Though Bill Maher describes himself as an entertainer, he’s made himself quite famous advocating liberal and libertarian views on his various talk shows through the years. Even when the hammer comes down on him, Maher has shown remarkable popularity and resilience. When advertisers boycotted his ABC show Politically Incorrect back in 2002 after he dared to question President George W. Bush’s statement that the Twin Towers hijackers were “cowards,” he moved to HBO, where his Real Time With Bill Maher airs to this day.
For many unhappy with this nation’s political establishment and power structure, Maher’s iconoclasm is a welcome and reassuring. On Dec. 17, I spoke with Maher by phone for about 20 minutes, in anticipation of his upcoming Jan. 1 stand-up show at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Though he’s a comedian by trade, our chat was anything but funny.
MAUITIME: You talk about voting a lot in your show. We voted, as I’m sure you heard. With a citizen’s initiative, a slight majority voted in a temporary moratorium on the growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
BILL MAHER: Yes, I know they did. And I’m thrilled.
MT: For many here, the issue wasn’t so much the GMOs, but the pesticides used by growers.
BM: Well, I’m not an expert on what [pesticides] exactly they use. We certainly know that some are more virulent and incompatible with the human body than others. What’s dangerous is that we’re using ourselves as guinea pigs, I think, for a lot of stuff. Way back when I was a kid, they banned DDT, so we know that this stuff can be so bad that even the government, which I don’t trust at all, can find something so awful that they would take it off the market. [Then there’s] the fact that Monsanto is as powerful as they are. The fact the head of the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] is a former Monsanto executive [Michael Taylor] is very disturbing. The fact that Hillary Clinton, who will probably be president next time, is really in the pocket of Monsanto, as is probably every other politician at this point. It is very disturbing because it is not just the pesticides, it’s that whole RoundUp–ha, ha. You know, they have to keep upping the game because chemical formation changes–it’s an arm race to keep ahead of the bugs.
MT: So your challenge is with pesticides?
BM: Look, pesticides are bad, but they’re only one of the things that are bad.
MT: Many people support labeling, but the industry does not. Why is that?
BM: You know again, because of lobbying. I mean, we saw it here out in California. We had it on the ballot and it looked like it was going to pass–labeling GMOs. I mean, again it’s not that hard of a case to make to people: Hey, we’re only asking to label, we’re not even taking anything out of it. We’re just giving you information. Who could be against that? Well, of course, in lobbying America, anybody can be against anything and you can convince people of anything. And that’s just what they did. They ran a campaign–a very disingenuous, dishonest campaign–which basically told people that the price at the grocery store was going to go up if this happened. Of course that is not true, but it scared people and you know you can always scare people one way or the other.
MT: Ok, let’s talk people, voters and stupid America. We sometimes wonder if people understand the stories we write. If America is as you often portray on your show, then as a publisher, I worry if our stories are actually making a difference.
BM: I worry about the same thing, absolutely.
MT: So how do we fix America? As an entertainer, are you interested in fixing America?
BM: I’m always interested in fixing things. I try to be an activist citizen. I mean, I donated a million dollars to [President Barack] Obama’s campaign in 2012. I’m as serious as I can be. I put my wallet behind it, I’m not fucking around. Look, I’m an entertainer first, especially when I’m coming to Hawaii to do a stand-up show. A stand-up show has to be about getting people laughing, and laughing hard. I mean, this not a lecture, but the television show [Real Time] is a bit different. The television show is a hybrid between serious and funny. Absolutely, we tried to Flip A District this year. We tried to get rid of one bad congressman who was absolutely emblematic of what is preventing America from being fixed. Which is that he’s a guy, John Klein in Minnesota, who like so many other congresspeople is completely bought and sold by Corporate America. And that is whose bidding he does. I mean, when you ask me, “What is the first step, the elemental step in fixing America?” I would say it is that. It’s getting out of the corporate stranglehold that corporations have in this country. This is why people vote against their own interests. This why we can’t pass something like labeling GMOs–it’s always about Corporate America. And you know when they say, “Why don’t people vote their own interests?” They would except they are fooled be the kind of money that flows into politics. So when you talk about fixing America, I think you have to get the money out of it. That’s the beginning of it, it’s getting the money out of politics.
MT: So how do we bring the disengaged and uniformed back to the table? I mean, is removing money from politics enough?
BM: It’s a step toward doing that. It certainly would help because studies show that people get turned off by negative campaigning. You know the Koch brothers paid for, I think, one out of every $10 that was spent in the last election we just had, the midterms. And what they do is they put on negative, misleading campaigns about the liberal in the race or whoever the Democrat is. Then the Democrat has to attack the other party in kind, so it turns into a very negative race, which is what they want, because what studies show, the more negative the race, the lower the turnout. People just get so turned off they go, “ah, fuck ‘em both; a pox on both their houses; I’m not even going to show up; I can’t even tell which one of them is telling the truth; Fuck it all” and they get turned off. And this is what the Koch brothers want. This is what Republicans want. Republicans want the least amount of turnout. Because their base always comes out. They want it to turn off everybody else. And this is how you wind up with the Congress we just voted in, a Republican congress. Now you look at the polling–people don’t like the Republican Party and yet they just voted them into office. That’s because the liberals stayed home because they were turned off. You know, other countries don’t do this. You look at a country like Norway. They have 81 percent voter turnout. We have 48 percent. That’s because advertising is banned in that country because they take elections seriously. We don’t, we take it like any other advertising campaign, like we’re selling dog food or deodorant.
MT: Whose responsibility is it to educate the adults who should be voting?
BM: That would help. But when you ask about whose responsibility it is to inform the voters, it’s the media’s responsibility. And the media used to take that responsibility seriously, but once again, greed–the root of all evil. Media used to be a loss leader. I mean, news-gathering media. And now, the news gathering divisions of every network have to make a profit. That’s why they don’t really educate people because they pander to people. In the days of Walter Cronkite, his broadcast didn’t have to make a profit, that’s what The Beverly Hillbillies was for. This is what William S. Paley said at CBS–We put the news organization out there for the benefit of the people and for the democracy that we live in–and therefore they were able to be more serious. If you watch the nightly news every night, there’s one slog of new for about five minutes and then it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit stuff that’s going to get people to watch. Of course people are not informed, they don’t see it when they watch the news.
MT: Okay, onto police militarization. We have an armored Bearcat here on Maui. In light of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York, where does police abuse and militarization end?
BM: Well, this is the beginning of it. We’ve never really seen this before. I mean, I think to me, what happened in this country is that way back in the ‘60s police were called pigs by people. It was a horrible time in this country for both soldiers and policeman, in the late ‘60s. And I think the country, as it often does, swings the pendulum too far in the other way. It never lands in the middle, and we got to this place where we venerate soldiers and policeman as something other-worldly, and they’re not. They’re just human beings. So it became somehow de rigor to never criticize the police. But the police need criticizing–it’s long overdue. We’re not saying that all policemen are bad–I’m sure most of the do their job honorably–but there’s a lot of bad apples. And there’s a lot of training. And there’s a lot of bad philosophizing about what the police are. I’ve talked about this for years on my show. This idea, it seems like coming from the police that when it says “Protect and Serve” on the car, they are talking about themselves. They have this idea that if they’re in any danger at all, they have the right to just unload their clip at whatever is presenting the danger, and that’s not the job. They keep saying, “It’s a very dangerous job”–of course it’s a dangerous job. We know that. You know that when you joined the force. It’s voluntary, nobody drafted you be a police officer. It’s a dangerous job and you just can’t shoot at the first thing that scares you. And I know most cops don’t do that, but obviously a lot of them do, and that’s got to stop. The fact that people are in the streets, protesting this for weeks–that’s a great sign. That’s how things start to change. The cops have got the message that they need to change they way they do things. And I think they will.
Thursday, Jan. 1
Maui Arts & Cultural Center
One Cameron Way, Kahului
For show and ticket info, call 808-242-7469 or visit Mauiarts.org