By Dave Oedel
On February 10, 2015, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, executed three fine, promising Muslim Americans, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, and Yusor’s husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, in a Chapel Hill, North Carolina apartment complex. It was partly over a parking dispute, but probably also because of Hicks’ anti-Muslim, anti-religion rage.
Three days before the North Carolina massacre, Bill Maher made a surprising appearance 400 miles away in Macon, Georgia, before about 1,500 people at Macon’s City Auditorium. Attending Maher’s Macon show were people from all over the southeast, including some from the Chapel Hill area, because Maher scheduled only two southeastern performances this year. One, on February 8, 2015, in a fancy, big Orlando theater, was predictable. More eye-opening was Maher’s choice of a tired Macon venue on February 7.
Orlando’s metro area population is more than two million, plus travelers to one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world. Macon’s metro area, including Warner Robins, is about one fifth in size, and lacks Orlando’s tourist trade. Although well attended by Macon standards, Maher’s Macon performance did not come close to selling out.
At that Macon show, I interviewed many Maher fans, and was repeatedly asked by them in turn what Maher was doing in Macon instead of Atlanta or Charlotte, which would have been more convenient for many, and presumably more financially profitable for Maher. I didn’t know the answer, but have considered that question more carefully since attending the show and learning of the subsequent Muslim massacre in Chapel Hill. For the record, communications by me to some of Maher’s official representatives, including his publicist, his agent, his manager, his booking manager, and his publicist’s assistant were all unreturned.
Before getting ahead of myself, let me back up to tell the story chronologically, starting several months before the North Carolina killings on February 10, 2015, and before Maher’s Macon show three days earlier.
Maher’s Islamic Problem
Maher has long made comments critical of Islam, for instance in 2012 when he said that “their religious whackos are a lot more whacko than ours.” Maher’s rhetoric escalated after American James Foley’s beheading by ISIS about August 19, 2014. Maher essentially charged that Islam is flawed for deep-seated theological reasons, and that its mainstream does not sufficiently counter-speak jihadis like those in ISIS. With his expanding, more pervasive critique of Islam, Maher began taking flak from his liberal friends and other critics.
For instance, on October 3, 2014, Maher got into a heated debate with actor Ben Affleck, who was calling Maher out on Maher’s show for Maher painting 1.5 billion Muslims with too broad a brush. Maher retorted that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Maher was particularly insistent on decrying the fact that many Muslims agree that leaving the religion is punishable by death.
On October 31, 2014, Maher was again confronted on his own show, then by Muslim journalist Rula Jebreal. She complained that some of Maher’s remarks about Islam are “offensive,” and that “people feel threatened” by such talk.
Maher, who had been asked to be a commencement speaker at the University of California at Berkeley for its December 20, 2014 mid-year graduation ceremony, ultimately did deliver the address, but only after withstanding on free-speech grounds a student-initiated petition, signed by more than 5,000 people, to disinvite Maher for his harsh, sweeping criticism of Islam and Muslims. Apparently chastened, Maher in his Berkeley address made no mention of Islam.
After the Charlie Hebdo and related murders in Paris from January 7 to 9, 2015, though, Maher seemed reinvigorated and less defensive. On his January 9, 2015 show with Salmon Rushdie, Maher revisited the position that Islam is itself flawed at its core, a cancer spreading throughout its branches. “They share bad ideas. This is the thing that caused the big ruckus when Ben Affleck was here was that Sam Harris said Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas and everyone went f***ing nuts on this side of the panel. But it is!”
Then, on his January 16, 2015 show, recalling his December 20, 2014 experience at Berkeley, Maher said that “one of those protest signs that I saw up in Berkeley last month . . . said: ‘Islamophobia kills.’ Does it? The phobia kills? Or maybe it’s more the AK-47s, and the beheadings, and the planes into buildings.”
Perhaps what we might more accurately say now is that neither phobic ideology nor armaments alone kill, but the combination of them may – for instance, the combination of a 38-caliber pistol with an unstable, Islamophobic, anti-theistic Maher fan self-policing the Finley Forest Condominiums parking spaces on Summerwalk Circle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“Reaching Out” to Southern Conservatives in Macon
On Saturday evening, February 7, 2015, at Macon’s City Auditorium, Maher pressed the limits of propriety on all sorts of subjects, but almost exclusively from vantage points on the far left side of the political spectrum. To my surprise, Maher’s usual anti-Islamic diatribe, resonant with neo-cons, Israel supporters and some conservatives, proved barely detectable. Meanwhile, Maher dodged serious audience push-back on most edgy fronts during his Macon performance, probably thanks to the leftist leanings of the self-selected audience. Fans typically paid more than $50 dollars for tickets, some more than $100. You don’t pay those kinds of prices without being a predisposed Maher fan, and knowing what you’re getting in terms of his typical content and style.
Maher has developed a feel for the shifting line of sustainable cultural propriety in the process of honing his stage presence under the constant cascade of the next politically dicey conversation. Maher has done that dance weekly since 2003 on his popular, award-winning HBO cable show, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” His prior network show, “Politically Incorrect,” was cancelled after five years in 2002 when Maher controversially disputed President George W. Bush’s characterization of the 9/11 hijackers as “cowards.” Maher wasn’t saying exactly what to call them, just that they were “not cowardly.”
Maher began his first segment in Macon with an implicit answer to the question of why he was in Macon. “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” he said, seguing into a theme of his love for pot that recurred throughout the evening. “Pot is a great uniter,” he said. “Hippies love pot. Hillbillies love pot.” As for the medical marijuana distinction in most states that do allow some marijuana use, Maher said, “This medical thing is such bullsh**,” akin to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“I want to reach out to the conservatives,” Maher said. Unfortunately, local Republican state representative Allen Peake was apparently absent, as were all other local Republicans whom I know. Peake is the usually-conservative, sometimes-libertarian advocate of Georgia’s medical marijuana initiative. Perhaps Peake will reply to Maher later on the medical-versus-recreational distinction, and whether it’s illusory, disingenuous and unsustainable, as Maher implied, along lines also suggested by Mercer University’s Dr. Richard Elliott.
Despite some show of magnanimity to conservatives, and a whiff of seriousness on pot policy and law, Maher’s comment about “reaching out to the conservatives” seemed a little odd right away when I first heard Maher say it. I knew that most members of the crowd with whom I spoke before the show expressed strongly liberal views, so there wouldn’t be any conservatives around to reach out to. Still, there was Maher, standing in the heart of the South, spurning other possible venues, so there could have been a kernel of truth in it.
Maher’s Macon performance soon showed, however, just how small that kernel was.
One theoretical possibility was that Maher could have been hoping that conservative sensibilities against ISIS in the South would help buoy him from the waves of tough national publicity Maher has been slapped with concerning his harshly critical characterizations of Islam over recent months. In the end, though, Maher’s Macon performance demonstrated that Maher was more likely appearing in Macon to bash Christians and conservative Republicans on their home field, perhaps even to incite a reaction, or at least to seem more ecumenically even-handed to Muslims far afield who had been offended by Maher. The selection of Macon, and the content of Maher’s Macon show, was as if to say that Maher’s anti-Islamic rhetoric is nothing specific to Islam, and can be directed just as easily to patriotic southern Christian conservatives as to Muslims.
After the “pot as uniter” and “reaching out to conservatives” feints, Maher moved to political-party humor, first skewering Republicans as being proponents of “planet-killing greed.” Maher then subdivided Republicans, concentrating on the more conservative Tea Party members, whom he termed “Tea Baggers.” Maher proceeded to mock them for being too clueless to realize that they were aligning themselves with “a gay sex act” that Maher went on graphically to describe.
For someone ostensibly reaching out to conservatives in the South, Maher proceeded further to belie that pretense when he savaged conservative perspectives on healthcare reform. Maher analogized conservatives’ supposed views to a dumbfounding sexual violation that is almost unthinkable.
By then revved up to a level of arch scorn, Maher went on to reduce conservative southern sensibilities to a simplistic equation of “faith, flags and fetuses.” Maher offered a pithy, profane command to pipe down about those values, in keeping with his linguistic modus operandi throughout the evening.
For emphasis, Maher went on to recommend, to great laughter, that the hillbilly-types around here should be left “picking ticks off each other” and doing something unmentionable with a certain relative. A goat/zygote joke was thrown into the mix. It all made Erick Erickson on his rudest day look like a choir boy.
Though not naïve, politically or otherwise, I was surprised at what Maher found it appropriate to say in Macon to further his Macon agenda – and what some 1,500 people paid good money to hear and loudly applaud.
Maher moved on to race, for instance using a form of the n-word to malign imagined Republican benightedness, and then saying, “If you’re a racist looking for a party, [the Republican party] is the one for you.”
There was no negative reaction to Maher’s racial word usage from African Americans in attendance with whom I spoke after the show. African Americans made up perhaps 20-25 percent of Maher’s Macon audience. Maher is sometimes said to be given a pass on such race-word choices as a liberal white who famously dates African-American women.
As for reactions to Maher’s bashing of Republicans, I found no card-carrying Republicans on hand, so as an occasional Republican voter myself, I may have to speak for that absent cohort. To me, Maher seemed to attack southern conservative Republicans in such a jarring, aggressive way as to border on antagonism. I say that, though, as being admittedly something of a rube myself, having never before seen Maher’s HBO show (not being a cable subscriber), having voted for Romney (albeit after voting for Obama four years earlier), and having occasionally been tagged by some uber-liberal label-lovers as conservative.
Maher did manage some genuinely funny sequences too, for instance about how odd it is that conservative white Southern guys don’t like President Obama more. After all, Maher said, Obama “plays golf, wears mom jeans, lives with his mother-in-law, and is about to lose his job to a woman.” But the overall look and feel of Maher’s Macon show was one of gratuitous, nasty deprecation of ordinary people in the South, not just predictably poking at national politicians in the public eye.
For instance, Maher trashed many everyday folks, apparently referring to white Southerners, as being in the “Elvis” mode – “obese, drug addled and gun nuts.” Maher suggested that such people were perhaps even “here tonight.” Maher termed his imaginary local rube fans “Vern and Earl,” and invited them to “take a bow.” Nobody stood up for such humiliation, of course, if any souls in the snickering audience other than me could even empathize with Vern and Earl.
Staying with his derisive stereotyping, Maher described the NRA as standing for “nuts, racists and a**holes,” though Maher at another time made sure to say that he himself keeps a gun, probably for good reason, given his belligerent offensiveness. “Why should I unilaterally disarm?” he asked. Because Maher’s defense of gun ownership is shared by the NRA as one of its core arguments, the irony of Maher ripping the NRA in the same show was notable and curious.
Maher’s Religious Satire
Maher saved some his most poisonous venom for a last major segment on religion, of particular interest especially in light of the North Carolina massacre three days later. Maher explained that “it’s easy to mock religion,” and he proceeded to do so with reckless abandon, for instance, by mimicking God as a drunk, calling God a profanity, terming the Bible a “Jewish fairy tale” full of “turds” including “pro-slavery” verses, and using another profanity defaming Jesus Christ.
Somewhere along the line of deprecating Jesus, someone booed. Maher immediately interrupted himself with a seemingly-rehearsed scold, asking, “Who’s booing? I came here to Macon Georgia to be more politically correct? F*** no.”
Late in the show, but before the final, enthusiastic standing ovation, Maher gave himself his own thumbs up. After pushing the noisome analogy about the Bible being a pool laden with turds that no clean person would swim in, Maher looked around, proclaiming with evident self-satisfaction, “If no one’s left yet, I consider that a victory.”
Before taking that victory lap, though, Maher might consider that southern politeness could have masked discomfort, for instance, on matters of faith. Some attendees said as much to me after the show. On the other hand, maybe Maher wasn’t really declaring victory, but was secretly disappointed that he didn’t get a rise out of Macon that he could use to defend against objections about his treatment of Islam and Muslims.
What Was Missing
Despite Maher’s barrage of stunningly impolite speech in Macon, perhaps the most newsworthy thing about the evening was what was missing from Maher’s show. Despite the fact that Maher’s critique of Islam has been the prime press issue associated with Maher in the past months, Maher largely pulled his punches on Islam.
Was it really surprising that Maher went light on Islam in his Macon performance, and heavy with his savage treatment of Christianity and Christians, Southerners and Republicans?
Looking contextually, probably not. Maher seems to have used his Macon performance to show that he could be as offensive to southern “rube” Bible thumpers, the Verns and Earls of the world, as he has been to the Quran clenchers. Maher’s Macon performance turns out likely to have been a calculated opportunity for damage control — to highlight Maher being as tough on patriotic conservative southern Christians as on Muslims.
Three Days Later
Although going easy on Islam and hard on Christianity may have helped Maher in his reputational rehab with mainstream Muslim skeptics, if not super-extremist Jihadi Johns, it probably did not break through to some of Maher’s longstanding fans. One of them was Craig Stephen Hicks, the slack but steely-eyed, gun-gripping, religion-enraged, Maher-admiring killer in the North Carolina massacre three days later of the two Abu-Salhas and Barakat.
There’s no indication Hicks made it to Maher’s Macon show. On the other hand, Maher did make it to Hicks’ Facebook page several times in the past. Before it was taken down, Hicks’ Facebook timeline was reportedly “littered” with Maher references, especially trashing religion in general and Muslim beliefs in particular.
Among Hicks’ many Facebook posts was this September 12, 2012 post of a Maher quotation that reads substantially, though not exclusively, as an anti-Islamic diatribe:
“One of the complaints leveled against me is, ‘Oh Bill, you’re such a meanie. Why do you have to go after religion? It gives people comfort; it doesn’t hurt anything.’ Okay, well, other than most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery, and the systematic f***ing of children, there a few little things I have a problem with.” Hicks posted that quote alongside a publicity photo of Maher, apparently a Maher publicity package post.
Having heard Maher’s raw, blatantly aggressive tirades in Macon three days before the North Carolina massacre, and knowing of Maher’s general escalation before in his targeting of Islam, plus Maher’s plausible defense of gun ownership as a better alternative than “unilateral disarmament” against violently hostile forces, I can see how someone like Hicks with apparent mental instability could put Maher’s suggestions together to justify ballistic head-shot attacks on Muslims or other religious believers for things like parking transgressions.
Under American tort law, Maher should not be legally liable for Hicks’ unhinged extrapolation from Maher’s web of brutally satirical invective. However, some might imagine Maher having to account in another realm for Maher’s vigorous, holster-holding incitement of broad-scale Islamophobia and anti-theism. That seems not to matter to Maher, though, because God, according to Maher, is either a lout or just doesn’t exist.
In any event, “Real Time With Bill Maher” gets better ratings than anything on the Christian Broadcasting Network. No Macon pastor is pulling in 1,500 people on Saturday night, nor pocketing such a massive offering plate as the one served up to Maher on February 7. So Maher’s day job, Q score and moonlighting income don’t seem to be in serious jeopardy.
But if the Islam-avoidance in Maher’s Macon show is an indication, and if his continued packing of heat means anything, Maher may be somewhat more riveted personally by possible fatwas and knives drawn here on earth. After his standing ovation in Macon, Maher might perhaps like to count at least 1,500 rebellious anti-conservative Southerners to stand with him — or at least be too polite and forgiving to stand against him.
Yet I doubt Maher will be back in Macon anytime soon. Macon has probably served whatever purpose it could serve for Maher. Maher has gone off now to whatever place it is in the firmament from which such stars drop in, never having actually met Vern and Earl on a gentle Middle Georgia evening. Maybe, in some other lifetime, we can introduce them.