Bill Maher’s Defense of the Indefensible

Bill Maher defended Rush Limbaugh’s freedom of speech, and then defended his defense of Rush Limbaugh’s freedom of speech.  He did not defend Rush Limbaugh himself; he says he still thinks Rush is an asshole. And there is an important distinction to be made here, between defending somebody’s right to say something and defending that person. But in defending Limbaugh’s freedom of speech, was Maher defending the indefensible?

I’ll get to what he said in a minute, but it is important to point out here that free speech is an ancient tradition, highly valued in the polytheistic world of Greece and Rome until Paganism was outlawed and Pagans banned from government. Free speech was not valued in the so-called Judeo-Christian world, which functioned on a list of “don’ts” rather than on the idea of freedoms. I was not until the European Enlightenment that freedom of speech again saw the light of day,this time championed by secularists, after being punished with arrest, torture and bonfires for the better part of fourteen centuries.

To put it bluntly, free speech is a liberal, not a conservative ideal and if anyone is going to value free speech, it should be liberals because without free speech, change will never take place and progress will never be made. Things will simply remain the same – conservatism’s ideal of the status quo. But let’s look at Maher’s words.

This is what he tweeted on Tuesday, March 6:

“Hate to defend #RushLimbaugh but he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting. Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout.”

The thing is, Rush did not apologize. What he said was pretty far from an apology. And if you look not only at his words before but also at his words after, you can see he meant none of it. Limbaugh said it was humor, not slander that was intended, and Maher agrees that Limbaugh’s words amount to an “unfunny joke” with a “disgusting sentiment.”

It can be wondered if Maher actually listened to what Limbaugh said. If there was a joke or intended humor in his hateful words, they are beyond detection. Sandra Fluke certainly didn’t accept the “apology” and said so the day before Maher’s tweet, on The View. Is Maher, the one who was not attacked, a better judge of what’s a sufficient apology than Fluke, the victim of the attack?

Remember, this is what Limbaugh originally said on February 29:

“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”

Then, rather than apologize, he doubled down on the hate on March 1:

“If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

He also had this to say:

 ”I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want.”

Only after this did he finally “apologize”.  When Fluke did not accept it, he tried again on March 5, making his apology as much an attack as an apology. Reports Reuters:

“I acted too much like the leftists who despise me. I descended to their level, using names and exaggerations,” Limbaugh said. “It’s what we’ve come to expect from them, but it’s way beneath me.”

But then think about what Rush said next, not to Fluke this time, but to a female investigative journalist, Tracie McMilian, author of a book on America’s food system, The American Way of Eating. This, on March 6, the same day Maher defended Limbaugh’s right of free speech:

“What is it with all of these young, single, white women, overeducated – doesn’t mean intelligent.”

This was another, if indirect attack on Sandra Fluke as well, student at prestigious Georgetown University. It doesn’t sound to me as though Rush regrets – or is sorry for – what he said at all. He still believes it and is still saying it. What about this does Bill Maher not understand?

An insincere apology places no burden on the person offended to accept that apology. “Ooops, my bad” is as weak a mea culpa as can be imagined but one Rush did not even come close to approaching it since he did not admit doing anything wrong. His so-called apology was more along the lines of “I’m sorry you didn’t see the humor in what I said about you.” An apology without an admission of wrong-doing is without value and no therefore no apology at all and any value an apology might have had disappears if the person continues to say the same thing afterward – we’ll get to that in a minute.

As Yellow Dog Yankee wrote here yesterday, Bill Maher is wrong.

We must keep in mind when considering Maher’s words that he has also been accused of misogyny, not only by the right but by the left.

Is it possible he is defending Rush as one misogynist to another? Maher says he is not a misogynist but then Rush Limbaugh also claims to be a “defender of women” and Rick Santorum says he is a champion of religious freedom. Anyone can be a misogynist, after all, even atheists, and liberals have to be careful to avoid idolizing their own icons too much, as conservatives tend to do theirs. A wrong is a wrong, no matter where it comes from, left or right. The weight of evidence is against both Limbaugh and Santorum. Is it also against Maher?

This much is clear: Rush Limbaugh was wrong. Bill Maher was wrong.

Caught between left and right, Maher spoke to both:

“I don’t like it that people are made to disappear when they say something, or people try to make them disappear when they say something you don’t like. That’s America. Sometimes you’re made to feel uncomfortable, okay?”

So it is permissible for Limbaugh to make Fluke and other women uncomfortable, but not fair for the rest of us to make Limbaugh uncomfortable? Actions do not have consequences? There is such a thing as cause and effect, and Limbaugh certainly must recognize this. We all, after all, have freedom of speech, not just Rush Limbaugh. He used his to ruin Sandra Fluke. We used ours to ruin Rush Limbaugh. Is there something somehow unfair about this?

Not from a Heathen perspective, I can tell you, where the rule of thumb is not “turn the other cheek” (which in any case should be Rush’s position) but “return what is given.” From a Heathen perspective then, Rush Limbaugh got exactly what he deserved.

“And I hear people saying when they put pressure on his sponsors, ‘Oh, the system is working.’ No, it’s not. That’s the system being manipulated.”

Is it possible that Limbaugh was also manipulating the system when he tried to destroy Sandra Fluke’s life and reputation by calling her a slut and a whore? He is a powerful and influential figure on television and radio. He obviously took advantage of his position.

Now the thing is and this is a thing often forgotten, that if Limbaugh has a right to say the things he says, we have an equal right to respond, and an equal right to be offended by what he says. If Limbaugh has the right to slander a young woman who has done nothing but speak her own mind (and without slandering anybody, by the way) then we, as concerned human beings, have a right to respond.

What people also need to understand is that hate speech can be a form of violence. Where do we draw the line? Is it appropriate for Rush Limbaugh to call Sandra Fluke a slut for no other reason than she is in favor of contraception being a part of women’s health care?

Should a person be excused from the consequences of their words, however hurtful, whatever the consequences? A person’s life can be ruined, their career, their marriage, everyting they love and value and hold dear. Is that permissible? And if it is permissible, is it impermissible to take affront at such actions? It is hard to see how that could be.

Obviously, Limbaugh has a right to his opinions and Maher to his, and me to mine. That is how the system works. But there are certain standards of conduct with regards to civil discourse that should be observed, and insulting somebody simply on the grounds that they are a young, intelligent woman seems to me reprehensible. Rush’s words might have been appropriate had she said that she took sex for money, but if insurance-supported contraception is prostitution then so is insurance-supported Viagara, isn’t it? Aren’t there then tens of millions of sluts of both sexes in this country?

I don’t think most of us would agree. Rush violated accepted standards of conduct and simply put, he got what he deserved as a result. Maher might have had an argument were he arguing against a law against free speech, but no such law has been passed. What Rush faced was the voice of the people – vox populi – the essence of a free people and ironically enough a term often used in broadcasting. As I said, if Rush had a right to say it, we had a right to take offense and say something in response, and take offense we did, and then some.

Take that, Rush.

27 Replies to “Bill Maher’s Defense of the Indefensible”

  1. Defamation has never been a protected form of speech, and even public figures can, under a much higher standard of proof than the rest of us, be defamed. Ms. Fluke was not a public figure when she testified to Congress, and she was testifying as representative for a student advocacy group, not about her own health or sex life or even whether the latter existed (for law students, they often don’t). Georgetown students are required to buy health insurance out of their own pockets, yet the women students could not be covered for such issues as endometriosis, ovarian cysts, excessive menstruation, or post-rape treatments if the treatment involved anything also used as normal contraception. There was nothing in her testimony which even justified the imputation of “unchastity”, let alone those of profligacy and prostitution. Limbaugh spoke, and spoke repeatedly, with actual malice. His “apology” was a further insult. His words have incited public threats of obscene violence against his victim, and it could well be that his actual intent was to make certain no women ever, in the future, dare stand up publicly in the future for themselves or each other at all. As for Bill Mahr, I never followed him, but he could well belong to that cohort of “intellectuals” who once glorified open misogyny as cool, avant-garde, and “authentic”, as opposed to the reputed “henpeckery” of “bourgeois” Middle America. Well, Bill, that was then- like forty or fifty years ago, y’know? Get over it!

  2. For an example of the kind of misogyny that was once considered cool, avant-garde, and intellectual, see the movie “A Fine Madness”, with Sean Connery. In my salad days, I saw plenty of real-life examples with my own eyes.

  3. Maher experienced this himself when his network show was canceled. I have no problem with telling advertisers I am disgusted with someone or soemthing they sponsor. It is then their choice to continue, and mine to boycott. Bill has gone over the line numerous times himself, and his support of Limbaugh is not all that surprising. The huge difference is that Limbaugh is on the radio during the daytime, when children may also be listening with their right wing parents. Maher is on paid cable, at night. Surely he sees the difference?

  4. I think it’s past time that the pundits realize that they can’t say everything they want, and that THEY are ultimately responsible for the harm that happens to others because of their language. Mahr, well, he is only keeping the idea of blameless language use going. I would tell him that if anyone is harmed because of Limbaugh’s language and defamation, that he now shares in part of that ultimate responsibility.

    They’re also responsible if they don’t tell the truth. Limbaugh and the others of his ilk have lied for so long and they tell lies that reinforce people’s stereotypes. In essence, they’re keeping this country from moving into the 21st century (and I would argue are keeping it in the 19th). They keep the prejudice and discrimination going and bear part of the responsibility when people are harmed because of attributes they have little or no control over.

    Limbaugh used to prattle on occasion about being part of the problem or part of the solution. Well, he and all of the other pundits have had that choice in front of them all along, and for the most part, they choose to be part of the problem. Mahr chose to be part of the problem when he defended Limbaugh.

    I would also ask people: “Isn’t it about time that America rejects the old FAILED idea that women are the weaker sex (both physically and mentally) and that their responsibility is the home?” The differences between women and men are really minor and most of the attributes assigned to the sexes are actually culturally defined and learned.

  5. “What people also need to understand is that hate speech can be a form of violence.”

    Excellent point, just ask anyone who has been the victim of verbal, psychological, or emotional abuse (I am not talking about trivial incidents here). People have committed suicide to get away when it seems there is no other way out.

    “But I never *hit* her!”

  6. Yeah. I think it’s a bit of projection on Maher’s part. He says some really edgy controversial stuff sometimes ( even though it’s HBO and an adult show ). It seems to be a defensive move. Kind of like ” Oh s&%$! Could I be next?”

    However, as it’s been said umpteen times on this site, no one’s free speech rights are being violated. Being an artist, I am a huge proponent of free expression. But I recognize it cuts both ways, and if someone doesn’t like my work they are free to speak out and even protest against it.

  7. Bill Maher is a persona. During the past 20+ years, he’s said really stupid stuff. He owes his success to his talent for ‘delivery’ & the folks who write his material. In the entertainment culture, any other public response would be the ‘kiss of death’ in the Business.

  8. I laugh mightily every Friday night watching Bill Maher, but he is sometimes offensive, if you are easily offended, in the name of comedy. I understand his sensitivity to being forced off the air, but in this case, he is wrong in his belief that we should not react so negatively to something someone says that we don’t like. Requesting sponsors to drop Limbaugh is just another form of freedom of speech…in this case telling sponsors they will be boycotted if they don’t drop his show. Seems like Bill wants it both ways this time and he needs to rethink his position criticizing this particular free speech action!

  9. Considering some of the sexist crap that Maher has said, I don’t see him as being very sincere on the issue.

  10. I people are offended by what Rush said, that is their problem, and theirs only. That gives much too much power to a man who is getting exactly what he wants; a reaction.
    Bill Maher hit the nail on the head. Attacking Rush serves to make the left look badly.
    Of course what Rush has said for decades is wrong to say, but allowing him to affect one’s feelings only gives Rush exactly what he wants. He is a power hungry, egotistical maniac; but he is also an entertainer.

  11. In Maher’s case I think he’s been burned before. Once upon a time, just after 9/11, he made a comment where he described the suicide bombers as “brave.” I don’t really remember the specifics of the argument but it touched a pretty raw nerve with everyone and the conservative forces went apeshit and sponsors pulled out of his show and he was fired.

    It was not one of entertainment’s finer moments. And I suspect, based on that experience, he will tend to fall in favor of letting assholes be assholes on the air on the grounds that it will protect people during times they’re not being assholes per se, they’re just being very unpopular. I can see the logic in that. That’s why the ACLU defends so many reprehensible people.

    That said, free speech protections exist primarily to prevent government censorship. If the public gets tired of you saying something, and they move to punish you for it, should be held up to the same standard? It’s hard to say. If Limbaugh is forced off air I won’t shed any tears over his departure.

  12. Rush is more than an entertainer. He’s the political voice for the Republican party. He and Fox News commands subservience from Republican politicians. Entertainment was incidental to his intent to discredit the message of Ms. Fluke’s testimony advocating women’s health care.

  13. You guys are all missing the most egregious lie in Rush’s words, and instead, focusing on what Maher may or may not be doing in his defense of free speech.

    Both of these guys get their money from entertaining their respective audiences. Yes, there are differences galore, but the bottom line is that their money comes from advertisers who want the attention of their respective audiences. Both of them get audiences due to THEIR exercise of free speech, specifically in the manner they choose. Obviously, if Rush suddenly starts spouting pro-Soviet ideas or if Maher starts spouting pro-life ideas, their audience will diminish rapidly. Even THEY don’t have absolute freedom of speech.

    But the point here is that this isn’t the real issue with Rush’s words or his pseudo-apology, and we are all being distracted from the real issue, which is, that he blatantly lies about the real nature of the money problem:

    He is NOT paying, through his taxes, for Fluke to have sex.

    SHE is paying, through her earned compensation.

    She is advocating a policy position where, if she earned her compensation from a job, that that compensation, if it includes health insurance, shall include birth control.

    Forget the medical reasons. I don’t care if the only purpose of birth control is to have sex.


    It is not coming out of Rush’s pocket. Therefore, it is a complete lie to say that anyone else but Fluke is paying for her contraception. I believe Rush knows this, but here is the difference with many of the extreme Right, is that facts are just inconvenient, and shall be ignored. The extreme Left will generally acknowledge facts can, in theory, change their minds. Nut jobs like Rush will say whatever they want, and just hide behind “free speech” and “entertainment”. With Maher, we know exactly when he is exaggerating for effect, and he generally frames it as such. With Rush, he will continue to argue that HE IS paying for Fluke to have contraception even after he is proven wrong.

    THAT, my friends, is a very serious difference, that is what offends me about the extreme Right.

    As Maher said many times, they are “FACT FREE”.

  14. Sally, spare me the “too dangerous for the children’s ears” argument. The distinction between what Rush and Bill said is one of degree and persistence of offense and the status of the person to whom it is directed – public figures seeking publicity vs. private citizen given testimony in a congressional hearing.

  15. Sorry, Jeff, you’re wrong. It doesn’t work on schoolyard bullies, it didn’t on Goebbels, and it won’t on Rush. There was a time when such a rotten mouth would have been picking up his teeth from the street. The forum is much broader these days, and the thrashing must needs come through public pressure and the law. Let’s see what your reaction is when someone talks about you daughter like that.

  16. A. I don’t listen to Ed Shultz.
    B. It was wrong, and potentially libellous, for him to call her a “slut”, but I doubt he ever went into such graphic, prolongued, repetitious elaboration.
    C. Laura Ingram is already a public figure who personally sells her own nasty mouth for purposes of deriding and degrading others, for money. In this, she and Rush could both be called “mouth whores”, the the law gives her alone a cause of action for it.

  17. No, Maher had it exactly wrong and so do you, Jeff.

    “A reaction”? “98 sponsors” have reacted with their feet
    because of thousands of people’s reaction to limbaugh’s
    LIES and Vulgar Insults.
    Holding limbaugh accountable for his lies shows how
    intelligent we are.

    And, rush is not an entertainter. He’s the de facto head of the republicon party.
    You know..the one trying to bring down
    the Chevy Volt because it will look bad for President

  18. I don’t listen to Ed Schultz, either, but have read that he
    issued a sincere apology and was off the air for a week.

    limbaugh came back with more insults and more lies.
    Doubling down with his assholeness like right wing
    fascists do.

  19. There are so many ways in which Limbaugh and Mayer are wrong: slander, defamation of character, hate speech targeting a specific group. A big, fat lawsuit might finally tamp down some of this–but a massive pullout of sponsors and an overwhelming vote for Democrats would also go a long way toward resolving the problem.

  20. Note: Even though I am not a liberal (nor a conservative for that matter) I dislike Limbaugh. I dislike almost all politicians on both sides because almost all of them are liars. That said…

    The whole Limbaugh/Fluke thing is like an elementary school teasing incident…

    Child 1: “You’re short (or fat… or ugly … or whatever). Shorty, shorty, shorty!”

    Child 2: (the short one): “Stop, leave me alone.” Starts crying and runs to teacher.

    Child 1: Calls after child 1 – “Shorty, shorty, shorty.”

    Rinse and repeat day after day until..

    It will not stop until child 2 starts either (1) ignoring child 1 or (2) punches child 1 in the nose.

    Ignoring them works a lot better than throwing a fit or running to teacher/mommy or Gloria Allred.

    I know from experience because I was the short kid in school. The teasing stopped when I ignored them and worked to become a better basketball player. Get over it and quit being so damn touchy and concerned about what people say about you.

    I’d note that people often react to perceived bad statements about themselves because those statements are TRUE. It was, in fact, entirely true that I was the short kid. If someone had called me fat, it wouldn’t have bothered me one bit because I wasn’t fat.

    BTW, liberals have their own slanderers:

    Bill Maher called Sarah Palin “a twat” and “a cunt.”

    Keith Olbermann calls Michelle Malkin a “mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.”

    Left-wing darling Matt Taibbi wrote on his blog in 2009, “When I read [Malkin’s] stuff, I imagine her narrating her text, book-on-tape style, with a big, hairy set of balls in her mouth.”

    But hey, it’s different when a liberal does it.

    I might have a little respect for this site if you’d call out BOTH liberals and conservatives for crap like this. But you always seem to focus on only conservative hypocrisy.

  21. Here is the thing in a nut shell. If this women had been a conservative the left would have called her a slut and every other word and i can promise you nothing would have been said and there would be no public outcry. You see that is the double standard that we have in this country. I dont agree with what rush said but it is his show and he does have a first amendment right to say what he wants unless something has changed that i dont know about. It is his problem if his sponsers leave him and that is their right but he said what he said life goes on and we are facing more serious problems in this country right now then dwelling on what rush said.

  22. Even worse… “But I never hit her”… but the monster “inspired” by the speaker’s words killed her.

    I get really sick when people say things like “They’re just words!” Yeah, and I know people who went insane because of words. I’ve met people who nearly committed suicide because of words. Because of words (lies), my life was made a living hell for a long time. I was denied employment because of words (lies at that).

    Words have consequences… and often far harsher for the hearer than the speaker, especially if the speaker is a liar.

  23. There is this reprehensible excuse for a thing attempting to be a human being out there called Fred Phelps. He, and his demented family protest Soldiers Funerals saying “God hates Fags”. Its (Phelps……from the Southern Poverty Law Center) reasoning is that God is killing our service men and women because the USA is supporting the Gay agenda, whatever that is. A recent US Supreme Court ruling basically said that although what this diseased bile infested excuse of a human being does may be reprehensible, disgusting, and outright insulting to the families of the slain Soldiers, they have a right to do so under the protection of the First Amendment.
    I am no fan of Rush, and watch Maher on a regular bases. I can’t really listen to Rush, he is a bag of smelly manor, and I find Maher offensive at times. I agree and disagree with some of what Maher says, but then again, I pay a fee to watch HBO, so it is my CHOICE to view him or not view him.
    I watched the show in which Maher said what is being discussed here. He is sensitive to the loss of sponsors and said that that should not be used to censor free speech.
    I am not sure where I stand here. I side with the author in not accepting Rush’s apology. I just can’t seem to get over the fact that Maher called Palin a “cunt”. The remark kind of takes him out of the “criticism” field or the defense field of Rush.
    What is taking place here, starting with the article, is the exercise of free speech, both with the author and this forum. I am offended by both Rush and Maher, but will defend their respective right to express their vile or uncomfortable opinions. If we find an exception to expressing a reprehensible opinion, then what other exception can we then continue to find in order to muzzle an unpopular opinion…where does it stop?? Our freedom of speech must be unrestricted,(a valid exception is calling out FIRE in a movie theater or other instances of a similar nature) as well as the responses expressing an opposing view. What is being done right here and right now is a free speech response to what most of us in this forum find of Rush and his “out of bounds” remarks to someone who was also expressing her free speech rights. We are defending her right to say what she said, and we are expressing our outrage to Rushs comments, but we must not, in anyway, muzzle either individual from expressing their respective opinions.

  24. I’ve been a fan of Bill Maher since PI premiered on The Comedy Chanel. I Followed the show to ABC. I don’t miss a show on HBO. Bill Maher is wrong.

    Rush has said a lot of things that I don’t agree with but, up until now, nothing that had insulted my sense of fairness. Yes, he has the right to say what he wants and the 2nd amendment says no one can tell him he can’t say it. I have the right to object to his words the only way I can. With my wallet.

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