Sunday, April 01, 2007


Gaurav points us towards Bill Maher's latest segment, where he interviewed Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Maher is one of my favourite 'comedian-intellectuals', and I was disappointed to hear him take such a one-sided stand against Ron Paul. Most of what Paul said was right on mark. As Gaurav pointed out, he also shows a sound understanding of American history, including the many dark deeds that the CIA has orchestrated. It was also disappointing that Maher did not agree with this absolutely accurate assesment about the role of the CIA; that makes it clear that he was there mainly for bashing Paul.

Paul was also quite correct about the Civil War.
The Quakers in England had been campaigning to end slavery for many years, purely based on personal conviction, without any political agenda. Their pacifism was not the political pacifism of Gandhi. Yet, they were very effective in ending the slave trade that England had. The Quakers accomplished their objectives because they had limited goals. They realised that ending slavery itself was a goal better left to their future generations. But ending the slave trade was a goal they could realistically achieve. They also did not see the end of slavery as punishment for slave owners. In fact, they crucially persuaded the government to actually pay compensation to the slave owners for giving up the acquisition of new slaves. The result was that the English made a smooth transition to a society free from slave trade. The American contrast was much more striking. One can only speculate that a similar strategy would have been possible in America too, and the Americans could have been spared the horrors of the Civil War. England's example bears testament to this possibility. But as Paul points out, the American leaders and especially Lincoln were not as interested in ending slavery as in unifying the nation. He and his associates traded blood for unification, when it could have been achieved more smoothly, if slowly.

The one place where Paul does not get it quite right is global warming. He deflects the issue by asking whether the government should invade China or try to stop volcanoes to suppress global warming. Both of these questions are extremes, and there is much that that government can do in other areas; as an aside though, Paul still recognised the key oil-induced situation in the Middle East that the US has brought upon itself. As of now, it is extremely difficult, if impossible, to practically envisage how the free market can regulate global warming. As I mentioned in a past post, there are so many sources of CO2 emissions that the cap-and-trade programs that worked so well for sulfur emissions cannot be seen to work for CO2 emissions especially in the short term. In such a case, a government tax may be the only optimum solution to curb such emissions.

I have something to say to Maher; stop calling yourself a libertarian. And I have something to say to Paul; stop calling yourself a Republican (although he is a moderate Republican by any standards). Assigning political labels consigns us to following textbook definitions in their entirety. Social science issues need us to know much better than deal with absolutes. If one dons a political label for too long, then he faces the danger of becoming a slave of that label. Long after he has taken such a position, changing that position even for a justifiable reason could make people call him a hypocrite. To avoid such pitfalls, better not take any absolutist position. Not the free market, not government, and not any single entity or system can be the solution to all problems. One needs to find a balance. Just like a well-made recipe, the correct political solutions need to showcase at least an effort of mixing all the ingredients in the right proportion. No matter how much I like a particular dessert, an excess of sweetness-that quality which is after all the sine quo non of the dessert- nevertheless spoils the whole act. As in other aspects of life, moderation is the key here too.

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Blogger Krishna said...

I too like Bill Maher a lot. He is a very good comedian and has a pretty good command over the issues. However he is more of an old style Democrat than a left liberal. He is certainly not a libertarian as I understand the term.

Your point about why we should avoid labels is well taken. But it's often convenient to use broad labels. Maher seems to me a liberal Democrat in the old sense: supporting the idea of American intervention for "good" causes (he likes Clinton and his "benign" military campaigns); giving almost complete support to Israel whatever its policies. So he is more at home with liberals of 1950s, 60s. After all liberal philosophy of 40s and 50s was the origin of today's neoconservatism.

In today's world things have changed a lot. This proves your point about dangers of strict adherence to labels. Now Republicans are the hawks. And Republicans like Ron Paul are anomalous to the extent that it's difficult to digest that he's a Republican. He is right about American foreign policy and it's so strange to hear such talk from a mainstream politician.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Gaurav said...

And Paul is one of the few politicians who votes according to his convictions. He is not a weather-vane like Hillary and most other democrats. BTW, I heartily recommend you download and read a graphic novel called Transmetropolitan. The Beast vs Smiler Presidential race in it is sooooooo relevant right now.

And you like Maher? Don't get me wrong. I watch his show. It is OK. But he just isn't smart enough to deserve "one of the favourite" tag. I find most of his positions very shallow and betraying posturing than thoughtfulness. And his jokes aren't that funny. Plus he is HORRIBLE at interviewing someone he does not agree with.

The comedian-intellectual par-excellence is of course Jon Stewart. His interviews on Crossfire and C-Span show an intelligent mind. He is brilliant at interviewing even someone who is his ideological foe without crossing the line or losing the point. His interview of John Bolton was a great example.

Plus he is just soooooooo much funnier. :-D

8:51 PM  
Blogger Gaurav said...

And oh yes. Maher should not call himself a libertarian.... because he is not.

But Ron Paul is a politician. He has always belonged to the Republican Party. Why should he not call himself a Republican? And believe it or not, once upon a time, not too long ago, the positions he takes were not very far from traditional Republican ideals. "Conservative" wasn't always a bad word associated with right-wing-intolerance-and-gay-bashing. The closest thing to a true conservative on TV these days is Joe Scarborough.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I agree that Stewart is great, someone who consistently and intelligently delivers...I guess I have just been watching Maher's show ever since I came here, and many of the episodes were quite good. Maher at least bashes right-wing nutjobs pretty well. Also, his opinions on different issues usually have different shades of merit. I love his criticism of religion and Bush in general. But among all his interviews that I have seen, the one you pointed out was the most misguided; I haven't seen him being that terrible even with people he does not agree with. His words about the CIA were ridiculous; "It's better to have a bad CIA than no CIA at all"?? What on earth!
But watch his interview with Larry King, where I thought his comments were quite intelligent in general.
And you are right about conservatives; Barry Goldwater was one who predicted he would be called a liberal after twenty years. American is in desperate need of another Goldwater. It's too bad that people like Ron Paul are given short shrift by many. Unfortunately, it may also mean thay they won't get elected president. Another republican who had very reasonable liberal views on issues was Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who unfortunately lost the election. That's the problem here; moderates are not very well-tolerated, and people don't evaluate them on their own merits, like what Maher did.
By the way, I am tired of Colbert now. I think he is too monotonous and exaggerates constantly, and his act has become too familiar...then again, I guess he will admit he is that way!
Will get my hands on the novel you talked about.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Gaurav said...

I like Maher's views on religion. And he does well attacking the christian right. But then, who doesn't? :)

Lincoln Chaffee is good too. Even I felt sad after he lost.

And yes, Colbert is not as funny as he used to be. Stewart's show manages to be very consistent. Some of Colbert's episodes are very moronic. I am wondering if the Bill O'reilly thing was Colbert's shark-jump moment. But I still prefer him over Leno or Letterman, who come on at the same time.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Sanketh said...

For starters, nice blog. Loved your latest post on Domagk. Very nicely written.

I remember watching this clip on youtube. It seemed Maher was caught off guard. I almost got the feeling he anticipated a good old session of republican bashing and when Paul didn't stick to the script Maher lost it. The way he tried to counter the CIA question was almost O'Reillyisque.

And I found it funny how Ron Paul went on and on about volcanoes. It seemed very contrived. Almost like he was trying to reach out to the gas guzzling side of the party he belongs to. :)

Anyway, nice blog dude. You have a new reader.

2:18 AM  

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