to expose a chink in the armor – to risk the entire house crashing in on top of you.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate fear.  Fear of the shell being stripped away to reveal… absolutely nothing.

So long as we’re speaking about shells being ripped away, it’s an interesting happenstance of linguistic evolution that the words “ideology” and “idiocy” both begin with “id” – Freud’s concept of the impulses of the inner self unleashed, at their wildest, with none of the rational examination of said self needed for it to function within the framework of a civilization.  Likewise, beliefs – and indeed, faith – cannot function to the betterment of ourselves and those with whom we share the planet without critical examination.  Be open.  Be open to being wrong.  Those who enter into a debate should entertain the possibility that their beliefs may be changed by the discussion that follows, as much as you are attempting to change the beliefs of those you’re debating with; otherwise, you’re left with people hurling abuse at one another for no perceptible reason other than getting one’s rocks off by being an idiot.  And we all remember the last time being an idiot worked out toward the improvement of the human condition.

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.