In case you haven’t heard, professional loudmouth and political boor Bill Maher has recently been awarded a star on Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame.” Maher, who is basically known for opposing all things conservative, took the opportunity to thank the people who made his star possible. Although he thought he was making a joke when he thanked “George Bush, Sarah Palin, and the pope,” Maher had no idea just how correct he really was. Like most political liberals, Bill Maher would have nothing to say if it wasn’t for the Bush’s, Palin’s and pope’s of the world.
All forms of liberalism—whether educational, political, or theological—are nothing more than reactions against “traditional” beliefs and ways of doing things. Like atheism, liberalism is a negative belief system in that it can only ever communicate what it is against, instead of what it is for. This is especially evident in a guy like Bill Maher who not only makes his living by disagreeing with conservatives, he does so in such a verbose and vulgar way that he gives the impression that he is actually standing up for traditional values rather than tearing them down. Maher had the audacity to call his first television program Politically Incorrect, furthering the delusion that he was offering something other than what could be found in the mainstream media. Maher is right to thank his conservative opponents for his success because without them he would be little more than a side-show opening act at the local comedy club.
This is not to say that guys like Bill Maher are unimportant in the grand scheme of things; quite the opposite in fact. Maher, like his conservative counterpart Rush Limbaugh, is a popularizer of political attitudes and beliefs. Humor is necessary in the dry and tedious world of political discussion, and it can often better communicate what is actually being said than the carefully-chosen words of politicians and press secretaries. Arbitrariness is a potent political weapon that is deliberately used to obscure and obfuscate true motivations and both political parties use it in great abundance. When interpreters—like Maher and Limbaugh—break down the “newspeak” of the political talking machine into the vernacular and street language of the average American voter, they are performing a needed community service.
However, problems begin to arise when these “interpreters” move away from their tasks as plain-language journalists and become instead silver-tongued entertainers. It’s relatively easy to employ hyperbole and overstated rhetoric to point to the absurdity of a particular belief or policy in order to get laughs, but it also becomes increasingly difficult to separate fact from funny. When Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did a skit on Saturday Night Live—playing Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton respectively—people began attributing what Fey and Poehler said in the skit to the candidates themselves. In other words, the comedy routine became blurred with reality and the American voters made decisions based not on what the candidates were saying, but on what the entertainers were saying.
Political satire has a long and rich history and it can be fairly stated that satirists have been around only a day less than politicians. Like critics in the creative world, satirists are basically the self-appointed checks and balances for the political system. And like critics, satirists are seldom able to be objective in their politics; rather than uniting they end up polarizing. Bill Maher is the classic example of this. Always dour-faced and never happy, Maher has turned name-calling and joy stealing into an art. Watching him talk to the television camera, one gets the impression that Bill Maher’s mission in life is to make as many people as possible to be as miserable as he is. It seems as if his own party got crashed twenty years ago and he is intent to use his television programs to return the favor for anyone willing to listen. Like Al Franken, Maher has the ability to turn people away from his position just by talking. Even though he consistently surrounds himself with a panel of guests, Maher cannot actually discuss anything, he can only berate.
Maher is in good company though, the pagans down through the years have nearly always been tragically ironic in their approach to life. In what can only be described as a paradox, those who have the biggest and loudest problems with Christianity and the traditional values that it has spawned in the West, are also the least content with a simple life of unbelief. Think of the modern examples—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Janeane Garofalo, Ricky Gervais, George Soros, Al Franken, Bill Maher (just to name a few)—and ask yourself how many of these critics of Christianity ever seem to have joy in their life of unbelief. It would seem that those who are the most convinced that religion is a myth and the Bible a fable just can’t rest until the whole world affirms that they are correct. G.K,. Chesterton noted this same tendency over a hundred years ago:
It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything—they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything—they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.1
Criticism for the critic becomes a way of life, just as satire becomes a way of life for the satirist. People who make their living by commenting on what other people do and how they do it, seldom stop to look around at their own body of work. Jacques Barzun notes that critics, who are “certainly educated people of uncommon ability…have succumbed to certain widespread social attitudes. They have, on the one hand, aped what everybody now does with language, and, on the other, they have yielded to what everybody thinks criticism is.”2 That is, critics become a law unto themselves and create a cottage industry around its own professionals, reassuring each other that they are properly “critiquing” when all they are really doing is justifying their own existence. Critics are masters of poking holes in what they are critiquing, yet they are also masters at conforming to the methods of criticism. If the critics had critics, might we begin to see a different approach to criticism? Probably not. And for this same reason, guys like Bill Maher seldom do much towards actually addressing the problems of political and civil society, they only fan the flames and widen the divide. In the end, they are only in it for themselves. Bill Maher would be out of a job tomorrow if he was actually convincing.
So then, it is right that Bill Maher receive a star on Hollywood Boulevard. He is, after all, an entertainer and a very effective one at that. Just as the sight of Rush Limbaugh makes liberal blood boil, so the sight of Bill Maher makes conservatives seethe. It should not bother Christians though, it should only serve to reinforce that the Bible is correct. The world is indeed divided, just as Christ said it would be (Luke 12:49-53). This shouldn’t discourage us, it should encourage us to work harder, longer, and smarter. As Bill Maher beats the air, we will be beating the ground of every nation, tribe, and tongue with the true sounds of liberation as it is preserved on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). Maher has no joy in this world because this world (and his nifty little sidewalk star) is all he has, but we have something more; we not only have this world, we also have the one to come.