Bill Maher’s Infantile Citizenship

I want to discuss one of my not so favorite shows, Real Time with Bill Maher, and in particular an episode that aired on June 8th.

I think I “get” the appeal. I mean, I hate-watch the show (…clearly). His wry humor is meant to indicate his own (pseudo) distance from the clash of “phony” politics. His monologues are clever and critical, but for their own ends to be clever and critical. His panelists are meant to “represent” threads from the large cloth of American political identities. And the topics for the panelists are current.

But as I’m watching the panel, I feel as though I’m watching a wall strenuously rearranging itself brick by brick all while insisting itself to be a window into a culture it seems pathetically out of touch with. It’s within this confused space that Maher can then attend to his treatment of audiences as infantile citizens, to borrow a phrase from Lauren Berlant’s work The Queen of American goes to Washington. It’s a strategy of sentimentalism that preys on engineering a critical feeling of “American” without ever being critical of feeling.

Part of this idea that Maher invites infantile citizenship is drawn from the all-too-often fact that public and private discussions of American culture, politics, and/or national identity become ahistorical. These discussions could be their own narrative genre, I think. It engages in an active form of national forgetting. It’s a cultural amnesia that isn’t accountable to itself. It’s not a new phenomenon or critique (Cornell West has made similar remarks, I think even on the show itself). It’s just that this June 8th episode really brought to the fore how easy it is for cultural amnesia to set in when history is luminous backdrop of the discussion. Maher had interviewed Michael Eric Dyson about his book on the  unfinished business of race in America. Maher did his usual “listen, agree, repeat what was said in a new format, repeat” kind of interview. So we have about 15 minutes of a Black scholar discussing one untold history of Black radicalism. But what I find breathtaking is that Maher can move from having this esteemed guest discussing racial antagonisms in American history and politics onto a panel discussion (complete with an uneasy feeling of tokenism) that seems to completely sideline those antagonisms.

So I started asking myself a few questions more commonly found in queer, feminist, and critical race theories. For example, why is it that the subaltern body (the body of the Other) is the ideal proving ground for when “truly national” feeling gets experienced? For example, when Maher champions the national feelings associated with the constitutional liberty to “free speech and expression,” it’s the “Muslim woman” whose body is thrown into rhetorical relief. More specifically, it’s the Muslim woman who doesn’t don the “oppressive” veil as examples of true American freedom. Freedoms set of affects are so obvious that the Muslim woman doesn’t even need to speak of her own experiences. If she did, she would apparently express how lucky she feels to be thriving in a “free” country and not a theocratic, “Islamic” one. And there it is:  the image of her a covered woman juxtaposed against the uncovered one that is paraded, respectively, as a sigil of oppression on the one hand and the American promise of a freer good life on the other.

So audience members are supposed to understand “Muslim women” as a group that is static and lacks any dimension? This kind of suggestion asks viewers/listeners to allow a homogeneity of experiences that this category of women are facing in America. But what are the actual experiences of  economic, racist, or sexist scenes in their everyday lives? It sutures a Muslim woman’s identity with an American (read white and male) one. An identity that, if you pay close attention, has somehow always been here for them.  “But free speech and expression…” is a kind of shorthand for not having to deal with the complexities of racialized, gendered, and sexualized lifeworlds.

Why is it that capitalism is never discussed as part of the root cause of economic, political, and social disaffection? The (Muslim) woman’s body isn’t the only body that gets drawn up in sentimental hyperbole during the episode. Chicanx and/or immigrant bodies are also used as a means of articulating another facet of American identity: hard work under the benign aegis of the free-market. It suggests more than simply a slapdash avowal of immigration or immigrant communities generally. It marks those communities as workers necessary for the reproduction of our capitalist system without giving them a voice in the manner of wages, style of work, or real opportunities for making a life. Such bodily parades also disrupt, and in fact invite forgetting about, the historical narrative of xenophobia and anti-Mexican sentiment that still haunts the southwest. Speaking on behalf of subaltern communities in liberatory vernacular doesn’t liberate them. It makes a double abstraction out of them: as both bearers of rights and silent agents for whom others have the right to speak.

Why can history be center-stage when its performance is not? The concept that freedom of speech and expression can be used as a shield against and eraser of historical context. It shields Maher from taking responsibility for idiotic and problematic statements about race, gender, class, or religious creed. It also erases the lived value and thick histories of these identity categories. It disdains the relations between history and present feeling. Thus, this concept of expression makes expressing complaints about racist remarks seem infantile, overly emotional and thus irrational. It suggests that real hurt doesn’t look like that. That real or true feelings means bearing the brunt of a joke with a sense of dignity, not defeat. That true feelings are not about disengaging from the circuits of (what Maher presumably already thinks actually exists as) a public sphere. But of engaging it, fighting back, talking it out. Because, like liberalism’s pedagogy suggests, it’s about individual transformations in present time, free from the contradictions and complications of history. At every turn, his conception of “true feelings” are not really not historical ones, but ones that make peace with history by falling in love with fantasy.

This is the ethos of Maher’s show. It exploits the ahistorical fantasies of freedom for its effects at cohering together the fantasy of “real” America. It treats audiences as infantile citizens by using the iconicity of otherwise important aspects of American constitutional life to reroute audience’s memories and attention away from everyday suffering. It hypes up revitalizing institutions of a genuinely American type (namely, the vote) and suggests that this kind of knowledge is individually transformative. In this way Maher cannot claim an ideological distance from conservatism. It is avowedly a conservative one.

This ethos, not peculiar to Maher, owns up to history only when it is convenient to own up to it. It hyperbolizes subaltern life when it illustrates what is best about American life, even when those subaltern lives are left somewhere in the space on the side of road. This ethos panders to everyday idealities of American life, and even to its ordinariness, in spite of itself. It infantilizes citizenship, creating an ideal that audience members might inhabit–one that allows forgetting the historical conditions that brought the everyday zones of livability and unlivability to them.  In that sense, Maher is a bad sentimentalist (if there ever is a “good” one). He’s bad because he thrives on generating affects of commonality under the rubric of the American “nation” that requires forgetting, willfully, that such a concept of nationhood perpetuates its own foundation in white normativity, white histories, and white institutions. He relies on audiences forgetting their personal histories within this kind of impersonal zone by appealing to “the political” in us all. And to add insult to the injury he commits to intellectual honesty, he pawns these affects as honest, truthful, and, well real in “real time.” He is a sham, much like his regularly remarked arch-nemesis-of-the-people, Donald Trump.

There are many more things I could say. But I gotta get back to my dissertation I’ll be defending in a couple of months. And sorry for not providing links. I was lazy.


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