Over the years, I’ve been critical of TV talk show types, especially those that seem to espouse a certain political standpoint alongside their schtick. I think too many of them enjoy the sound of their own voices a little too much for my tastes.
One of the big talkers that I’ve been particularly critical of has been Bill Maher. From what I’ve seen of him, he has a very high opinion of himself, normally articulated through a potty mouth his mother cannot be very proud to hear.
But, with that said, I am also objective enough to give credit where it is due, and Maher did something this past week that I cannot help but salute.
On his HBO “Real Time” show, Maher was discussing a comment made by Paul Ryan in mid-March about inner-city “men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
Two of Maher’s guests, Center for American President Neera Tanden and comedian W. Kamau Bell, jumped all over the quote, pretty much saying Ryan’s comments showed how disconnected he was, how he blamed blacks and Hispanics specifically, which, of course made Ryan a racist.
The Republican on the panel, former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, then predictably made some comments about Democratic incompetence at efficient governing. The ensuing discussion was, for lack of a better term, predictable.
But what was totally unpredicted is what happened next.
Maher then quoted “Ryan” again: “Too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. They’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV, instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”
After giving his panelists a moment to soak the words in, Maher immediately stopped himself and revealed that it was, in fact, Michelle Obama who had said those words and not Ryan. His revelation was greeted with what he described as a “hushed silence.”
“Is something less true if a white person says it about black people?” Maher asked quizzically. “To me, this sounds even more like, ‘Hey black people, don’t be lazy.’
Bell’s answer was classic - and yes, all too predictable.
“A truth is a truth and a lie is a lie,” he said, before finally asking about the context of the first lady’s quote. When told it was made at within commencement address at Bowie State University, a historically black college in Maryland, he visibly relaxed.
“She’s talking to black people,” he explained. “We talk to each other differently than we talk to you.”
After literally laughing at the answer, Maher didn’t let his guest off the hook.
“Why did you think Rand Paul saying it was racist but Michelle Obama saying it is not?” he asked.
“Well,” Bell responded with a grin, “you told me he said it!”
I cannot help but wonder how Bell would’ve responded if the quote had been attributed to Walter Williams, Ben Carson, Bill Cosby, Allen Westor any other number of more conservative-leaning black Americans? I fear something of the sort might have sent him into some kind of Vulcan mindlock.
Bell was right in saying that if it is true then it is true — but if it is in fact true, then it needs saying, and I don’t care if someone is white, black, purple or plaid. Someone please stand up and have enough guts to actually say it, mean it, and stand by it.
I am glad Paul Ryan said what he said, because it is true. I am just as glad Michelle Obama said what she said as well, because what she said is just as true. And to fair, even though it might not have been their intent, the words of truth from both them can be equally applied across all racial lines.
If we are going to allow ourselves to judge the value of the words being spoken by something as insignificant as the color of the mouth those words are spoken by then we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to find a much clearer view of simple truths that stand to benefit all of us and solidify us as a people, not as some mere race-based subgroup.
And it is precisely the kind of mindset illustrated by this episode that we — not white, not black, not purple or plaid — WE as a nation are simply going to have to get around if we are truly ever going to get past skin color being a determining factor of a human being or the worth of their individual (or collective) contribution to the discussion.
I have to give credit where it is due, and I thank Maher for being brave enough to take what has to be considered a pretty bold move for him. As one who normally basally appeals to the more liberal minds amongst us, throwing this particular curve ball proves he is not above self-scrutiny, and I applaud him for that.