March 22, 2012

BILL MAHER HAS a request for America: “Please Stop Apologizing.” In a New York Times op-ed bearing that title, HBO‘s politico-celebrity calls for an end to politicians’ insincere demands for apologies from those who have supposedly offended them — and to the equally insincere apologies they so often elicit. Exhibit A, according to Mr. Maher, is the recent flap over actor Robert De Niro’s quip — for which he subsequently apologized — that Americans might not be ready for a “white first lady.”

Mr. Maher wants “an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, play-acted hurt, insult, slight and affront.” If you see or hear something offensive, he instructs, just change the channel. To Mr. Maher’s credit, he’s willing to apply his permissive rule consistently, to include conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, who apologized, under pressure, for labeling a Georgetown law student a “slut” on his radio show.

Though his tone is light, the funnyman has a point — both about the way political parties exploit their opponents’ impolite or, sometimes, merely impolitic comments, and about the fact that the Constitution protects offensive speech. Long before Harry Truman articulated it, one of the cardinal rules of American-style democracy, was “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Phony umbrage is an old and increasingly tired pose.

Mr. Maher is a strange one to make this argument, though, since it is so obviously self-serving. Though his article does not say so, he too is under fire for, among many other things, using vile words to refer to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and calling her family “inbred weirdos.”

This is rhetoric that goes beyond ridiculing or satirizing political adversaries to dehumanizing them. It encourages Americans to hate one another; or, at best, to tune one another out, as Mr. Maher recommends. He and Mr. Limbaugh both have a constitutional right to express themselves. But there are Americans who sincerely hope for civil discourse — for a nation where not every opponent is seen as an enemy. And they have a right to draw distinctions between the merely risque and the corrosively hateful, and to wish for higher standards, even from those who straddle the divide between politics and entertainment.

Incivility, like any other issue, is subject to partisan manipulation. But that doesn’t make it a phony issue. On this matter, we’d rather heed the words of the president whose reelection Mr. Maher recently backed with a $1 million “super PAC” donation.

“I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper,” then-Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention in 2004. “Now, even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us — the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”