Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
It's absolutely horrific. Although the single, "I wanna bang you," is debatably the most convincing argument for nuclear holocaust to date, I'm not referring to the release of Paris Hilton's second album. Vastly more terrifying than the Auto-tuned caterwauling of a vapid hotel heiress is the degree to which political affiliation and base tribalism warps our very perception of reality.
For instance, a recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that self-identified conservatives were far less likely to purchase energy-efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs if a sticker on the package read: "Protect the environment." And, in the real world, Obama-era liberals have repeatedly supported policies they once reviled only because the sticker on the box read: "Hope and Change."
I could compile a list of partisan super-hacks from, say, Media Matters for America or even Think Progress, but no one popular figure better exemplifies this political, moral branding-shift than the host of HBO's "Real Time" Bill Maher.
For a guy who donated a cool million to President Obama's re-election Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, his blind partisanship is not a huge surprise. But it is somewhat disappointing for a recipient of Atheist Alliance International's Richard Dawkins Award, which is "given every year to honor an outstanding atheist...who...advocates increased scientific knowledge," to have such a mutable perception of empirical reality -- and to defend Obama, not using facts, but only the dogmatic zeal of the devoutly religious.
It's now been revealed that a total of four American citizens have been extralegally assassinated in "targeted" drone strikes overseas. According to a joint Stanford/NYU study, unmanned aerial assaults kill forty-nine civilians for every one "known terrorist." Between the CIA and DOD, our unmanned aerial vehicles have whacked an estimated 4,700 people.
And, as we know from the DOJ memo uncovered by NBC's Michael Isikoff, determining who's a "known terrorist," and what constitutes an "imminent threat," doesn't require the strictest of evidence. Even notorious Talladega Nights fan (and retired Army General) Stanley McChrystal has warned of the "resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes," and that it's "much greater than the average American appreciates."
In Obama's own words, Guantanamo Bay's an extremist "recruitment tool," and the evangelical left rightly shouts, "Amen!" Our torture chamber at GTMO makes us less secure. Makes sense. Maher agrees with this point, and has even advocated civil trials for terrorist suspects, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
But does the evangelical left believe this because it's logical, or because it's liberal orthodoxy? Because, considering the above paragraph, it's entirely rational to extend the blowback logic to our army of flying robot assassins. If we kill forty-nine completely innocent people for every one probably-maybe-known terrorist, we're likely recruiting an entire generation of jihadists. So what of Obama's unmanned wrath from above? Well, Maher perfectly articulates the evangelical left's relatively newfound hawkishness: "Some people do need killing."
Some people do need killing was the basic sentiment of President Obama's major national security presser last week. It was also, quite possibly, the most profoundly dishonest speech of his political career. He presented America with a stark straw-choice: We either put straw-boots on the straw-ground, or we murder suspected terrorists with drones. There's apparently no other option.
Remember, for every Anwar al-Awlaki we kill, forty-nine bystanders get it. And in the case of al-Awlaki, his sixteen year-old son Abdulrahman got whacked in a separate attack, for no other reason than sharing his father's last name, so that's an estimated ninety-nine innocents to one guy who made jihadist YouTube videos.
Back in 2011, Maher proudly proclaimed: "President Bad-Ass has done it again! A Predator drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki -- [crowd erupts in craven applause]. You can applaud that." This statement was during the same episode of "Real Time" in which Maher argued for KSM's civilian trial. What is and is not a "recruitment tool" seems less to do with logic than it does dogma.
With the current scandal hat trick -- Benghazi, the IRS targeting Tea Party groups, and the seizure of AP reporters' phone records -- dominating the news, Maher intoned during his most recent, May 17th monologue: "There are so many bullshit scandals to get to, and so little time."
It's speculation, of course, but if Benghazi happened on Bush's watch, the left would likely be foaming at the mouth. Of course, it would be a fairly minor infraction -- real or imagined -- in an endless string of far worse and demonstrable crimes. It's safe to conject, however, that the following exchange between Maher and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald from the May 10th episode of "Real Time" wouldn't inspire such liberal applause:
Greenwald: You don't think that when a U.S. Ambassador is killed, and there are people within the State Department saying that they were asking for help and not getting it, and that the U.S. Government went onto the world stage for a week and made claims about what happened that turned out to not be true that that doesn't merit any investigation?
Maher: I don't. And I'm bored with it. Let's move on.
Despite what liberals might cynically make of a Bush-era CIA redacting, or whitewashing, "al Qaeda" from the talking points just before an election, Maher is correct: Benghazi is a mostly bullshit scandal. But gauging from his dismissive tone, and galling lack of intellectual curiosity, he's right for all the wrong reasons, as he is about GTMO. It's pure orthodoxy.
This is the horror of evangelical partisanship. The left's quickly become the right, the right's gone totally insane, and "intellectual" stances on issues are now adopted solely in contrast to, and in defiance of, the political opposition.
Throngs of "lefties" were adamant there was no Benghazi scandal before having all the facts simply because Michelle Malkin claims that it's worse than Watergate. Michelle Malkin is usually wrong, professionally wrong, but, you know, Hitler liked sandwiches, too, and that's not a rational reason to boycott Jimmy John's.
Absent from nearly all the "scandal" coverage surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, shockingly, is Obama's decision to commit our military without congressional approval in Libya. This was the real scandal, the ultimate reason our consulate was attacked, and absolutely no one in the mainstream press dared utter "impeachment." Ironically, ever the evangelical partisans, according to a June, 2011 Gallup poll: "Democrats [were] the only political group to show more support for than opposition to the U.S. involvement [in Libya]."
Maher blows off Benghazi, and the legitimate IRS and DOJ/AP scandals in one faith-based swoop: "Doesn't it matter that these are all bullshit?" Motivated reasoning, an applause line, preaching to the choir. To Maher, it's all horrible lies; it's heresy to challenge the righteousness of the one true Democratic POTUS.
"The press is in a frenzy about this too," Maher scoffs over the AP's violated 1st and 4th Amendment rights, yet another assault in Obama's relentless war on whistle-blowers "They're like a crack addict looking for a rock in the carpet." Later in the program, Maher offers an even lamer bit of sophistry: the press failed us with Bush's warrantless wiretaps, so we shouldn't care that it's happening to them now (despite it being "bullshit," which implies that it didn't happen, right?).
Like a Young Earth Creationist who believes the planet is 6,000 years old, yet argues that the earth can't be 4.5 billion years old because carbon dating is only accurate to a few hundred-thousand years, it takes a special sort of delusion to keep those mental compartments from colliding and realizing that you're completely detached from reality.
Maher is on the political "left" in relative terms only -- to the left of Michelle Malkin. And the natural tribal impulse is to defend your guy against the other guys. But it's getting ridiculous. The right is against anything this President does. Good (awful) Republican policies they'd have supported under Bush are signs of the liberal, probably Kenyan apocalypse. And the "left," a major faction of it anyway, feels forced to defend policies formerly considered Republican because there's no alternative. We're locked in a self-reinforcing political binary: you're either with us or against us. And the tribal battle is transcending factual reality.
It's a disturbing form of political relativism where everything's unmoored -- facts, morals, policy positions, philosophy, and principle. It's no longer necessary to prove yourself correct, as long as your political opposition is incorrect. It's madness. At any given moment, there are "liberals," the bona fide Professional Left, listing the crimes of George W. Bush on Twitter in an attempt to absolve Obama from any wrongdoing. Madness!
Many in the atheist/skeptical community balked when Maher won the Dawkins Award because of his Jenny McCarthy-esque aversion to vaccinations, so we've known for a while that it ain't pure reason what brought him to godlessness. So fickle and odd is the political mind, fraught with hidden motivations and emotional prejudice, that Maher finding Jesus could be as easy as the Pope losing him. That's probably hyperbole, but reality's reality, and you either respect it or you don't. For now, however, Maher's delusions are mostly political.
The principled left still exists. This wicked phenomenon has not engulfed the truly righteous, warped the truly honest, and made relativists of the brave few who still care about reality. But as Maher et al flee from the "reality-based community," merely in the hopes of beating back the right, what the "left" used to acknowledge as the "lesser evil" has now, through the dark magic of political relativism, simply become "good."
And that's no good at all. It's absolutely horrific.