- James Hungaski
How nauseating it has been, in the aftermath of the attacks by Muslim fanatics, to watch the first big defeat for freedom of thought and speech, as tens of thousands of Americans demanded the head of Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher and came away with enough of Maher's noggin to parade through the public square.
If you are in a semi-comatose state and have not heard, Maher, while talking to author Dinesh D'Souza on his September 17 show, said: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
I was eating a late-night bowl of cereal at the time, and unlike the way they struck a lot of people -- particularly in middle America -- his comments did not make me want to gag. As always, I found Maher to be obnoxious, engaging, informed, and enraging. He's "in the offending-people business," as author and radio talk-show host Larry Elder, the black Libertarian who is a frequent Maher critic, explained to me this week.
Yet suddenly, in the groupthink that has emerged since the slaughter in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, we demand that our cultural figures placate us. Once the reluctant Maher prostrated himself fully and begged forgiveness on Leno, Good Morning America, and elsewhere, we Americans smugly patted ourselves on the back. We must be in the right, because hell, the guy backed down.
But how many of the hysterical thousands who jammed the phone lines at local TV stations across the country after the September 17 broadcast, calling Maher an unpatriotic traitor, also ran to their broker to offload their stock portfolios? By exercising his right to speak unpopular thoughts, Maher was being far more patriotic than the wussy Americans who sent the markets reeling while professing undying support for George Bush.
They make me want to gag.
Maher's comments at first did not have legs. The next morning, coverage of the late-night shows focused on their somber tone. Dozens of media outlets, including the Associated Press, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio, did not even mention Maher's comments.
Most focused on Maher's decision to leave one of his four guest chairs vacant in honor of conservative commentator Barbara Olson, a frequent guest, who died in the plane that hit the Pentagon.
Maher says his undoing came at the hands of two shock-jock radio hosts in Houston, who endlessly ran the snippet ("We have been the cowards!") and whipped their audience into a frenzy. Within a few hours, the Maher Incident was playing on radio talk shows nationwide, and consumers were besieging Politically Incorrect commercial sponsors with demands for a boycott.
Very quickly, Sears and Federal Express pulled their sponsorships, and several Midwest stations suspended his show indefinitely.
This caused the simpering Jane Clayson, on The Early Show, to chirp, "Good for them!" and left the tiresome Bryant Gumbel struggling to give Maher an out by explaining that if "you do these kinds of things on an ad-lib basis . . . you are going to misspeak."
Do any of these fools have a clue what our policies in the Mideast have been? I believe Maher meant what he said -- but he'll never admit it now.
At first, Maher tried to patch things up by attempting to clarify his position. He told Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor, that he was not referring to the U.S. military as cowards -- but to Congress and former President Bill Clinton, who tried but failed to take out Osama bin Laden with missiles after his fanatics blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa.
"The country did not want to tackle terrorism then," Maher explained. "And that's what we did; we lobbed a cruise missile at a pharmaceutical factory."
But I found far more controversial Maher's comments that the terrorists were not cowards. O'Reilly asked Maher about that. Maher, apparently under the misimpression that freedom of speech still reigns in America, stuck the knife into his own belly. "I think they're moral cowards," he explained. "But physical cowards, cowards in war, cowards in the sense of a soldier who falls on a grenade, no. It's like when they called Hitler an evil genius. Well, you're sort of complimenting him by calling him a genius. But it's an evil genius."
After that, a source inside the Politically Incorrect camp told me, "We are just in so much trouble over this. It's a runaway train, the horse is out of the barn, or whatever metaphor you want. Bill is explaining what he meant, and no matter what he says, it doesn't seem to matter. Very few people are calling up to say, 'Keep up with your views, even if they go against the grain.'"
It was awful to watch Maher on Leno that Friday night, cowed, nervous, and apologizing profusely. Leno and the rest of the Hollywood pop-culture brigade watched him twist in the wind, already sufficiently chilled by his treatment from fellow Americans that they, too, zipped their lips.
One Sears spokesperson told me, "Strictly off the record, we cannot imagine who these people are, the few calling in and saying this is about free speech."
A disturbed Larry Flynt told me this week, "At least he's not walking in a lockstep, like a bunch of Nazis, like the rest of the mainstream media. He feels free to give his opinion, which is what free speech is all about."
Staunch support is also coming from conservative author and radio talk-show host Dennis Prager. Prager told me that squelching the previously unsquelchable Maher is "very dangerous territory. I think what he said was nuts. But if you can't say these things without sponsors leaving, then I'm in trouble for having strong views, too, and then others are in trouble, too."
Sheri Annis, owner of the political consulting group Fourth Estate Strategies and an occasional Maher guest, recalls how Maher called the President an "asshole" last spring when she was on the show and was bleeped, and that was that. "I'd much rather live in a country that can criticize its politicians -- or even its military -- than [in] one that can't," Annis told me. "The truth is, Maher's paper trail shows that he's been an unabashed supporter of our military in the past . . . Bill Maher is annoying, but he's allowed."
Ominously, among the many things that changed in this country on September 11 was our capacity for what's allowed.
When it comes to the Middle East, we are a nation of ignorant, sofa-bound children who, unlike the well-informed Maher, have no idea why we are despised in the Arab world. We dump on Maher while embracing the shameless, flag-draped treacle being published by pundits like The Miami Herald's Leonard Pitts, who joined in the widespread whining of Why do they hate us?
Here's a quick primer, since I doubt that the chastened Maher will feel comfortable fully exploring these issues now:
" The CIA funded the movement of tens of thousands of Muslim radicals from all over the world into Afghanistan to fight the Russians. We trained them and we armed them, even as bin Laden's clerics initiated them into his extreme Wahhabi sect of Islam. As the war wound down, these radicals fanned out all over the world as bin Laden's new agents, with new names and new identities.
" When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the wealthy bin Laden lobbied the Saudi royal family to be allowed to build a force against Iraq, using his Afghan war vets, but King Fahd instead invited in U.S. troops. That, and not our support of Israel, is widely believed by experts to have set bin Laden's hatred for the West in stone.
" After the Gulf War, the U.S. insisted on being allowed to station troops indefinitely in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden has effectively used this as a public relations club to persuade the Arab masses in several countries that Islam's sacred lands are being occupied by infidels from the West.
Few Americans grasp the fact that the Arab media, in concert with bin Laden's radical clerics, have helped create a huge culture of victimology on the Arabian peninsula. Arabs are widely convinced that the Arabs on the suicide jetliners were mere passengers, and that a Serbian or Jewish plot is to blame for the atrocities on U.S. soil.
Because we face war, we desperately need our leading cultural figures to express the controversial views that give depth to our understanding of Islam, the Arab people, and the U.S. policies in the Mideast that helped create this sand trap.
Larry Flynt is right: The onethink is the biggest danger. I am begging Maher to get back in the saddle, because -- despite his beginnings as a stand-up comic -- he knows far more about foreign policy than the misbegotten patriots who wanted him silenced.
Why do they hate us? Let me assure you, it is not -- as the President strongly implied, in his otherwise laudable speech on September 20 -- because we're beautiful. They hate us for a catalog of reasons that I am afraid the chastened Bill Maher will no longer have the guts to explain.