Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bombing the Public Square

I am a big fan of Bill Maher and his show Real Time on HBO. I have actually been a fan of him since his Politically Incorrect days and even remember him making his comments that lost him his original show so long ago. He has been spearheading this election season a campaign he calls “Flip a District.” After receiving thousands of suggestions from people across the US, claiming their incumbent Congressperson as being the most useless and whose absence in Congress would make their state a better place, he chose Rep. John Kline from Minnesota. Kline, a Republican is not one of the loud and aggressive and sometimes hardly sane mouthpieces that dominate Fox News, such as Louis Gomert and Michelle Bachmann. He doesn't say the sometimes ridiculous things his fellow Republican became notorious for. But he votes alongside them and practices the age-old art of incumbent invisibility. He says little, stands for less, but collects lots of money from major corporations whose agenda he is quietly eager to support. For Maher, Kline, the quiet, unassuming politician is the real problem with democracy in America.

Bill Maher’s mixture of libertarianism and liberalism makes him a very interesting critical voice. He expounds basic liberal principles, but is not invested in the “niceness” that is often associated with liberal voices. Liberalism in the United States and its colonies for instance, is often associated with a softness and a tolerance.  Conservatives tend to the more aggressive voices. Conservative is an ideology that cuts people off, that divides and delineates and protects a particular “truth” or “true people.” Liberalism is based on ideas of unity, community and oneness.

These impulses are not neatly divided between Democrats or Republicans, both of these impulses are used by people in all possible parties. Is a community something that is always growing and expanding, where we reach out to those less fortunate and help the needy? Or is the community something that should be reserved for only those who deserve it, only those who are truly members and no others? Many people may make a big deal about conservatism being about protecting core values and liberalism not, but I think this misses the point in both ideological movements.  

What makes Bill Maher interesting however is the way he is not afraid to name names and to establish a framework for seeing the enemies of everyday people. He is also not afraid to speak in the name of truths that most liberals would find unpopular or political unviable. When Barack Obama was attacked as being “elitist” so many liberal democrats, the President included, rushed to argue that he wasn’t elitist, that he was a down to earth guy, just like Joe Six Pack or Josie Tupperware party. Maher scoffed at this strange shame and argued that any thinking person should want an “elite” President, someone who isn’t like your average person, but someone who is the best of what a society can offer. If that means they can’t bowl that well, who cares?

Maher had a clash recently with actor Ben Affleck, who is a regular on the show. Affleck, while most known for movies such as Argo, Gone Girl, Dogma and The Town, is, by Maher’s own admissions one of the best celebrities he has on the show. Affleck, a avowed liberal, reads up on contemporary issues and politics and usually handles himself well on a Real Time even though he might be surrounded by politicians, activists and authors. The clash in question was over Islam and its relationship to liberal dogma. The debate began with Maher talking to another guest Sam Harris, a noted atheist writer about how liberals have failed in terms of criticizing Islam and its influence in the world. Maher is also a famous atheist who recently created a documentary Religulous, which criticized most of the major religions including Islam. According to Maher, Islam is the only religion today that “acts like the mafia, that will f—king kill you, if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Harris added in, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.”

Their overreaching point was that liberals, not wanting to appear racist, do not do enough to condemn Islam as a violent and oppressive force in the world today. As Harris complained, liberals today act as if condemning Islam as a religion means you condemn all the people who are Muslim. Liberals need to be able to make a distinction between the religion and the people and too many people are afraid of being attacked for conflating the two.

Affleck pushed back against the points of Maher and Harris in way that left the blogosphere divided for a few weeks over who was right. While Maher and Harris pointed to examples of Islamic countries today being the most oppressive in the world, where basic human rights are under fire, Affleck defended liberals who do not condemn Islam in this way, because of the need to see the people in the religion as individuals, and simply paint them all with the same religious fanatical brush.

Affleck’s strongest part of the argument was when he tried to recalibrate the discussion around different variables of violence or oppression, rather than those his opponents were presenting. Muslim countries, those both enemies and allies of the US are places where women’s and gay rights are dismal, and also places where freedom of speech, especially when it connects to religious issues is strictly monitored. But Affleck chided Maher saying, “What is your solution? Just condemn Islam?...We’ve killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us, by an awful lot. We’ve invaded more Muslim countries than they’ve invaded ours, by an awful lot.” Affleck brings up a very good point and one that is lost in almost all discussions of the violent and oppressive core of Islam. What good are the freedoms that America espouses its peoples enjoy (in contrast to Islamic countries), if they are also the country most likely to bomb another country and restrict the freedom of others? What good is it to have a free and open public square in the United States, if it is also the one that so easily and almost thoughtlessly can go around destroying the public squares of others?

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