The First Amendment is a doozy.
Enshrined as the very first portion of our Bill of Rights, it is the amendment that has set forth the freedoms that have come to define America over the past 240 years. It has helped us to avoid a theocracy by stressing that all citizens have the right to worship as they see fit. It has helped to empower citizens by allowing us to petition our government for a redress of our grievances. It has helped to create an environment where peaceful protest is seen as a stable of our democracy thanks to the ability to peacefully assemble. It has (thus far) allowed a free press to report on the actions of our government and to hold it accountable. And it has allowed our citizens the freedom to speak their minds and express their opinions within reason and without repercussions for their words.
But it is these very words that can be so destructive to our republic.
At a time when the levels of hyperpartisanship are at an all-time high and fake news is becoming more and more prevalent, American citizens have willingly chosen to isolate themselves from their political opponents. They have chosen to immerse themselves in echo chambers where they only read, see, and hear news that already confirms their preestablished worldview. This inevitably leads to citizens to not only seek out instances of confirmation bias but to dismiss anything that runs contrary to this as either fake or false. By seeing the poor, African-American woman on welfare, this is obviously to be expected but the White man on welfare is obviously out of the ordinary. At a time where the vast majority of low-information voters never travel outside their like-minded communities, they see no reason to doubt the conclusions that their partisan news sources have provided for them.
Because these citizens are easily manipulative, there have been a number of right-wing talk show hosts who have attained celebrity status. Following in the footsteps of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, All Coulter, and even Alex Jones, this new generation of conservative talk show hosts have found that there is a lot of money to be made in hate. Taking what their predecessors built, these new voices have become unapologetically racist, sexist, and xenophobic and have expressed no sympathy for those who have criticized their views. They know that their viewers or listeners are easily riled up so the more offensive they are, the more support they are able to garner from their rabid fan base. The overwhelming majority of what they say is verifiably false, but their supporters are so brain-washed that they see no need to question them. And thanks to the protections provided by the First Amendment, they have no reason to start telling the truth anytime soon.
So, knowing all this what should progressives do? The obvious answer is to simply continue to avoid these people and their supporters. They are too far down the rabbit hole at this point. These conservative hosts know how lucrative their hate is, so they have no reason to stop spewing their poisonous venom anytime soon. Their supporters are also beyond hope; they have no desire to suddenly "see the light" and question the way in which they get their news. As the 2016 election showed us, there are still millions of more people who don't see the world as they do and who don't approve of the blatant racism, sexism, and xenophobia that is so pervasive throughout the modern-day conservative movement. Just because these far-right crackpots have constitutionally-protected free speech doesn't mean we should engage them and their distorted worldview.
And yet, this is exactly what "progressive hero" Bill Maher has done and seems intent on continuing to do.
For those of us who consider ourselves to be progressives, Maher has often been an enigma. He's never been as blatantly problematic as someone like The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur, who clearly wants to destroy the Democratic Party from within. Yet, for every anti-Republican rant that Maher gives that inevitably makes its way to social media, there seems to be an equally puzzling stance or view that Maher takes that seems to offset his progressive views. Despite being a seven-figure Obama campaign contributor, Maher strongly considered supported Rand Paul for president in November of 2014 and then later pledged to support Bernie Sanders in the fall of 2015. He eventually came around and supported Hillary Clinton in May of 2016 but did not provide her with the same financial assistance he provided Barack Obama.
As befuddling as Maher's support for Democratic presidential candidates was, perhaps even more confounding has been his constant denigration of Islam. Not even the staunchest Bill Maher supporter can say that a mean streak of Islamophobia doesn't permeate throughout his veins. Maher had used his self-described atheism as a way to consistently critique and criticize Islam as a religion steeped in violence. It is this broad, overly-generalized, and downright inaccurate portrayal of the religion that has earned Maher much-deserved condemnation from guests on his very own show like celebrity Ben Affleck, journalist Rela Jebreal, author Reza Azlan, and feminist Asra Nomani. It became so bad that in the fall of 2014, The Atlantic went so far as to describe Maher's views on Islam as "dangerous". Despite this, it has been as recently as two weeks ago, that Maher has gone on record stating that terrorism would never be defeated unless Islam was reformed.
And yet, despite all this, what may be the worst part of Bill Maher's progressive shtick may very well be how often his HBO show provides conservative commentators with a free platform to spew their hate and vitriol to a national audience. Thanks to his puzzling friendship with Ann Coulter, Maher has consistently provided a spot for her on his show and thus an opportunity for her to not only promote herself but also to promote Republican candidates as she did with Donald Trump in May. Maher also made headlines on February 4th of this year when he had on rising conservative talk show host Toni Lahren. Lahren had already previously gotten her first opportunity to actually go outside the conservative bubble when she appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah in November of 2016 and proved herself then to be a vile and vitriolic woman. Now word has come out that this upcoming Friday, Maher will host Milo Yiannopoulos, a White nationalist associated with Breitbart News. To protest this, journalist and frequent guest Jeremy Scahill canceled his appearance on the program, stating that sharing the stage with Yiannopoulos was a "bridge too far."
Of course, Maher has refused to cancel Yiannopoulos' invitation. Maher believes that like Toni Lahren, Milo Yiannopoulos should have an opportunity to express his views and be judged accordingly. However, what Maher fails to realize is that by booking people like Ann Coulter, Tomi Lahren, and Milo Yiannopoulous, he is actually giving them a free platform that provides them with a no-lose situation. Emerging from the alt-right conservative bubble, someone like Yiannopoulos has nothing to lose from appearing on Bill Maher's show. If he does well, he will be glorified on Breitbart and other conservative media outlets for days. If he does poorly, then he gets to play the victim of the "cruel liberal media" that Bill Maher clearly represents. Sure, there will inevitably be some folks who have never heard of Yiannopoulos who will be completely outraged by his views. But for those who already admire Yannopoulos, they will not only continue to admire him but will also be more inclined to support him moving forward.
Yet that is what Bill Maher doesn't get. These conservative guests and their racist views have no place beyond their vicious and vile alt-right circles. Their views are disgusting and do not represent who we, as Americans, are. They are afforded the ability to spout off this nonsense in a constitutionally-protected way. But to give them a national audience and free media exposure to share these views in no way benefits the progressive movement. These human swamp creatures don't deserve our time or our attention. Their target demographic of aging White racists is slowly dying off. No matter how hard they try, they won't make America great again by taking us back to the social policies of the 1950s. They offer us nothing constructive to discuss and offer us nothing to benefit society as a whole. They're modern-day pariahs and should be treated as such.
And Bill Maher, of all people, should know this.
The First Amendment is a doozy.