You might have heard about a certain controversy regarding Bill Maher’s comments about radical Islam. He got into a heated debate with Ben Affleck on his show a few weeks back in which Affleck came down on him very hard for blaming Islam for so many of the problems in the Middle East. He had a very similar debate with Affleck several years ago, only that time, it was a little bit more about Middle Eastern society itself and Ayan Hirsi Ali was there to back him up in saying that his criticisms were fair. In this case, he had only Sam Harris. I don’t think Harris is all that deep of a thinker, but that’s besides the point. Bill Maher is no stranger to controversy. He was fired from his job hosting Politically Incorrect after saying that the 9/11 hijackers, as evil as they were, were not cowards. And now he is posing the question as to whether or not the root of all of our political issues in that part of the world could be Islamic fundamentalism. Well, he’s never been a big fan of religion.
Let me make something clear: I have issues with Maher. I watch his show whenever I can and consider him a good interviewer and a good discussion leader, but yeah, his hard-on for blaming everything on religion does get on my nerves, and I say that as a nonbeliever. Even then, I think he had a point. It’s not necessarily racist to say that Islamic fundamentalism is holding the Middle East back, but of course, you could make the argument that fundamentalism is always bad and whether it’s Islamic or not has nothing to do with it. That’s the root of the debate, anyway, and for once, I’m going to decline to take sides. I get what Maher’s saying and am maybe even sympathetic to it, but I feel like the issue here is whether what he said was even that bad to begin with.
My criteria for determining if I want to spend time around somebody is very simple. Essentially, all I want to know is whether they can teach me anything new. I learned an interesting trick from a new acquaintance last month that I’ve just now tried. He suggested that if I need a few more bucks, I should show up to work a half hour early, clock in, then make myself scarce until I’m actually supposed to be there. You might point out that this is dishonest, to which I say: So what? Just don’t tell my boss, is all. With any luck, nobody will notice, and yeah, I kinda feel like I do need the money more than my employers do. My new apartment has a fucking killer location and is decent-sized if not exactly lavish. And I really, really need to put some space between myself and my family.
Cormac McCarthy once said that he doesn’t understand the appeal of writers like Henry James and Marcel Proust because they don’t explore issues like life and death. “A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange,” he said. That bugged me more than it should. It shouldn’t really be a big deal that a writer I like doesn’t like another writer I like, but I feel like there is more to it than that. First of all, I love The Turn of the Screw, and would be happy to expound on the virtues of that densely layered ghost story anytime he wants. (Call me, Cormac. You still have my number, right?) But the keyword in that statement is “strange”. He didn’t even call Henry James bad; he just said he doesn’t get it. I know the feeling. I’ve had it happen once or twice where I’m getting into a disagreement with someone and somebody says, “You two have different opinions, and that’s okay” as if that’s all that needs to be said. What the fuck is the point of life if we can’t have a conversation?
There are a lot of beloved cultural icons that I’m not totally enamored of: Breaking Bad, Paul Thomas Anderson, I could go on. But I wouldn’t really describe them as strange; I just don’t like them all that much. I seek out the things that have me scratching my head. I discussed violent, extreme movies in my last post. I’m thinking I should check out Saló, Or the 120 Days of Sodom at some point. That is widely regarded as one of the most revolting films ever made, but art isn’t supposed to make people comfortable, is it? Bill Maher has never sought to confront people with the easy truths. That’s part of why he’s on HBO. But college kids don’t want to be challenged anymore. Part of the reason I never went for my Ph.D. is that I don’t want to spend my whole life in that kind of environment. I mean no disrespect to the people who do, but man, it just ain’t for me.
I’ll close with a story about my BFF, Dan Savage. He was visiting a university not too long ago and, in the midst of a discussion about why he no longer uses the word “tranny” because it is offensive to transgender people, a transgender student stood up and told him that he couldn’t use that word even in the context of explaining why it’s offensive. Fuck that. He refused and the student left the room in tears, later complaining that Dan harassed it. (And yes, “it” is this student’s preferred pronoun. I’m all for self-identifying, but talk about a lack of self-respect, huh?) I witnessed some of that attitude in my time in college, especially when I dipped a toe into the waters of the LGBT community. I hate to say it, but people these days are too fucking sensitive. And you don’t have to make everything all about what a special snowflake you are. Seriously, Berkeley people, grow some thicker skin.