Bill Maher is no conservative.
He can’t abide Donald Trump. He can’t abide even more the reality of President Donald Trump.
And safe to say, director Rob Reiner is there in spades. Christina Bellantoni? She’s the Assistant Managing Editor for Politics at the decidedly left-leaning and Trump-unfriendly Los Angeles Times.
Add MSNBC military analyst Colonel Jack Jacobs and Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood — and me — to that mix and what do you get? But of course! A TV show!
This was my second appearance on Bill’s show Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. And yes, I had a great time. Bill is as always the perfect host. But there is more here than simply having fun kibitzing with a couple of liberal Hollywood stars and a reporter for a staunchly liberal newspaper. A serious something more.
As some may, um, recall? In August there was this kind-of-a-dustup between myself and CNN. As described here in this space in a piece titled “CNN Fires Me.”
As time moved on there was no less than Bill Maher on CNN with my former CNN colleague Fareed Zakaria saying this, as headlined in Deadline Hollywood:
Bill Maher Backs Canned Pundit Jeffrey Lord; Says “This Has Got To Stop”
The article said, in part, this (bold print supplied by me):
Bill Maher, guesting this morning on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, defended the network’s recently ousted pundit Jeffrey Lord as a victim of political correctness.
… “I don’t know how long I’m going to last, really,” Maher told Zakaria, bemoaning what he sees as today’s political correctness. “It’s worse every year. The things that they go after people for now. Your colleague — I don’t agree with him — Jeffrey Lord, CNN got rid of him because he said sieg heil on a tweet. It was a joke.
“This has got to stop, this idea that people have to go away if they’ve offended me even for one moment. How about just move on, turn the page, go to the next thing in your life?”
Thank you Bill! Yes! Exactly! So I wasn’t surprised that Bill would discuss this in my appearance on his show. But I was amazed that no less than Rob Reiner would take the time to make clear he agreed with Bill. Said Rob, as reported in Deadline Hollywood:
“I think what (CNN) did to Jeff was wrong,” Reiner said, with Maher seeming to agree. “It was clearly a joke. I’m not on his side in terms of policy, but, I mean, that was a bad deal.”
“This has to stop, this insane purity police nonsense that you have to go away because you made a little joke.”
Together the two made some news with their thoughts on my CNN firing. As here in Entertainment Weekly, here in Deadline Hollywood, and over here at Real Clear Politics, and on to the home front with Penn Live and Philly Voice. And that was only a handful of the places this story popped up.
But there’s infinitely more here than my being appreciative to Messrs. Maher and Reiner. The next day’s cross country plane trip return to Pennsylvania provided plenty of time to think about what I was really experiencing that night in Hollywood. And the answer was crystal clear. This wasn’t just a television show. It was freedom. As expressed in what could be called a “freedom zone” as seen through the lens of two prominent liberals who are respectively a comedian and a film director — both of which professions depend on freedom for their survival. Not to mention Christina — a professional journalist — depending on exactly the same freedom. Ditto for writer Wood. With Colonel Jacobs having spent a career defending that freedom.
Much cyber and print ink is spent on the conservative side of the aisle writing about freedom. Lately, as the climate on college campuses has become more and more toxic and un-accepting of hearing different points of view whether from classmates or conservative guest speakers, the supposedly long settled belief in the First Amendment has surged to the frontline of conversation. When Berkeley has to spend $600,000 to defend Ben Shapiro as he appears on campus for a speech and a riot erupts? When Ann Coulter is barred from speaking with threats to her physical safety? When one incident after another pops up in the news illustrating an iron-fisted intolerance for dissent, it is more than safe to say that freedom — free speech specifically — is under attack.
No one is more aware of this than Bill Maher. As reported here in 2014 in the Huffington Post, Bill himself was targeted for a shutdown at… drumroll please… Berkeley. The headline:
Bill Maher Responds To UC Berkeley Controversy
The piece said this:
Bill Maher responded to the effort by some students at the University of California-Berkeley to disinvite the HBO TV star from speaking at a school commencement ceremony, taking a dig at the college kids for not adhering to their liberal free speech roots.
Students began collecting signatures online to get UC Berkeley to cancel Maher’s appearance at the December commencement due to his comments about Islam. Maher declined to comment to multiple media outlets, instead choosing to respond to the flare up during his show on Friday.
And so he did, noting that this blow-up over free speech came on the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley “Free Speech” movement. “I guess they don’t teach irony in college anymore,” Bill said.
He also noted that one of his fiercest critics on the issue of dealing with Islam is the religious scholar and educator Reza Aslan, who I believe is a Shia Muslim. “Bill Maher’s not a bigot. I know him,” Aslan had said. To which Bill responded: “He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!” Alas, Reza, whom I have debated on Don Lemon’s show, got the same kind of treatment I did from CNN — getting the boot for a tweet, in his case an anti-Trump tweet.
Read that line from Bill Maher again to the Berkeley protesters as he discussed his conversations with Reza:
“He and I disagree on stuff but he’s always welcome on the show. That’s how it’s done, kids!”
Bingo. That is exactly how freedom and free speech is done. And in 21st century America that means giving speeches on college campuses, hosting Real Time With Bill Maher, hosting talk radio shows like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, and countless others around the country. Not to mention TV shows like those hosted by Hannity, Laura, Tucker Carlson on Fox or Fareed Zakaria, Anderson Cooper, Erin Burnett, Brooke Baldwin, Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, Don Lemon and others at CNN — plus the gang at MSNBC and more. It means the broadcast networks and every newspaper, magazine and book one can imagine any and everywhere in the country. Not to mention all those websites. Each and all in their own way are operating in a freedom zone.
It is astounding in 21st century America that this freedom is under assault — and serious assault — from some Americans. What got me in trouble at CNN was my response to those I referred to as the fascists of Media Matters. Why? Because this far-left group of extremists’ entire reason for existing is getting conservatives removed from television and radio. And doing so under the guise of “boycotts” that in reality are, as described by one of the advertisers (who happened to be Jewish) as an “organized terror campaign.” That advertiser found himself on the receiving end of a campaign that ran the gamut from threatening his physical safety to harassing his female employees. There was nothing in that campaign of organized terror that remotely resembled freedom.
All of which makes Bill Maher’s show something that perhaps even Bill didn’t think of when he started it: a freedom zone. A place where liberals and conservatives can safely gather around a Hollywood-style camp fire and talk through the issues of the day with all of the attendant pros and cons that come with that.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election as president. There will be more angst from the anti-Trumpers and the Never Trumpers, and more raised glasses from the pro-Trumpers. But well beyond the back-and-forth over the last election there should be some serious remembering that we have elections in the first place because we are a free country. And that in that free country everybody has a right to their own thoughts and the free expression of those thoughts.
And most particularly perhaps we all need reminding that when you see Bill Maher running debates on television or doing stand-up comedy somewhere (as on November 11th when he will be at Madison Square Garden) or you settle into a movie theater to watch a Rob Reiner film (as with his newest LBJ — which he discusses with star Woody Harrelson and Jake Tapper here) or you read a story in the Los Angeles Times by Christina Bellantoni (@cbellantoni) or in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood or a piece of analysis on MSNBC by Colonel Jack Jacobs, what you are really seeing is freedom at work.
It is not for nothing that Sean Hannity — no Bill Maher fan — makes a point of defending his liberal opposite’s right to free speech often enough. It would perhaps be helpful for more liberals to stand up as well not just for Bill Maher but for free speech — period.
Because without doubt, if free speech gets lost in this country — it will be lost for everybody. And it will be too late to appreciate what is really being seen in action when turning on Real Time With Bill Maher: a freedom zone.