Sunday, June 4, 2017

A sidetrack digression on Bill Maher (I'll get back on point tomorrow morning)

I don't feel like doing the next part of the 2016 Clinton-takes-the-blame series this morning, but I don't actually have anything to say about the London attacks, so I'll just write about Bill Maher.  The incident actually ties in with what I recently wrote about the Kathy Griffin/Ted Nugent comparison anyway.

A few days ago, when thinking through the Kathy Griffin/Ted Nugent comparison, I used societal attitudes towards the "n-word" as a point of reference.  I use a lot of taboo language because I don't give a fuck about arbitrary rules, but restrictions on the n-word are not arbitrary.  My position is that one should refrain from using a word if one can derive a reason to do so from first principles.  One cannot derive, from first principles, a reason not to use the word, "fuck."  The taboo against that word is based on the history of Latin-based versus Germanic-rooted words (i.e. socioeconomic class).  However, one can legitimately attack another's use of language or symbolism if one can base the attack on first principles.  For the n-word, my principle was the threat.  The use of the n-word, by a white person, tends to convey a threat, given the weight of history.

Here's the thing about language, though.  There are always exceptions.  As soon as I type that, you think I'm going to defend Maher.  Not... exactly.  Keep reading.

In another recent post about taboo language, when the FCC was thinking about going after Stephen Colbert, I referenced the use of the n-word in Blazing Saddles.  There are some who would argue that nobody can ever, under any circumstances, use the n-word, and that it should be excised from the English language.  Until "curious yellow" comes along, good luck with that.  (Go read Glasshouse, by Charles Stross-- I really should annotate my posts, given how many hidden references there are, but hey, here's a link!).  Such goals are stupidly unrealistic.  Art, history, comedy, etc., all need access to the full range of language, in my opinion.  Once you accept the premise that white actors can say the n-word in historical representations, or just when trying to portray characters as especially stupid and vile, you can no longer fall back on, "Bill Maher said the n-word.  Fire him!"  The set of exceptions is a non-empty set, and the question becomes whether or not Maher's joke, which was clearly a joke, falls into that set.

So, here's the joke.  Senator Ben Sasse invited him to work in the fields in Nebraska.  Maher declined, identifying himself as a "house [n-word]."  Obviously a joke.  Not a good one.

Does it pass my "threat" test?  Um.... yeah, it kind of does.  In no way could identifying himself as a "house [n-word]" be construed as a threat to anyone else.  It was a poor attempt at self-deprecating humor.

Of course, that doesn't mean one can't be bothered by the joke.  The jewish community tends to get upset when minor trifles get equated with the holocaust because doing so diminishes the holocaust.  That, as I see it, is the uncomfortable thing about what Maher said.  By identifying himself blithely as a "house [n-word]," he diminishes the horrors of one of the few things that actually does get to be compared with the holocaust, in terms of the scale of the evil committed-- slavery.

Those focusing on the "n-word" itself rather than the full construction, "house [n-word]," and the self-identification of that, then, are kind of missing the point of the line that Maher really crossed.  And that isn't an accident.  Taboos on language cause people to focus on the wrong things-- arbitrary rules rather than the concepts behind them.

This provides an interesting test, though, that Maher regularly faces.  Back during the campaign, Trump tweeted a picture of Clinton, next to a pile of money, with a star of David and a caption about corruption.  Gee... what was that about?  Anyway, I posted this about how we decide who gets the benefit of the doubt on issues of race, and Maher is about as fascinating a case as you will find on that question given his combination of politics and behavior.

Pre-9/11, there were two prominent libertarian-ish-minded comedians:  Dennis Miller and Bill Maher.  9/11 caused Bill Maher to move left, and Dennis Miller to move right.  Maher is now basically just a liberal Democrat, and Miller is now basically just a conservative Republican.  It was fascinating how that worked, and we can even make an academic reference here!  We call this process, "sorting."  It is a weird, semi-off-case version of what Matt Levendusky talked about in The Partisan Sort.  Anyway, though, Maher has always been a provocateur.  He once had a show called "Politically Incorrect," from which he was fired after 9/11 because the standard line that all Americans were required to say after 9/11 was that the hijackers were cowards, because the hijackers were evil, cowardice is evil, and all evil is equivalent.  Maher, who is now regularly in trouble for negative statements about Islam, lost his show for saying that, no, the hijackers were anything but cowards.  They were willing to sacrifice their lives, while Americans mostly just safely press buttons.  As I said, he is now regularly in hot water for saying too many negative things about Islam.  Rhetorically, Bill Maher pisses off everyone.  That's his goal in life.

But, despite the fact that he talks shit about everyone and gets the left riled up against him for his violations of PC linguistic rules, on policy, since 9/11, he's been solidly on the left from everything I can determine, thank you very much, Matt Levendusky.  (I cut the cord years ago, and never had HBO anyway, so don't take me as a truly authoritative source on Bill Maher).  What does that mean for how people evaluate Maher?  He is a Democrat.  He is a lefty, and if you ask him about policy, he'll side with Black Lives Matter from what I can read, just as he'll side with the left on nearly any other issue.  He'll just say shit that pisses them off along the way.  That is at the core of the issue I addressed in my earlier post on the benefit of the doubt on race.

Contrast that with Attorney General Beauregard Sessions.  I am pretty sure that we can now document Bill Maher saying the n-word more recently than Beauregard.  That's kind of funny to think about, and certainly funnier than Maher's joke, but let's keep in mind the real issue with that joke.  It wasn't the fact that a white guy said the n-word.  It was the diminishment of slavery.  Then, how do we evaluate him?  Is he really a racist, like Jeffie Beauregard, or just an asshole?  Remember, all racists are assholes, but not all assholes are racist.

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