ECLECTIC RANT: UC Berkeley Decides Correctly to Let Bill Maher Give the Commencement Speech

Ralph E. Stone
Friday October 31, 2014 - 10:00:00 AM

Bill Maher, standup comedian and host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, was selected to speak at UC Berkeley's fall commencement. Recently, an online petition began circulating demanding that his selection be canceled, claiming that Maher is a "racist" and a "bigot."

On September 29, 2014, Chancellor Dirks announced that the invitation will stand noting that the undergraduate committee known as the "Californians" had selected Maher to speak and now want this invitation to be rescinded, "which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them. More broadly, this university has not in the past and will not in the future shy away from hosting speakers who some deem provocative."

I applaud the Chancellor's decision. It is strange to me that the "Californians" did not know Maher's views before they selected him to give the commencement address. 

Let's look a bit at Maher's views on Islam that sparked the controversy. On his "Last Word," an interview with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck, Maher contended radical Islamists are essentially a "mafia" that will kill you if you say or draw the wrong thing.  

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Maher comparing Islam to Christianity, said, "Vast numbers of Christians do not believe that if you leave the Christian religion you should be killed for it. Vast numbers of Christians do not treat women as second class citizens" and later said, “[Christians] do not believe if you draw a picture of Jesus Christ you should get killed for it. So yes, does ISIS do Khmer Rouge-like activities where they just kill people indiscriminately who aren't just like them? Yes." 

It is because of statements like these that many charge Maher with Islamophobia, which is defined as prejudice against, hatred towards, or fear of Islamic doctrine, Muslims, or of ethnic groups perceived to be Muslim. 

Bill Maher has long derided organized religion. Remember "Religulous," his 2008 feature film which examined and mocked religious beliefs. The film is an example of his notion that no religion or religious culture is above criticism. 

In post-9/11 America, Maher has become an advocate for the view that all religions need to be criticized and identified as antagonistic to liberal principles. In his view, Islam is a singular affront to liberal values, as Muslims are uniquely oppressive and extremist and violent.  

Maher certainly is an arrogant, controversial activist and some would call him an asshole but I don’t know if he is a racist or bigot or suffers from Islamophobia. But "the irony of UC Berkeley [undergraduates] attempting to be more liberal, they have illiberally protested a liberal critique of illiberalism." Now that Maher will speak, why don't the anti-Maher students at the same time have tables with literature or symposiums that explain why they believe Maher is wrong? After all isn’t that what a university education is all about.