Bill Maher, Jason Whitlock, and America’s Toxic Cult of Personality

Two racially problematic blowhards found themselves in the news this week for saying racially problematic things. They are who we thought they were, writes Stereo Williams.

“I sell the things you need to be

I’m the smiling face of your TV.

I’m the cult of personality

I exploit you, still you love me

I tell you one and one makes three

I’m the cult of personality…”

—Living Colour – “Cult of Personality”

Personality drives so much of the information we receive. Cable-TV shows have given us a steady stream of likable and not-so-likable folks to tell us what they think about the latest happenings in politics, sports, and entertainment. In recent years, the more blustery and brazen the personality, the bigger the following. And it’s led to some very distasteful and obnoxious personalities becoming cultural avatars just because they have a knack for caricaturing themselves in ways that people find entertaining while spewing talking points that co-sign what many of their viewers already believe.

Personality makes people ignore a Tomi Lahren’s lack of insight or a Stephen A. Smith’s disregard for nuance. Whether it’s driven by love or hate, people click onto these talking heads because they like to be entertained by them. But these personalities are almost always one sound bite away from it all caving in.

On the June 2nd airing of Real Time with Bill Maher, the controversial comedian made an off-hand “joke” during an interview with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). During a conversation about the boundaries between adult and adolescent behavior, Sasse explained that adults in Nebraska don’t dress in costumes for Halloween. Maher quipped, “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more.” To which Sasse replied, “You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”

Maher then said: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n-----.”

Maher’s quip led to some audible groans from the audience, and then clapping after he smirked in dismissal at his own racist comment. The backlash online was immediate.

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“But really, @BillMaher has got to go. There are no explanations that make this acceptable,” tweeted activist DeRay McKesson. Chance the Rapper also felt that Maher had to be taken off the air. “Please @HBO Do Not Air Another Episode Of Real Time With Bill Maher,” Chance tweeted.

“Bill Maher’s comment last night was completely inexcusable and tasteless,” a statement from HBO read. “We are removing his deeply offensive comment from any subsequent airings of the show.”

Maher issued an apology Saturday.

“Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show,” he said via statement. “Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

Bill Maher got so comfortable being Bill Maher that he made an off-camera Bill Maher joke on-camera. Maher got that comfortable because, for two decades, he’s built a brand on being exactly this kind of liberal asshole: the kind who thinks dating black women means he can’t be racist or who thinks because he makes the occasional insightful comment about easy-to-spot right-wing blowhards, it somehow masks the fact that he’s a bigot who stills sees many brown people through a very narrow-minded lens. Bill Maher didn’t just become “problematic,” he’s never not been. He built a career on it.

And so has Jason Whitlock.

The sports commentator/gadfly was also the subject of controversy this week after he offered his take on LeBron James’ comments regarding racism in America after James’ Los Angeles home was vandalized, with “N-----” spray-painted across the gate of his mansion.

“Just shows that racism will always be a part of the world, part of America,” James told ESPN after the incident was reported. “Hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. It is hidden most days. It is alive every single day. I think back to Emmett Till’s mom and the reason she had an open casket, she wanted to show the world what her son went through in terms of a hate crime in America. No matter how much money you have, how famous you are, how much people admire you, being black in America is tough.”

Whitlock blasted James during an appearance on Colin Cowherd’s The Herd this past Thursday.

“I think it is a disrespectful inconvenience for LeBron James,” said Whitlock. “He allegedly had the N-word spray-painted on his $20 million Brentwood home. He wasn’t there. His family wasn’t there. He heard about it.”

“The people that murdered Emmett Till got off, an all-white jury let them off; there was no real investigation, the whole town was against him. LeBron’s $20 million Brentwood home gets vandalized and I see two or three police cars trying to get to the bottom of it,” Whitlock said Thursday. “LeBron’s staff, I’m sure, cleaned up the spray paint within hours. This ain’t Emmett Till.”

“Racism is an issue in America but is primarily an issue for the poor. It’s not LeBron James’ issue,” said Whitlock. “He has removed himself from the damages and the ravages of real racism. He may have an occasional disrespectful interaction with someone, a disrespectful inconvenience.”

Whitlock then addressed the issue again with Cowherd and Chris Broussard on his show, Speak for Yourself, later that day. And he got into a heated debate with Broussard after Whitlock once again alleged that LeBron James is too rich to face racism.

“When white men with a felony on their record get calls back for jobs as much as a black college graduate with a clean record… black college graduates, all of them aren’t poor—some of them are educated and come from money and they still don’t get called back more than a white felon. So don’t tell me it’s just about poor people,” said Broussard.

Jason Whitlock has built a brand on being the black guy who loves to wag his finger at black people for the sake of a mainstream-media platform (and its mostly white audience). His take on LeBron follows criticism of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the American flag and “liberal media.” He’s blasted Serena Williams for her weight and for dancing after a tennis victory, and also railed against Robert Griffin III for his “swagger” as opposed to “understanding the importance of humility” while bemoaning a culture that focuses on “overpriced Air Jordans” and “cheap, gaudy jewelry.”

His take on the protests following the high-profile killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner? “There is no widespread epidemic of cops shooting and/or killing unarmed black men,” he wrote. “Dumbed-down, irresponsible Twitter hashtags won’t stop segregation by incarceration. They empower it.”

Whitlock’s commentary on LeBron isn’t unique in regard to how Whitlock generally positions himself against what he feels is the popular “black perspective”—he’s been mining the logic that his unpopular opinions have validity simply because they’re unpopular for a while now. His LeBron argument is significant because, even for him, it’s so blatantly empty.

Watching Whitlock try to defend his position, as if LeBron being rich means that he shouldn’t or couldn’t talk about racism for the benefit of those who aren’t, was infuriating and sad. Because here’s a man, Whitlock, who has become trapped by his own brand. He’s suffocating under the weight of being Jason Whitlock: Not That Kind of Black Guy. That’s not to suggest Whitlock’s a victim of anything but his own arrogance. But I found myself wondering if he even believed what he was saying.

Like Bill Maher, Whitlock has lived off of this kind of bellicose posturing for years. It may seem like the public has reached its tipping point with these two men, but don’t assume that either will face any serious consequences or lose a significant chunk of their base. This is the brand that they’ve created. You have to decide if you still want to buy. I knew where I stood on both Jason Whitlock and Bill Maher a long time ago. They make a living off of being who they are. I just wonder how they can live with themselves.