On Friday night, a hotly anticipated and widely criticized episode of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher aired, prominently featuring Breitbart editor and right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulos. The booking sparked enough controversy and condemnation that one of the show's previously scheduled guests, journalist Jeremy Scahill, actually withdrew from the panel in protest, a decision which earned him a testy response from Maher. However, now that the episode has aired, it's plain to see who won that argument: Maher claimed he'd expose Milo Yiannopoulos, but ended up doing him a massive favor.
The reason for the controversy was pretty simple: Yiannopoulos, who rode the 2014 online harassment movement Gamergate from relative obscurity to a massively boosted personal profile, has been a loud voice for countless anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments in recent years, all wrapped up in a gleeful, triumphalist, and preening sort of performative cruelty. In recent months he's toured colleges, giving speeches designed to fire up campus conservatives and spark outcry from campus progressives, which have sometimes veered into luridly awful displays ― for example, his public naming and targeting of a trans woman at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin last year.
He also recently received a $250,000 book deal with Simon & Schuster, a fact which roiled progressives wary of his views being mainstreamed by the imprimatur of one of the world's biggest publishers, and led to feminist author Roxane Gay pulling her book from the publishing house.
Given the extremeness of Yiannopoulos' views and actions, and the fact that his personal brand benefits whether he's well-received or not, many progressives have urged TV shows and institutions to simply stop inviting him, and extending their credibility to his often-vitriolic far right shtick.
That's why the decision to book him drew so much criticism, led to Scahill's withdrawal, and spurred Maher to release the following statement in response.
My comments on Islam have never veered into vitriol. Liberals will continue to lose elections as long as they follow the example of people like Mr. Scahill who’s views veer into fantasy and away from bedrock liberal principles like equality of women, respect for minorities, separation of religion and state, and free speech. If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.
So, did Maher manage to expose Yiannopoulos last night? Nope! If anybody was "exposed" by the whole affair, it wasn't Yiannopoulos. Here's a summary rundown of their one-on-one interview.
- Maher commiserated with Yiannopoulos about how they were both "disbarred" from speaking at UC Berkeley, and criticized the left for having a problem with "free speech." Maher wasn't actually disbarred, however ― he delivered a commencement address in 2014 amid protest and criticism. In other words, free speech for everyone!
- Maher claimed that the sort of liberals who are agitated by Yiannopoulous' words and actions have "gone off the deep end."
- Maher ducked Yiannopoulos' bashing of Lena Dunham by saying "let's not pick on fellow HBO stars." When Yiannopoulos went on to deride Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman for having "contracted feminism," Maher offered no meaningful defense of them, simply saying he was a fan of theirs before saying "let's just get off this."
- Maher offered no response when Yiannopoulos claimed Leslie Jones "looked like a dude" and was "barely-illiterate." Jones, mind you, is an actor and professional writer for Saturday Night Live, as well as a fellow member of the comic community that Maher's been a part of for decades.
- In response to Yiannopoulos' assertion that "mean words on the internet don't hurt people," Maher replied "I agree with you on the Twitter thing."
- In basically the only instance where Maher willingly highlighted actual disagreements between them ― "like Black Lives Matter is a hate group, and that there's no such thing as white privilege" ― Yiannopoulos simply said "we can disagree on those things, and that's wonderful." No follow-up from Maher.
That was all before Yiannopoulos returned for the show's Overtime segment and actually interacted with Maher's other guests, Malcolm Nance, Jack Kingston, and Larry Wilmore. In that segment, Yiannopoulos doubled-down on his aggressive anti-trans rhetoric, arguing in favor of banning trans people from the bathrooms correspond with their gender identities by saying "women and girls should be protected" from them, and rehashing his targeting of that trans woman at the Univesity of Milwaukee-Wisconsin.
Maher repeatedly misgendered the woman while responding, and ultimately agreed with Yiannopoulos. "That's not unreasonable," he said, before pivoting out of the conversation by asking Kingston "where do you stand on weirdos peeing?" Great job, Bill! You totally exposed him!
Ultimately, there was only one voice on the show who was willingly to forcefully push back against the whole tawdry display, and that was Wilmore, who offered a pretty succinct rebuke after Yiannopoulos taunted Nance.
In short, the only person exposed in this whole ordeal was Maher ― for how easily Yiannopoulos flattered him and charmed him, how ready he was to indulge and laugh along with damaging and demagogic anti-trans bigotry, and how eager he was to find common ground with the man he testily insisted he sought to expose just days earlier. Which, of course, was why so many on the left were galled that he booked Yiannopoulos in the first place.
As an interviewer, Maher fell lightyears short of the standard he set for himself in his response to Scahill. And really, anyone familiar with his style and his politics could see this trainwreck coming from miles away. Hopefully the next time Maher wants to give a platform to such a person, he'll just admit it's for the ratings, rather than puffing himself up about exposing them on behalf of liberalism.