Bill Maher’s recent conversation with Ben Shapiro struck some of his current and former fans as strange and out of character.
Somewhere along the line, Maher seems to have more or less explicitly joined the group of center-right “anti-woke” pundits informally known as the IDW (Intellectual Dark Web). At first glance, that looks like a bizarre transformation. This guy was an icon of the liberal side of the culture war in the Bush and Obama eras. What happened to him?
“I haven’t changed,” Maher told Shapiro. “At all.” He gives the examples of “three-year olds being allowed to change their gender” and calls to “defund the police” and says “that’s not me changing—that’s things changing. I’m reacting to it.”
Maher isn’t entirely wrong when he says he hasn’t changed. In many ways he’s always been this bad. And that should tell us something about the trajectory of American liberalism.
I can remember watching Maher’s show Politically Incorrect—which first aired on Comedy Central before moving to ABC—when I was in college. It was entertaining enough, and sometimes he gave a platform to unusually interesting guests like my late friend David McReynolds, the antiwar activist who twice ran for president as the Socialist Party’s candidate.
Back in those pre-Netflix days, when viewing options were pretty well-restricted to live network TV and whichever VHS tapes happened to be on the shelf in my dorm room, that combination was more than enough for me to tune in every once in a while. It also meant that I watched enough to know that the name of the show was false advertising.
Politically Incorrect made it sound like Bill would constantly be saying provocative things that would scandalize the easily offended, but the closest he really got were medium-risqué comments about women or weed, no further from the American mainstream than a typical episode of Family Guy. In fact, when he did finally say something that genuinely offended large numbers of people, he lost his show.
It happened during the orgy of nationalistic hysteria that came immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush had described the attacks as “cowardly.” In a rare moment of moral lucidity, Bill noted that, while the attacks were certainly evil, staying in an airplane as you direct it to hurtle into a building was far from cowardly—unlike, say, “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” (Maher actually made this point in agreement with his guest, conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza.)
Bush’s Press Secretary Ari Fleischer ominously responded to a reporter’s question about Maher by saying this was a time when Americans should “watch what they say.” While his ratings were already in a slow fade and ABC wanted to get “younger” with a new host (Jimmy Kimmel), it was advertisers applying the tried-and-true tactic of corporate censorship by pulling their business that really did the damage—and Disney-owned ABC, unsurprisingly, did not make a point of standing by their man.
I can remember finding Maher’s comment gutsy and the fallout disturbing, but in retrospect, that moment of seemingly harsh criticism of American war-making was anything but representative of who Maher was or what he stood for.
He’d actually spent the late 90s insisting that the Vietnam War had actually been just and necessary. By the time Politically Incorrect went off the air, Maher had emerged as a strong supporter of the disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and of the “Global War on Terror” more generally—even clarifying that his only objection to lobbing cruise missiles from thousands of miles away was that it reflected politicians’ squeamishness about putting boots on the ground.
When he landed on his feet with a new show, Real Time on HBO, he was ambivalent about the invasion of Iraq, worrying that it might be (as Barack Obama would later say) a “dumb war”—but this was a tactical worry about whether to fight a particular battle in a larger military and spiritual conflict around the world he eagerly framed as a “clash of civilizsations.” It’s easy to find compilations of Maher saying he’s “alarmed” that too many babies in the UK were being named Mohammed, that Islam is a “medieval culture,” that it’s an innately violent religion, that it brings “desert stuff” to “our world,” and so on.
During the years he was beating the war drums for a global confrontation with Islam, he rhetorically positioned his animus to Muslims as part of a broader critique of religion. He made a stridently anti-theistic documentary called Religulous and frequently brought on New Atheist icons like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens as guests on Real Time. Rhetorically, all this militant irreligion was tangled up in reverence for “science,” although in practice Maher never quite seemed that reverent to medical science.
When there was an avian flu scare in 2005, Maher told Larry King that he wasn’t worried—not because the case count was relatively low and he was confident that the outbreak could be contained, but because he wasn’t “into western medicine” and he thought that if you have a healthy body with a strong immune system, you’ll be fine. Oh, and you shouldn’t take the flu shot because “it’s got mercury” and anyway vaccines are usually a bad idea because they “compromise your immune system.”
This wasn’t the only time Bill would seem to be at least ambivalent about whether he even quite accepted the germ theory of disease.
In the chat with King, he conceded that “the Salk vaccine” against polio was “a somewhat different case.” Four years later when people started worrying about the swine flu, Maher took a harder line, declaring in a 2009 Real Time episode that, “I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.”
If anything, the comments Maher made about COVID in his chat with Shapiro were more moderate. The big themes, though, were similar. (It should be noted in all fairness that Maher is vaccinated—although he’s elsewhere expressed ambivalence about getting the shot and he told Shapiro he would have rather skipped it.) The only thing new about Maher’s most recent vaccine comments was that he was saying it all to his new friend Ben Shapiro and not to one of his typical panels of the recent past—which might have featured Ben Affleck, some Democratic Congressman, Ann Coulter, and Cornel West.
That Maher could be a liberal icon in the 2000s and early 2010s is less explained by his own views than it is by the completely-altered state of America’s political battle lines.
In the 2000s, when Republicans wore evangelical Christianity on their sleeves and focused their energy on opposing abortion and gay marriage, progressives spent more time worrying about creeping theocracy than about structural racism or economic inequality.
The straight-talking creator of Religulous and host of a show where Christopher Hitchens didn’t have to hide his scotch in a coffee cup provided some catharsis for anxious secularists. It wasn’t until a decade had passed and Maher was calling Milo Yiannopoulos a “young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens” that some of us started to wonder what Maher actually got out of those sit-downs with the Hitch.
As someone who recently wrote a book about the man, let me just say that even at his late-in-life Iraq-War-supporting worst, Hitchens didn’t deserve to be compared to a vapid grifter like Milo. And it says everything about Maher that he couldn’t tell the difference.
Certainly Maher, who expressed amazement and disgust to Shapiro about the fact that some of the “woke” kids who annoy him so much today “hate capitalism,” would have been surprised if he’d ever asked his buddy Hitchens about that. A lifelong socialist, Hitchens only gave up on the struggle for a fundamentally more egalitarian economic system because he thought the historical moment had passed. As he explained in a 2002 interview, his position was that “there is no international socialist movement, that it’s not going to revive,” and that in light of that it felt ridiculous to keep calling himself a socialist, but that didn’t mean he thought that the socialist critique of capitalism’s flaws was wrong.
We don’t know what Hitchens would have made of the modest revival of the socialist Left in the years since he died. For Maher, though, it’s just one more item in his list of grievances with “wokeness.”
First, a word on the highly malleable word, “woke.”
Its original meaning in Black radical circles was something like “racially aware,” but for the last several years most people of all races and backgrounds who use the word have used it to refer to a certain recognizable kind of irritating culture-war signaling that tends to have more to do with language policing and individual virtue than with more directly political questions like what the laws should be or how material resources should be distributed. Certainly, that’s how someone like the Black socialist scholar Adolph Reed is using the term when he writes, dripping with contempt, about what he calls “The Great Awokening.”
The problem is that when IDW types call everything they hate “woke,” they’re casting a far wider net. Legal protections for the rights of trans people, for example, are sometimes referred to as “woke.” Shapiro has even attributed antipathy to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin for standing in the way of proposed social spending to “the coalition of the woke.”
While the group has more recently fractured due to disagreements about the 2020 election and the politics of COVID, with the “Intellectual Dark Web” label less and less in use, “IDW” remains a useful shorthand for a recognizable set of ideological preoccupations.
In the best book that’s been written about the group, my late friend Michael Brooks’ Against the Web, Michael makes a compelling case that far from just reacting to the excesses of performative “wokeness” or expressing legitimate concerns about elements of the Left losing sight of the importance of free speech, charter members of the IDW like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and Sam Harris are at their core defenders of traditional hierarchies. They parlay their audience’s understandable distaste for “wokeness” and censoriousness into support for a fundamentally reactionary ideology—one that frames existing social inequalities not as a result of contingent historical developments that could be undone at a later stage of history, but as part of an unchanging natural order.
Think for example of Peterson’s habit of babbling about Jungian archetypes, his eccentric understanding of evolutionary biology, and the eternal feminine Dragon of Chaos…and portraying all of this as having something or other to do with his various beefs with feminists, Marxists, “postmodern neo-Marxists,” and blue-haired college kids who want him to use pronouns. Or Sam Harris’s bizarre claim that utilitarian morality, from which he derives his support for American and Israeli foreign policy, can somehow be derived from “science.”
Bill Maher’s recent conflation of anti-capitalism with “wokeness” certainly fits Brooks’ description of what the IDW is all about. So does an analogy I remember him using years ago on Real Time. The economy needs to be regulated, Maher said, the same way a river might need a wall to prevent flooding. But trying to change the basic structure of our economic system would be like trying to make the river run backwards.
The IDW brand was always about being anti-Left (while disingenuously clinging to the label of “liberal”) and basically hostile to social change, without ever quite being identified with the Trumpist side of the culture war.
Even Ben Shapiro, by far the most old-school ideological conservative in the group, was initially something of a Never Trumper—and there was never the slightest doubt that Sam Harris would vote for Joe Biden. The ideological point was broader than red vs. blue partisan politics. And in that sense Bill Maher fits in perfectly—and he always has.
I have no particular interest in canceling Maher as an individual. I think he’s a pretty dim bulb, but if he pivots to the left again as he briefly did during the 2016 election, I’ll welcome him with open arms. What I am interested in is understanding what Maher’s trajectory tells us about American political culture. And I take heart from the fact that people who want edgy humor mixed into their political commentary in 2022 can go to places like the wildly popular socialist podcast Chapo Trap House…while Maher increasingly looks like a relic.
In 2004, if Maher was for gay rights and atheism and legalized weed and he told a lot of rough jokes about the stupidity of George W. Bush, that was enough for progressives to see him as one of them. If he talked a lot of nonsense about vaccines and “western medicine,” well, plenty of aging hippies in the Democratic base talked the same way. (This was an era when the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pandered to such sentiments to win primary votes.) Was he an Islamophobic warmonger? Who wasn’t? Democrats nominated John Kerry for President—a man who not only voted for the Iraq War but attacked George W. Bush on the campaign trail for not committing enough troops to really get the job done.
Maher is not wrong when he says that his views haven’t really changed. He was an IDW kind of guy long before that silly label was invented. And the fact that it’s no longer possible to imagine him as a progressive icon is one small indication that, at least in some ways, American political discourse has actually changed for the better.