Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, October 2, 2001





One of the controversies that's been intriguing to watch since the events of 9/11 involves a comment made by Bill Maher on his "Politically Incorrect" TV show. It sounded antiAmerican to many and prompted ABC to consider cancelling the program.

The show in question was the first of "Politically Incorrect" to go on the air after ABC's round-the-clock coverage of the airplane attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. By the time Maher came back on - September 17 - President George W. Bush, with the Congress and the media solidly behind him, had brought the country to "a state of war."

Maher used his opening monologue, then, to reestablish the basis of his program - the bringing together of diverse celebrities who exchange different views that often go against the grain of current thinking.

"I do not relinquish, nor should any of you," he said, "the right to criticize, even as we support our government. Feelings are gonna get hurt so that actual people won't, and that will be a good thing."

Maher thought the stage was thus set for another evening of contentious behavior in which opinions would clash and perhaps some brainstorming would occur, and the audience would leave with plenty of new ideas.

In that context, about halfway through the program, conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza said that "although I think Bush has been doing a great job, one of the themes we hear constantly is that the people who did [the hijacking] are cowards...Not true. Look at what they did.

"First of all, you have a whole bunch of guys who are willing to give their life. None of 'em backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete . . . These are warriors. And we have to realize that the principles of our way of life are in conflict with people in the world . . . "

To this, Maher replied: "But also, we should -- we have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."

Another guest, columnist Arianna Huffington, agreed: "Let us not forget how many innocent civilians we killed when we bombed Yugoslavia to rubble, because we did not want to have a single American soldier die. And now we have over 5,000 innocent civilians die because we were cowardly when it came to our military personnel."

[You can find the complete transcript at abc.go.com/primetime/politicallyincorrect/transcripts/transcript_20010917.html],

Accusations about American military decision-makers taking the easy way out by shooting missiles from far away, even if the wrong target was hit, were nothing new to political talk shows and caused little ruckus before 9/11.

But after 9/11, "Maher's crime," as the Los Angeles Times observed, "would seem to have less to do with what he said than where he said it."

Before he knew it, Maher had lost two sponsors (Federal Express, Sears Roebuck) and three ABC affiliates (one of them in Washington D.C.). Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, expressed disapproval. Conservative talk show host Dan Patrick called on his listeners to complain.

"If Maher didn't understand that he was speaking to a changed America," the L.A. Times observed, "the backlash he caused that night gave him a crash course - in the politics of speech at a time of fervent patriotism, in the skittishness of network TV during a national crisis and in the potential for a comment, after it orbits out into the media ether, to return in its most incendiary form."

A Tendency for Censorship

But worst of all for the rest of the nation, George W. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleisher, told the Associated Press that Maher's comment was "a terrible thing to say, and it's unfortunate . . . There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

Whoa. When the press secretary of the White House tells "all Americans that they need to watch what they say," observed The Skeptic at www.UnquietMind.com, he shows a "tendency for censorship" that jeopardizes the "pair of freedoms that America is supposed to be about - freedom of speech and the press."

Soon, though, unlikely allies for Maher emerged. Arch-conservative David Horowitz wrote at www.frontpagemagazine.com that "Bill Maher's 'Politically Incorrect' may be the first casualty of the war against terrorism. This would be a travesty of the war effort and a blow to freedom in this country, which would weaken not strengthen our national security."

And, irony of irony, George W. Bush himself seemed to agree with Maher's comment. According to Newsweek, Bush explained his plans for war to a group of senators by saying that "when I take action, Iím not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. Itís going to be decisive." LBJ would have been proud of language like that. No coward he.

Bush made a similar remark elsewhere about the war to come: "It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat."

Maher ended up apologizing to his viewers (read: the network) by saying that "in no way was I ever intending, because I never think this way, to say that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I apologize."

After that he took his mea culpa and went on the road, offering variations of the apology on six nationally syndicated radio talk shows, Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and other broadcast interviews. Apparently Jerry Springer was on vacation.

Americans and Their Polls

A final way to make a point in the United States is to turn to that pillar of grassroots democracy, the Internet petition, and this is what supporters of Bill Maher have done. By now many thousands have submitted their names to the list at www4.PetitionOnline.com/promaher/petition.html to stop ABC from cancelling "Politically Incorrect."

And what a treat it is to peruse the many succinct and convincing comments about democracy and censorship these signers offer: "The show is called 'Politically Incorrect.' I enjoy diverse opinions. Leave the show alone." What eloquence in such spare prose! "It is not un-American to speak dissent against the government. On the contrary, the right to speak out is fundamentally what makes us American." Bravo!

Similar comments roll out in wave after wave, some all in caps ("FREE SPEECH IS THE FOUNDATION OF THIS COUNTRY" and some geared toward the events of 9/11 ("The right to express unpopular views is what makes America the great nation she is. To cancel 'Politically Incorrect' because of Maher's comments is to play into the hands of the terrorists who would destroy our society' ").

At the same time, democracy has been called a messy, chaotic process, during which Americans can be downright pesky when they get a hankering to play around. It should be no surprise that Osama bin Laden has signed the petition many times ("Thank you Bill. I like your show") as have Jane Fonda, Bart Simpson and Gary Condit ("Thank God something has taken the heat off me").

Perhaps most heartening is the "Freedom of Speecher" who takes a stand for or against every side possible in this controversy: "Bill Maher is welcome to speak on any street corner. I am welcome to boycott any company that pays him to nauseate me on my own television."

Petitions, initiatives, letters, votes, posters, interviews, talk shows - they're all part of a big, heartening process that's going to save Maher's show and capture something larger - something that deserves all caps and a little flag-waving of its own: "THE CORRECT RESPONSE TO VIEWS WITH WHICH WE DISAGREE IS MORE SPEECH - NOT SUPPRESSION. LONG LIVE OUR BELOVED FREE COUNTRY."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

About "Underground" by Haruki Murakami, which you discussed in #268: The NPR program "This American Life" last week featured actors reading excerpts from "Underground" in a twelve-minute segment. The description of the show is at


People can listen to the entire show (which is excellent) in real audio


Steve Rhodes

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read your column twice but could not get the point you were striving to make except perhaps you are cautioning us, via Murakami's study, not to simplify this crisis into good vs. evil, us against them.

I, however, do see this in simple terms. Terrorism is evil and we are seeing the beginning of a battle between a new form of totalitarianism versus civilized society.

What is there to understand about the terrorists who spread sarin gas in Tokyo's subways or who committed mass murder last September 11? What I understand is how much in common they have with each other and previous totalitarian forces in history such as Nazism and Communism. Murakami points to some of the features of the cult in Japan: a "dictatorial guru" who promises "an intense, perfect utopia." And what if most of the rest of us do not want that utopia? It will nevertheless be enforced through terror, the means by which the few can control the many. Terrorism and Totalitarianism are two sides of the same coin and it is impossible for totalitarianism to be other than evil.

A Reader

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I got chills reading your Murakami comments. I think it's an important point this column is making - the crazier or more evil a behaviour seems to be, the more important it is in many ways to look at it closely and what it implies about the society in which it takes place - because it's liable to affect that society profoundly whether we want it to or not.

Steve Adelson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for pointing out the relevance of Haruki Murakami's "Underground," especially as we all struggle to come to terms with recent events. I read "Underground" when it was first published this summer, and then began re-reading it (for the same reasons you addressed in your column) a few days after the attacks. Murakami is one of my favorites; in all his works, he manages to identify and explore the basic emotional impulses that transcend culture, religion, nationality, and (most appropriately, today) the enormity of catastrophic events.

Brian Crowley

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Great report. Haven't read "Underground," but I do hope Murakami doesn't suggest, in the process of putting a human face on evil, that something in the Japanese way of life somehow justified these attacks. Nothing justifies the attacks. And normal people do not poison people on their way to work in the morning.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I, too, have been thinking a lot about Murakami's book and wondering why I hadn't heard any public references to it in the aftermath 9/11.

I was also struck by your comment about the "novelist's way of dismantling and reconfiguring real-life catastrophe by looking first at its human face, then at buried questions inside himself" - I can't imagine a better description of a novelist's challenge.

Ted Weinstein

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Have enjoyed the recent letters, and thought this might be worth reading for an opposing viewpoint on U.S "responsibility" for bringing about the existence of terrorists like bin Laden.


John Farrell

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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