Crushing a Contrarian

The 'patriotic' squelching of Bill Maher is a scary sign of an emerging groupthink

How nauseating it has been, in the aftermath of the attacks by Muslim fanatics, to watch the first big defeat for freedom of thought and speech as tens of thousands of Americans demanded the head of Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher and came away with enough of Maher's noggin to parade through the public square.

If you are in a semi-comatose state and have not heard, Maher, while talking to author Dinesh D'Souza on his September 17 show, said: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

I was eating a late-night bowl of cereal at the time, and unlike a lot of people -- particularly in middle America -- his comments did not make me want to gag. As always, I found Maher to be obnoxious, engaging, informed and enraging. He's "in the offending-people business," as author and radio talk-show host Larry Elder, the black Libertarian who is a frequent Maher critic, explained to me this week.

Bill Maher
Bill Maher

Yet suddenly, in the groupthink that has emerged since the slaughters in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, we demand that our cultural figures placate us. Once the reluctant Maher prostrated himself fully and begged forgiveness on Jay Leno, Good Morning America and elsewhere, we Americans smugly patted ourselves on the back. We must be in the right, because hell, the guy backed down.

But how many of the hysterical thousands who jammed the phone lines at local TV stations across the country last week, calling Maher an unpatriotic traitor, also ran to their broker to offload their stock portfolios? By exercising his right to speak unpopular thoughts, Maher was being far more patriotic than the wussy Americans who sent the markets reeling while professing undying support for George W. Bush.

They make me want to gag.

Maher's comments at first did not have legs. The next morning, coverage of the late-night shows focused on their somber tone. Dozens of media outlets, including the Associated Press, Good Morning America and National Public Radio, did not even mention Maher's comments.

Most focused on Maher's decision to leave one of his four guest chairs vacant in honor of conservative commentator Barbara Olson, a frequent guest who died in the plane that hit the Pentagon.

Maher says his undoing came at the hands of two shock-jock radio hosts in Houston who endlessly ran the snippet ("We have been the cowards!") and whipped their audience into a frenzy. Within a few hours, the Maher Incident was playing on radio talk shows nationwide and consumers were besieging Politically Incorrect commercial sponsors with demands for a boycott.

Very quickly, Sears and Federal Express pulled their sponsorships, and several Midwest stations suspended his show indefinitely.

This caused the simpering Jane Clayson, on The Early Show, to chirp "Good for them!" and left the tiresome Bryant Gumbel struggling to give Maher an out by explaining that if "you do these kinds of things on an ad-lib basis . . . you are going to misspeak."

Do any of these fools have a clue what our policies in the Middle East have been? I believe Maher meant what he said, but he'll never admit it now.

At first, Maher tried to patch things up by attempting to clarify his position. He told Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor, that he was not referring to the U.S. military as cowards -- but to Congress and former president Bill Clinton, who tried but failed to take out Osama bin Laden with missiles after his fanatics blew up two U.S. embassies in Africa.

"The country did not want to tackle terrorism then," Maher explained. "And that's what we did, we lobbed a cruise missile at a pharmaceutical factory."

But I found far more controversial Maher's comments that the terrorists were not cowards. O'Reilly asked Maher about that. Maher, apparently under the misimpression that freedom of speech still reigns in America, stuck the knife into his belly. "I think they're moral cowards," he explained. "But physical cowards, cowards in war, cowards in the sense of a soldier who falls on a grenade, no. . . . It's like when they called Hitler an evil genius. Well, you're sort of complimenting him by calling him a genius. But it's an evil genius."

After that, a source inside the Politically Incorrect camp told me, "We are just in so much trouble over this. It's a runaway train, the horse is out of the barn, or whatever metaphor you want. Bill is explaining what he meant and no matter what he says it doesn't seem to matter. Very few people are calling up to say, 'Keep up with your views, even if they go against the grain.'"

It was awful to watch Maher on Leno last Friday night, cowed, nervous and apologizing profusely. Leno and the rest of the Hollywood pop-culture brigade watched him twist in the wind, already sufficiently chilled by his treatment from fellow Americans that they zipped their lips, too.

One Sears spokesperson told me, "strictly off the record, we cannot imagine who these people are, the few calling in and saying this is about free speech."

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