In one way, Maher is supposed to be my people: atheist, mostly science-minded, rational potty-mouthed comedy folks. And I do agree with some of the things he stands for--I've got a libertarian (socially) streak, after all. I stand for science, and I want to think there are avenues of conversation with people who don't 100% share my viewpoint.
But while I try to respect folks like SE Cupp and Ana Navarro and Rick Wilson who seem like people with whom a lefty like me can speak, largely because Bill Maher put them forward as reasonable folks (I follow them on Twitter, though), Ben Sasse, as was discussed on the show--is dangerous: he looks sane and nice, but his language isn't left-language and his outlook isn't compatible with ours. He may not love Trump, but he doesn't have a political overlap with us. And while Sasse sorted out how to make a public response via social media and even Bill Maher apologized after a fashion for his fuckup, we still might want to look at how a real left critique of Maher's use of this phrase might work, not forgiving Maher on free-speech grounds, and not excoriating him on the grounds he would dismiss as "politically correct". I mean to address the harm. Not the correctness, the framing we so often lack as uptighty whities. The harm that this language does to descendants of slavery in the US.
I have no context for being called this thing. I can be called a lot of things, but I can't get shamed for my lack of whiteness, or made to feel historically dominated because of my phenotype. I know that, even if I like Ice Cube's musical output, I can never spit the majority of his lyrics in public, because there is a word I understand why he can say, and I will certainly never say. I get why in context, a black comedian could have said what Maher said right in that moment, and it would have worked not just socially, but as comedy. And I sort of think maybe Maher got that joke via black conversations he listened to, but never recognized weren't anything to do with him. But when he says it-he is demeaning the people who can legitimately own that phrase. He is appropriating their history. He is taking up the slur, without it applying to him--which leaves it on the table for other folks to feel more comfortable using .
I think he can understand this, and I'm not here to write someone off who mostly agrees with me forever, because my deal isn't "political correctness" as a barrier to being sociallly acceptable, but as a heuristic for people to get how to relate to a truly multicultural society in a way that isn't offensive and gross. But he needs to not just apologize, but figure out how he hasn't just fucked up, over time, with black people, and with Muslims, and with women, and with others, because of a punch-down streak that reinforces white privilege and toxic masculinity-- He needs to proceed doing better. Not his fault--unless he chooses not to ever address it--and he so far never has. He needs to know he is the kind of dogmatic prick because of that privileged POV that he tries to savage in his comedy. He has become the guy his humor is supposed to fuck up. And that is bad--
But maybe he could catch on. And I still find his panels interesting, even if he personally is problematic. I wish he would be the guy who understood why he needed to do better. And I understand also why some people in his position don't choose to be that guy. The price for slamming white folks of privilege is higher than that for slamming POC's. It is stupid, but true.
I watch his show with my parents as a way for us to commune as bad liberals together, and it is better than watching Fox together, but I am well and truly sure this isn't us being great libs together. Maybe we are people who heard "nigger" in the comfort of our homes from white people we are related to. We get this thing of becoming decent and correct is a process, and we don't want to collude to support racists, but we want to slap our own white brethren down and shape them with our own hands.
It is problematic. I don't like people trying to pretend he isn't a part of the left anymore than I like pretending he isn't effective in some ways. He is a part of us. But he has issues he needs to work on--and that is not at all rare.