Bill Maher, Once Canceled by the Right, Takes Aim at the Left's Cancel Culture

It was over before he knew it. Bill Maher, host of the hit show Politically Incorrect on ABC, was canceled by the network's parent company, Disney, with no real explanation back in June 2002. It wasn't the ratings. Maher's show was many things—raw, outrageous, ridiculous, interesting and irritating—but it was never boring. Indeed, it was an extremely entertaining show, and conversations happened on his set that didn't happen anywhere on television. For better or worse.

The idea of the show was simple: bring people from all walks of American life and culture together—sports, politics and entertainment—and let the guests go at it on the topics of the day. Better still, Maher worked hard to include diverse viewpoints too and regularly included up-and-coming conservative stars like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and others.

Disney, it turns out, handed Maher his death sentence for comments he made on his show on September 17, 2001. On the set that fateful and fatal night was conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, who responded to President George W. Bush's contention that the terrorists responsible for the carnage were "cowards." D'Souza disagreed. "One of the themes we hear constantly is that the people who did this are cowards," explained D'Souza. "Not true. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life. None of 'em backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete."

Maher agreed with D'Souza's point, and what he said next unleashed the firestorm that would end his show. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," Maher said. "That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building—say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

Bill Maher
Bill Maher during the HBO Winter 2007 TCA Press Tour in Los Angeles. Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic Inc. for HBO Films

Maher's words were soon everywhere. It didn't help matters that they were taken out of context, as many pundits—especially in the conservative media—implied that he'd called our soldiers cowardly.

A contrite Maher issued an apology. "In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong," he said in a statement.

His apology didn't change anyone's mind. Conservative media pushed for boycotts of his show's sponsors. Sears dropped the show, citing an outpouring of outrage from angry customers. FedEx and others joined the exodus.

Just months later, Maher was canceled, his career in tatters. And all over a comment he could have made differently, one he didn't plan. A comment that, if he'd made it a year later, would have passed unnoticed.

Worse, anyone who followed Maher's career knew how he felt about radical Islamists. Indeed, Maher has been one of the few voices in the mainstream media willing to differentiate between the majority of peaceful Muslims in the world and those with views so extreme that they're a danger not just to America and the Western world but to Muslims too. Especially in places like the Middle East, Far East and Africa.

None of that mattered to those Republicans after Maher's head. And it wasn't the conservative media alone that was leading the charge. These were the words from press secretary Ari Fleischer on September 26, responding to a question about Maher's comments by a reporter: "It's a terrible thing to say, and it was unfortunate. They're reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

Luckily for America, the appetite on the right to do such things sputtered out. Robust dissent over Bush's foreign policy didn't merely return; it came back with an intensity not seen since Vietnam. Some of that dissent came from the right.

For anyone watching Maher's recent attacks on the entrenched assault on free speech by the progressive left, his experience with boycotts and cancellations is worth telling. Because what's been consistent in Maher's old and new shows is his hatred of dogmatic extremism, including the religious variety. Maher's principles on this fundamental issue, it turns out, are more important to him than his political and partisan preferences. And more important even than adulation from his liberal brethren. It is, dare I say, a deeply principled stand.

On his HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher, last week, he talked about the heat he's been taking from progressives for challenging the far left's nearly religious devotion to its orthodoxies and dogma. "To me, when people say to me sometimes, like, 'Boy, you know, you go after the left a lot these days. Why?' Because you're embarrassing me," he said.

Perhaps Maher's best monologue on the subject happened last spring during his "New Rules" segment on Real Time. It began with a graphic of the word progressophobia, a phrase Harvard anthropologist Steven Pinker made up to describe, as Maher noted, "a brain disorder that strikes liberals and makes them incapable of recognizing progress." Maher then ran through a litany of titanic cultural shifts in America to prove his point.

"Before 2012, gay marriage was put before state voters and lost 35 times in a row. Now, it's the law of the land in every state, and even half of Republicans are for it," he said. "That's progress, and acknowledging progress isn't saying we're done and we don't need more. And being gloomier doesn't make you a better person."

Maher then moved to the subject of race. "In 1958, only 4 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage," he said. "Now, Gallup doesn't even bother asking. The last time they did, in 2013, 87 percent approved. That is a sea change from when I was a kid."

Maher then took aim at fellow comedian and Hollywood star Kevin Hart and something he told The New York Times. "You're witnessing white power and white privilege at an all-time high," Hart told the reporter about the current state of race relations in America.

"This is one of the big problems with wokeness," Maher countered, challenging Hart's claim. "What you say doesn't have to make sense or jibe with the facts, or ever be challenged, lest the challenge itself be conflated with racism."

Maher went on to prove the absurdity of Hart's claim. "But saying that white power and privilege is at an all-time high is just ridiculous. Higher than a century ago, the year of the Tulsa race massacre?" he asked rhetorically. "Higher than the years when the Ku Klux Klan rode unchecked and Jim Crow went unchallenged? Higher than the 1960s, when the Supremes and Willie Mays still couldn't stay in the same hotel as the white people they were working with?"

Maher then came in for the kill. "Racism is simply no longer everywhere. It's not in my home. It probably isn't in yours, if I read my audience right, and I think I do. For most of the country, the most unhip thing you could ever be today is a racist."

Maher pinned much of the blame on millennials, many of whom came of age during the rise of safe spaces and trigger warnings, and the educators who created and engendered such nonsense.

"We date human events with A.D. and B.C., but we need a third marker for millennials: B.Y. Before you," Maher joked. The studio audience, filled with young fans, erupted with applause.

Maher then closed his monologue with this parting thought about his country: "It's not a sin—and it's certainly not inaccurate—to say, We've come a long way, baby. Not mission accomplished. Just a long way."

Maher's monologue went viral, with conservatives cheering what they mistakenly believed was his move to the right. Progressive critics mistakenly believed he'd moved to the right because he was getting applause from Republicans.

What his critics on the left didn't understand is that many traditional liberal Democrats believe the same things. Indeed, a silent majority of Americans dislike the radical ideas being peddled by Marxist progressives (white privilege, critical race theory and radical wealth redistribution among them) but are afraid to speak up. And afraid because those same progressives who talk endlessly about inclusion use bullying tactics to stifle dissent. And cancellation to kill it.

Indeed, America's repulsion for the tactics of the cancel culture crosses generations. A poll conducted by Morning Consult revealed some startling numbers. "Overall, no one liked it," wrote Daniel Roman of the Association of Mature American Citizens. "The only group for whom more respondents viewed it positively (19%) or neutrally (22%) than negatively (36%) was millennials. Predictably, more members of Gen X (1965-1980) and Boomers (1946-64) viewed it negatively (46% for Gen X, 50% for Boomers) than positively or neutrally (29% for Gen X, 27% for Boomers)."

But the real shock, Roman reported, came from the generation born between 1997 and 2008: Generation Z. Only 8% of that cohort viewed cancel culture favorably, while 55% had a negative view.

The fact is, Maher is saying what a majority of Americans are thinking. Moreover, he is doing his best to protect liberalism from a far-left wing minority hell-bent on purging this country of honest and open debate about matters of race, inequality, justice and freedom.

More and more liberals and Democrats are starting to side with Maher on these points and openly challenge this left-wing brand of McCarthyism.

If only more liberals and Democrats—including leaders in our public schools, universities and media—would join him.