• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Milo, Maher, and Muck

I have never watched Bill Maher’s show in my life. I’ve seen clips of it, and of him guesting on other people’s shows, and there’s been little there to attract my interest. He seems a clever man—clever enough to make a living in a difficult way—but every single thing I’ve ever heard from him, or attributed to him, about things I know about (namely, religion and philosophy) have struck me as no better than I’d expect from a smart-aleck college sophomore (let the reader understand), rather than an adult who purports to be a serious contributor to public conversation.

David Frum, on the other hand, is indeed a serious contributor to public conversation. So when David (we’ve met a couple of times and corresponded over the years) tweeted the clip below as a sort of guilty pleasure, I was intrigued. Why in the world would David Frum take time to watch Bill Maher interviewing, of all people, Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right journalist? Perhaps just a guilty pleasure…

Still, what happened, surprisingly, is that Mr Yiannopoulos, also a clever man with some repellent ideas and a preposterous persona, somehow manages to look like the voice of calm reason. How? By asserting ideas and data and expecting his fellow panelists to respond with their own ideas and data. Yet what transpired to make him look relatively sane?

Two of the three other panelists took him on. (The third kept smilingly dodging the issues, and was mostly a non-factor.) One panelist was Larry Wilmore, identified as a “producer/comedian/writer” and best known for appearing regularly on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” before briefly hosting his own program. The other was not identified in the clip, but described himself as an “old spy” with a book to plug.

In the few minutes of this clip, so much that is wrong in our public discourse today was exposed to the harsh light of a TV studio. Five adults, all nicely attired (although I do think Mr Yiannopolous might have overdone the pearls slightly), are conducting a conversation about grown-up matters. They clearly have different views and they feel strongly about them.

Mr Yiannopolous, as opposed to the other guests, makes his living largely as a provocateur. He can be expected to outrage. Yet in the clip, at least, he makes a series of points in a relatively calm and measured way. And how is he treated by these other two?

First, with strong opposing statements.

Then, with sarcasm and ad hominem remarks.

And when those seem not immediately to win the day and reduce their foe to tears? They f-bomb him.

Less than three minutes elapse between Mr Wilmore’s first rejoinder and his sputtering filth. Three minutes is all that Mr Wilmore will grant for reasonable discussion, however highly charged, before he reaches for the last resort of every drunk in every bar quarrel.

His colleague does little better, flinging a similar slur moments later.

Mr Yiannopoulos made the news just a little while ago as his invited talk at the University of California—Berkeley was cancelled as violent anarchists hijacked a protest of his speech. Yes, Berkeley: Home of the Free Speech Movement of yesteryear.

It is not just the political right who are shouting down their opponents. Nor is it just campus kiddies who are behaving like furious little snowflakes. It is people of every stripe and every age nowadays who make clear that they will not countenance views they dislike…for more than three minutes.

Donald Trump is not the primary problem here, although he has exacerbated it gravely. He is merely the most successful recent exploiter of it. We are the problem: every time we shut down dissent, every time we try to legislate the righteousness we prefer, every time we boo instead of listen and threaten instead of rebut.

The problem is not on the left or the right. The problem, as Christian theology has been saying for quite some time now, is in the human heart.

And, as Christian theology has been saying for equally as long, we need to rediscover and stoutly practice some rugged, old-fashioned virtues, such as humility, forbearance, respect, forgiveness, and love, or we will not survive the social disintegration that is everywhere at hand.