Last week, in response to the booking of Milo Yiannopoulos on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Jeremy Scahill, one of the founders of The Intercept, cancelled his scheduled appearance on the show. A regular guest since 2007, Scahill announced his decision in a candid post on Twitter, acknowledging that while Real Time had “the right to book whomever it wants,” he could not “participate in an event that will give a platform to such a person.” Scahill wrote–and the quotation marks here are significant–that he saw “no value in ‘debating’ [Yiannopoulos],” and the sudden cancellation soon came to be viewed, rightly, as not just a repudiation of an ideologue’s hateful rhetoric, but of Maher’s ability and willingness to combat it. Since the earliest days of Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher has smartly branded himself as a soldier in the nonexistent battle over free speech, political discourse’s last line of defense against the straw men of governmental and leftist censorship. To Maher’s credit, this policy of ideological inclusion has granted a handful of personalities on the far left, like Scahill and his colleague Glenn Greenwald, with an unlikely national television audience. The vast majority of Real Time‘s panelists, however, span the meager distance from Ben Affleck to Ann Coulter, from the wealthy rubes of the center-left to the monied vampires of the far-right. Couple this false diversity of thought with Maher’s increasing affinities for libertarianism, transphobia, and Islamophobia, and Scahill’s choice seems less about ethics than entertainment. As the New York Times later noted, a debate between Bill Maher and Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t exactly a war of words.
The televised segment itself was at turns revolting and tedious, an appropriate reflection of the luminous political minds involved. In addition to Maher’s interview with Yiannopoulos, the subsequent “Overtime” panel featured “Terrorism Expert” Malcolm Nance, “Comedy Expert” Larry Wilmore, and former Republican Congressman Jack Kingston, Scahill’s last-minute replacement. There was a bit of subtle humor in replacing Jeremy Scahill, an award-winning investigative journalist, with Jack Kingston, an interchangeable partisan hack, but the comedy in tragedy ended there. Introducing Yiannopoulos, Maher said, “I think you’re colossally wrong on a number of things.” He then failed to enumerate a single one of those points of disagreement, only becoming defensive when Yiannopoulos, finding two rare targets actually worthy of his vitriol, referred to the Democrats as “the party of Lena Dunham.” What followed was the whole frustrating ordeal in miniature, a constant shift away from substantive critique to empty sensational rhetoric. Inadvertently or not, Yiannopoulos had presented Maher with an opportunity to exercise his beloved free speech, to criticize the very same liberal executives who pay him millions to tell half-baked jokes to the self-satisfied readers of The Borowitz Report. Instead, Maher’s nonresponse illuminated the sharp contrast between courting controversy and exemplifying bravery. “Let’s not pick on fellow HBO stars,” he said. “There are so many other people.”
And there were others, none of them new targets for anyone familiar with Milo’s schtick. As Maher sat idly by, Yiannopoulos checked the expected names off of his hit list, slandering Amy Schumer (who is actually terrible), Lady Ghostbusters (which is actually horrible), and Sarah Silverman (okay, too far), before naturally moving on to Leslie Jones, the comedienne against whom Yiannopoulos waged the vast online harassment campaign that eventually resulted in his banishment from Twitter. “I wrote a bad review of a movie,” Yiannopoulos said. “Am I not entitled to do that?” Again balking at the chance to engage in any kind of contentious debate, Maher made no mention of the intense psychological violence that Jones had endured at the behest of Yiannopoulos, nor did he specifically elaborate on the instances of physical violence, like the shooting of a protestor outside of the University of Washington, that have been carried out in Yiannopoulos’s name. Ultimately, it fell to Larry Wilmore to defend Jones against the torrent of slander; while Maher swiveled absentmindedly in his chair, Wilmore kindly told Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself. This occurred in Real Time with Bill Maher‘s fifteenth season. Larry Wilmore’s own Real Time-style political debate program, The Nightly Show, was cancelled by Comedy Central after one year.
In the months since the election of Donald Trump, “normalization” has been a chief concern amongst those on the left, many of whom saw Yiannopoulos’s appearance on Real Time as fascism’s latest step toward the center of American culture. Considering that fascists (and their gutless enablers) now maintain almost uniform control of the government, the great question of our times may be how best to reverse or impede fascism’s infiltration of the rest of democratic society. Is it more effective to acknowledge and debate the fascists, as Maher purported to do, or to denounce them out of hand, as Scahill did? Is fascism an infection that must be meticulously treated before it’s eradicated, or a high fever that will, in time, eventually break? If Yiannopoulos’s guest spot on Real Time is any indication, fascism may well be the latter, a fever that will pass sooner than later if the proper medication gets ingested. Because while normalized fascism may be a frightening prospect in theory, it makes for a painfully boring and exhausting reality in practice, specifically for its advocates. (See: Stephen Miller’s hairline, Steve Bannon’s body, or Kellyanne Conway’s disintegration.) Judging by the lack of interest with which Yiannopoulos recited his list of despised female comedians, the effects of constant agitation have begun to take their toll on him as well. Donald Trump was primarily elected out of a blind desire for radical change, a break from the poisonous choice between neoliberalism and neoconservatism, which in this instance took the form of neo-fascism. There’s no reason to think that same transformative desire couldn’t shift America in the exact opposite direction. What’s more uncertain is whether any of these cretins will be around to watch it happen.
The days since his episode of Real Time aired haven’t been the kindest to Yiannopoulos. A resurfaced video, in which he may or may not advocate for pedophilia, led to his being disinvited from CPAC, the annual conservative cosplay conference. Simon & Schuster cancelled the release of his upcoming book, Dangerous, in a cost-saving measure somehow more cynical than the choice to publish it in the first place. These may be the initial signs of a culture grown tired of Milo Yiannopoulos’s antics, or the transitional moments before his claws assume an even firmer hold on our discourse, but it seems important to note that no other individual, left or right, can damage Milo Yiannopoulos as much as he can damage himself. During his segment on Real Time, Yiannopoulos stated that “the one thing that authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter,” to which Maher replied, “Because when people laugh, they know it’s true.” That the comment was met with silence from the studio audience suggests, thankfully, that the hilarious truth as defined by these blowhards pertains less and less by the second. Wherever the American truth was last week, the last place it resided was on the stage of Real Time.