Let’s stop paying attention to Bill Maher.
Yes, he’s very handy to have around when you absolutely need to hear something bitchy and pithy about political hypocrisy or popular superstition. Never mind that. When he sets out to make a point, which is always, Maher gets almost as much wrong as he gets right. And what he gets wrong is ultimately more important, because the way he gets it wrong exemplifies and promulgates the same sloppy reasoning and glib opinion-slinging that makes American political culture so deserving of Maherian mockery in the first place.
Example: Last Friday on his HBO show, Real Time, in the middle of an otherwise hilarious riff on Mitt Romney’s tax-deductable, “charitable” donations, Maher took a nonsensical swipe at “classical” music:
The bulk of the segment is easy to agree with. Indeed, throwing cash to divisive supernaturalists who glorify themselves with castles probably shouldn’t be tax-deductable. Cue the cheering! Mormons are ridiculous!
But so, apparently, is Western orchestral music. At least, it’s not a serious enough concern to warrant a tax write-off. Maher’s half-spoken assumption in the above clip is that only organizations which tend to the public’s material needs are worthy of public money, or money that might one day become public. All other organizations should live and die at the free market’s whim.
Maher, who regularly mocks the political and cultural ignorance of the general public, should know and be concerned that subjecting all music to free market forces would be the death of classical music in America. Never in its history has Western orchestral music flourished in a society without massive government subsidies. (Even Mozart, whom Maher name-drops in the above clip, would never have composed his greatest works without the patronage of Emperor Joseph II.) That the government barely underwrites orchestral music in this country means we’ve barely got any. Many American cities are now without full-time orchestras. Even the venerable Met is broke, and looks it.
Maher, it seems, doesn’t care. He’d rather your operabucks be sent to the people who build houses or feed children. And until the homeless are homeful and the hungry dehungered, he’d like to see the museums shuttered and our libraries converted to shelters. (Maher, no Communist, might be surprised to find himself in agreement with Lenin, who said of Beethoven’s “Appassionata”: “I can’t listen to music too often. It affects the nerves, makes you want to say kind, silly things, to stroke the heads of the people who, living in a terrible hell, can create such a beauty.” He worried that the beauty of art, so beautifully realized in a concert hall or gallery, might distract him from the hell of the real world, thereby stifling his revolutionary effort to transform that hell into heaven.) If Maher really would like to see cultural centers shuttered until Americans are all clothed and fed, fine. Many people agree. The queer thing is, Bill Maher doesn’t usually seem to be one of them.
In fact, Maher often defends the worth of public education, even though public schools are paid for with public money, and, like orchestras and galleries, fill our minds rather than our bellies. In 2010, while lamenting the death spiral of American education, Maher joked: “It’s so simple. Fire the bad teachers. Hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and – hey! While we’re at it, let’s cut taxes more! It’s the kind of comprehensive educational solution that could only come from a completely ignorant people.” Maher proceeded to place blame for American dumbness not on teachers, parents, nor art classes, but on pop-culture figures like the Kardashians, who dominate children’s home lives just as teachers dominate their school days. It surely hasn’t escaped Maher’s attention that the Kardashians, unlike Mozart, are doing fine without government subsidies.
Perhaps it’s Maher’s contention that all culture is soft – that all culture is a useless luxury good, from Katchaturian to Kardashian, and schools can somehow provide a meaningful education without mentioning it. Maher is, after all, famously obsessed with science. Perhaps he’s one of those math’n'science fundamentalists, whose nightmares are full of Chinese teenagers reciting the Periodic Table while drooling American students can’t tell atoms from Adam. Indeed, this seems to be the case: Last November on Real Time, Maher briefly offended his humanist fan-base by insisting that “art education” is a waste of money, and that schools ought to focus instead on math, science, history – and language.
Notably, Maher likes language, and is passionate about his literature, even though you can’t eat a book. As it happens, Maher also enjoys the study of history, which informs his political obsessions, and he’s so pro-science that he’s won a Richard Dawkins Award. So far as I know, Maher has never spoken publicly about his appreciation for orchestral music or fine art. If he’s as disinterested as he seems, then is it unreasonable to wonder if Maher’s determination of what is and isn’t worth public expenditure might have less to do with any coherent worldview than it does with his personal taste?
I don’t think so. “Taste,” when you think about it, is a shitty guide to public policy, and Maher’s are perverse. He respects nothing so much as science – he’s produced and starred in a documentary, Religulous, which posits science and reason as antidotes to the psychotic religious mania which, Maher believes, could precipitate World War III in the Middle East – and yet Maher disregards even scientific consensus when it suits him.
In 2005, Maher did so very publicly, on Larry King Live, when he explained that “Western” medicine is a sham and insisted that vaccines are poisonous. That same year, on the O’Reilly Factor, Maher admitted that he’s a Béchampian – that is, an adherent to the discredited theories of Antoine Béchamp, the rival of Louis Pasteur, who spent the latter part of his career crusading against Pasteur’s “germ theory” of disease. Maher even claimed that Louis Pasteur recanted germ theory on his deathbed, and that he died with Béchamp’s praises on his lips. (The “deathbed conversion” is a lie commonly told by superstitious people. Many Christians claim Darwin denied Darwinism on his deathbed, and that Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan accepted Jesus and died contrite theists. New Agers claim that famed skeptic Harry Houdini died convinced of an afterlife. Medical conspiracists have their fairytale about Pasteur.)
This Béchampian business is worth examining in slightly greater detail, because Béchamp’s theory is directly opposed to Darwinism, and Maher is an outspoken Darwinian. (Being an outspoken Darwinian is a precondition for winning a Richard Dawkins Award.) Those impressed by Maher’s thinking ought to be downright awed at his contortionistic ability to hold these contradictory ideas in equally high esteem.
Briefly: According to Béchamp, germs cannot invade and cause disease in a healthy body. Rather, germs – and by “germs,” Béchamp meant “bacteria,” as viruses were unknown in his day – are generated spontaneously by something in the body called “microzymes.” These microzymes are activated when the body has already fallen into ill health through poor diet, lack of exercise, or exposure to environmental toxins
There is something undeniably satisfying about this vision of disease – you can’t get sick unless you’ve asked for it – but, as we know, the universe doesn’t care much for our satisfaction. Béchampianism ignores the obvious Darwinian point that very small creatures, such as infectious bacteria, compete in the same evolutionary milieu as we, clawing for advantage through the same blind and subtle mutations which inched our ancestors out of the jungles and onto the plains. We adapt to infectious bacteria and they adapt to us; we become immune to them and they burrow through our immunities. Those bacteria which fail to adapt disappear. Those currently in existence persist because they mutated, and lived to infect another day. If Maher really thought it through, and if he still adheres to Béchampianism, then he must have concluded that the human body is so wonderfully put together that its defenses are simply smarter than any germ could hope to be; that human immunities have somehow anticipated and prepared for every possible permutation of every possible germ that could ever possibly attack us.
This would be profoundly unlikely even if it didn’t happen to be physically impossible. (And even if it was both possible and likely: What would be the evolutionary purpose of the microzyme? You’d think animals encumbered with these beastly germ factories would be at a profound evolutionary disadvantage, and would have disappeared from Earth long before the first amphibians crawled from the muck.) Any animal of such biological sturdiness would almost certainly have to be intelligently designed, if I may borrow the phrase. Yet Bill Maher is certain that intelligent design is bunk.