Anyone familiar with Maher's talk show, aptly titled "Politically Incorrect," knows that his celebrity has been made possible by the American freedoms that permit him and his guests to skewer every form of authority and discipline inherent in our society . . . and to become successful enough in doing so to enjoy the best of the physical and financial luxuries offered by what is arguably the world's greatest democracy.
No problem. Every healthy society permits - even encourages - that sort of freedom. Humor and satire have always been part of the fabric that holds America together. Personally, I take great pleasure from both.
Will Rogers became one of America's most beloved entertainers by lacing his humor with a healthy dose of satire. But there was an important difference. Rogers' satire, though it took many parts of our society to task, lacked the mean-spirited tone of what often masquerades as satire today.
I was disappointed (though not surprised) that Mr. Maher did not follow up his postulate with an explanation of what it would take to qualify a country as free. Nor did Mr. King, who appeared uncomfortable with the remark, ask for one.
I would like to have asked Mr. Maher several questions:
Does a country exist anywhere in the world today that satisfies his definition of true freedom? If not, has such a country ever existed?
Does his definition require a society in which anyone would be allowed to say or do anything at any time? (Remember that old chestnut about screaming "fire" in a crowded theater?)
Would there be any rules at all in such a country? If there were, who would make up the rules and who would enforce them? If there was even one rule, would that disqualify a society from being deemed free? Would anarchy satisfy his definition?
If a country fitting any of the above descriptions exists, I wouldn't want to live in it. Neither, I suspect, would Mr. Maher. Even two people living together, much less an entire society, must depend on "rules" to sustain a livable environment. Does the existence of even a single rule disqualify a society from calling itself free?
On the surface, Mr. Maher's remark might be considered as benign, an insignificant comment from an entertainer being paid to entertain. In my view, his comment was far from harmless.
The damage wrought by such irresponsibility lies in the influence it exerts on young people.
The Larry King show commands a huge national audience numbering in the millions. Within his audience that night, there were surely a good percentage of young people, who I suspect make up the majority of Mr. Maher's following. By encouraging them to take issue with the loose framework of constraints that help us all to continue enjoying the world's broadest freedoms, he did a disservice to the very society that makes it possible for him to dish up his nightly (and profitable) serving of sarcasm and ridicule.
Mr. Maher owes America an apology - or at least a clear definition of what constitutes a free country. I doubt that we will ever see either.
William J. Lynott is a writer who lives in Abington.