Bill Maher at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (November 13), 8 pm. $37.50-$57.50 (sold out). 416-872-4255.
I disagree with Bill Maher, but that's OK. Maher thrives on disagreement. That's how he got his hit TV show, Politically Incorrect - for being ornery and opinionated. But then he disagreed with something George Bush said after 9/11. When Bush called the terrorists who piloted the planes cowards, Maher responded with a riposte that has become my favourite TV moment since Sinead ripped up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.
It's not the terrorists who are the cowards, he opined. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."
A few months later Maher and his Emmy Award-winning show were gone from network TV, along with almost all other signs of dissent or serious inquiry from the American media. A cowardly era had begun - the era of Incurious, unquestionable George.
Maher, who brings his outrageous stand-up to Massey Hall this Saturday (November 13), has since clarified his position on who the real cowards are.
"I didn't mention the military. It wasn't about the soldiers. It was the politicians - the people who give the orders."
I cite a study recently released by British medical journal the Lancet, that states that more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far in the Bush war. The soldiers who keep pulling those triggers - pushing the buttons - they're worse than cowards. They're morally craven.
"When you have a military, they have to follow orders. Especially when you're a superpower - especially when you're in the crosshairs, like America is. I can't blame some 19-year-old kid in Fallujah for following orders. That's what he does.
"I don't agree with this war as the right method for fighting terrorism, but I do think they're sincere in thinking it's the right method."
It bugs me that Maher is keeping to the standard American "We've got to stand behind the troops" line on this. I can't get him to agree that Bush the errorist is more dangerous than Osama the terrorist.
"I don't think George Bush wants to sneak a nuclear weapon into an American city and set it off. Even though we really don't like George Bush, it's important to keep perspective on who really is still on our team."
Oh, well, I never did agree with everything Maher said. The important thing was that he said it, and with a ferocious commitment to honesty unlike anything else on network TV.
Maher is surprisingly more vulnerable on the phone than he sounds on TV. He has a rich, supportive laugh and is generous with it as I struggle to be funny in the face of his well-known wit. He's not feeling too light-hearted, though, about the Bush victory.
"Truly, we are a minority in our own country now, people who are progressive-thinking. In this election I thought we were voting in a rational way on issues. It's one thing to disagree about how to conduct the war on terrorism. That's a valid argument - either we go into Iraq to fight terrorism or we don't. But what I found out on Election Day was that half the people in this country were voting based on the idea that Jesus Christ is gonna come down and save us all so it doesn't really matter how we fight terrorism.
"That was a bracing, startling moment for a lot of Americans. We really live in a country that's been hijacked by a bunch of gun-toting extra-chromosome evangelicals."
That's the Maher I remember. That's the Maher whom conservatives like to call an America-hater. But he doesn't hate America, he tells me. He's embarrassed by it. He's worried about it turning into a medieval theocracy.
"The world is dividing into the religious and the non-religious, and America now has more in common with the people we are fighting than with our supposed allies."
He's not about to cut and run, though.
"True liberals would say, 'Bush got elected - all the more reason to stay.' I'm not gonna give my country up to these right-wing nut cases. Stay and fight, because you know what? Wherever you go, Bush is probably gonna invade it next."
Maher's new show, Real Time, features celebrity guests with political opinions, much like Politically Incorrect, and has been airing weekly on HBO for two seasons (not available here in Canada). But he's almost been eclipsed by Jon Stewart as the main antidote in America to Faux News, ObCNN and the obsequious mewlings of the network news shows.
Maher is a fan of Stewart's show but not of everything he does.
"He has presidential candidates on and then only asks them fluffy questions that humanize them. He's as big a part of the problem as CNN. John Kerry didn't do my show, and I know why he didn't do my show. It was because I wouldn't ask him those easy questions."
I wonder if Maher's program, which gives regular air time to the ravings of right-wing zealot Anne Coulter, could also be viewed as part of the problem.
"She very often does say literally horrible things, but I love the fact that she isn't afraid to be booed. She says what she thinks and doesn't shrink from what she believes. If you're not willing to be booed occasionally, then I promise you, you're not saying anything very real."
Maher himself has certainly been booed in his time. He's been denounced by the White House press secretary, widely pilloried in the press and fairly successfully marginalized in the mainstream media. Does he despair for the future of his country? His answer might serve as a rallying cry for those who are currently in defeatist mode.
"Despite all the legitimate worries people have about the Patriot Act and so forth, we still do have a constitution here. We still do have free speech. When I got kicked off the air by ABC, if I had just crawled under a rock I guess I would've gone away, but I worked like a demon to come back. I wrote a book. I did a Broadway show. I got my ass back on the air on another network.
"I think I'm a good example that free speech is alive and well. You just have to fight for it. Every day."