I missed this over the weekend (disclosure: I typically miss every episode of Maher’s show) but it merits amplification — if only for the sheer balls it takes to cast Donald Sterling as a victim in a public setting … which goes to the heart of Maher’s whole point. He’s not defending Sterling’s words or views. He’s pointing out how creepy it is that an unfiltered, illegally-recorded conversation between two lovers can bring down a man’s life. Over the course of his monologue, Maher backhands President Obama’s response to the flap, and utterly flays a Kathleen Parker column on the subject. Skip ahead to 2:15, and brace for a lot of nervous laughter from his Hollywood audience:
Last week, when President Obama was asked about the Sterling episode, he said, “when ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, just let them talk.” But Sterling didn’t advertise. He was bugged…Even at home, we have to talk like a White House press spokesman? … I would listen to a hundred horrific Cliven Bundy rants if that was the price of living in the world where I could also hear interesting and funny people talk without a filter…So let me get this straight: We should concede that there’s no such thing anymore as a private conversation, so therefore remember to ‘lawyer’ everything you say before you say it, and hey, speaking your mind is overrated anyway, so you won’t miss it. Well, I’ll miss it. I’ll miss it a lot … Does anyone really want there to be no place where we can let our hair down and not worry if the bad angel in our head occasionally grabs the mic? … Who wants to live in a world where the only privacy you have is inside your head? That’s what life in East Germany was like. That’s why we fought the Cold War, remember? So we’d never have to live in some awful limbo where you never knew who — even among your friends — was an informer. And now we’re doing it to ourselves. Well, don’t … If I want to sit in the privacy of my living room and say, ‘I think the Little Mermaid is hot and I want to bang her, or I don’t like watching two men kiss, or I think tattoos look terrible on black people, I should be able to. Even if you think that makes me an a–hole. Now, do I really believe those things? I’m not telling you, ’cause you’re not in my living room.”
In this five-minute diatribe, Maher gives voice to a general feeling of unease I’ve been experiencing quite a lot recently. Are we allowed to support gay rights without joining the “tolerance” jackals in hounding non-discriminatory dissenters from their jobs? Are we allowed to express revulsion at Donald Sterling’s overt racism, while also raising concerns about the manner in which it was revealed, without getting fired? Are we allowed to disagree with homophobic tweets without declaring them grounds for hefty fines and re-education? Or must we succumb to the outrage purges? For instance, is it now the rule to throw conniption fits when faced with unspeakable indignities, such as hearing from a commencement speaker with whom we may have profound differences of opinion? (If at first one doesn’t succeed under this model, one only needs to carry on obnoxiously until the offending party at last withdraws — thus preserving the sanctity of one’s “joyous occasion”). Must we live on constant hair-trigger alert, prepared to pronounce ourselves grievously offended at the drop of a hat? The whole thing is exhausting. It’s suffocating. I happen to be a believer in the Golden Rule. If we all generally made an effort to treat one another the way we’d prefer to be treated ourselves — even in the midst of sharp disagreements — the world would be a far better place. I’m also a devotee of free speech, and an imperfect defender of our (theoretically) open and pluralistic society. We ought to “live and let live” to the greatest extent possible, model our morals and values as best we’re able, and work to persuade each other of the best course forward for our government and society at large. We have regular elections to resolve some of these disputes. But we’ve lost something when a ruthless, conformity-enforcing circus is poised ’round the clock to pounce upon controversies and banish heretics.
Yes, of course some people deserve to lose their jobs over egregious actions or words. Of course some speakers warrant righteous protest. And of course some deeply unjust practices should and must be stamped out. But the urge to drown out and muzzle can get awfully insidious, awfully quickly — especially as the practitioners of outrage increasingly conflate their actual rights with the invented right not to suffer offense. They confuse what’s permitted with what’s right, fair, and healthy. Under the “new” rules, The Other is not to be convinced or even tolerated. He is to be made to understand through coercion, or ruined.
America, as they say, is a free country. I wish more of her citizens would act like it.