A non-apology for racism

David Bliven comments on the ugly history of racism from a media celebrity.

ON THE June 9 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher "apologized" for his use of the n-word on the previous week's episode.

Maher was interviewing Republican Sen. Ben Sasse on June 2 when Sasse quipped, "We'd love to have you work in the fields with us." To which Maher replied, "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house n-----." Maher then said, "It's a joke," and when some in his audience groaned, he made a face at them--as if to say, "Aw, come on."

Maher immediately came under well-justified fire for his comments. Among others, Sen. Al Franken, who had been scheduled to appear on the June 9 episode, canceled his appearance in protest.

Maher soon issued a public apology, agreeing that the comment was "offensive," and that he "regretted saying it." On the June 9 show, Maher had Michael Eric Dyson and Ice Cube on as guests--both of whom leveled criticism at Maher, while also admitting they were "good friends" with him.

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It was evident that Maher wanted his viewers to see this as just a "slip of the tongue." When he took the stage on June 9, he got his usual standing ovation. When he began his monologue, he didn't directly address the "elephant in the room." Instead, he thanked his audience for "sharing space with a sinner" and joked that Michael Eric Dyson would be on later to "take him out to the woodshed."

Then, when Dyson was rightfully criticized him, Maher blurted out, "It's not like I've made a career out of this." He made a similar comment to Ice Cube's criticism.

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THE PROBLEM with Maher's defense of himself is that he has made a career out of racism, not to mention sexism and Islamophobia. But even just focusing on the n-word itself, articles have addressed a video that surfaced of a 2001 episode of Politically Incorrect in which Maher specifically defended white people being able to use the n-word.

A recent article at TheRoot.com recounts the episode:

Maher made the assertion that the word "nigga" (or "nigger," as it were) had changed over the last 10-15 years, to which [actress Anne-Marie] Johnson asked him, "According to who?"

"According to culture," Maher replied condescendingly. "According to the fact that it's in every song."

Johnson, visibly upset by this, told Maher to ask every African American in his audience the meaning of that word. But before she could complete her thought, Maher talked over her and told her, "Every African American person uses that word night and day. It's in every song; it's all through culture.

"The word has changed," Maher said. "It has been co-opted as a term of endearment..."
At that point, [activist Guy] Aoki jumped in and told Maher that the word had been co-opted as a term of endearment between Black people, and Johnson told Maher that she was the only person on the panel qualified to talk about the issue.

"First of all," Maher responded to Johnson, "I wouldn't even know you were Black if you hadn't told me."

The conversation continued, with Maher continuing to assert that it was okay for white people to use the word because there was even a group with the word in its name, N.W.A. He then repeated that the word was in every song on the radio.

"Nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga," Maher said. "It's in every song. I have people walking up to me going, 'Hey Bill, you a nigga,' and I can't thank them?"

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WHAT'S EVIDENT to me is that Maher purposefully used the term and doesn't think it's really all that wrong for him to have done so. He's just apologized to keep his "cred" up among Black people--as well as his undeserved status as a liberal.

But Maher's history of racism and sexism on the show is dangerous to true liberals and progressives, as it gives soft-support to ideas conjured up by the far right, as well as making it that much harder for those on the left to fight those ideas. After all, if Maher is to be defended, how can the racism of Trump and his supporters be denounced at the same time?

Maher also has a long history of Islamophobia on his show. Among other lowlights, he had a parade of women dressed in burkas in an "Islamic fashion show"--a spectacle that, had a conservative done it, would have had the liberal media leading calls for denunciations, suspensions and firing.

Maher also suggests constantly that Muslims in general are dangerous and give at least soft support to terrorism. He once claimed millions of Muslims supported the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and he asked a Pakistani-British member of a popular boy band where he was during the Boston Marathon bombing.

The fact is that racism is on the ascendency with the ushering in of the Trump regime. Racist attacks against Muslims and Blacks around the country have been well documented. It is in this context that we on the left should be organizing a fightback against virulent racism. Any support for Maher--just to the extent of brushing his comments aside as a "mere mistake" or an "isolated act"--set back our movements.

Maher is comfortable making the comment he did not only because of the rise of racism, but also the lack of sustained movements fighting back against them. Defeating Trump--and Trumpism--will take a movement of millions, not to mention a movement with the staying power to wage a years-long struggle. While we certainly shouldn't discount the many protests that have transpired, the "new human rights movement" sorely needed has yet to emerge.

When it does, however, it will need to take on not only the far right, but also those politicians and media pundits like Maher who claim to be champions of the "people"--but instead add to mixed consciousness, rather than furthering an unapologetic, unconditional anti-racist consciousness.

Our task on the left is to build such a movement. But along the way, we shouldn't hesitate to denounce the racists--on the right and on the left.