Before we get into this, I should say that I do not like Bill Maher. He is an outspoken atheist and a vaguely mean-spirited liberal, which means he inspires in me that vague discomfort that comes from watching a person you do not like say what you would say. Those of us who believe that sarcasm is not a form of argument do not enjoy watching Maher snicker his way through our deeply-held positions, which made his discussion of evolution with Representative Jack Kingston (R–GA, net worth $2.8 million, 2009 reported income $507 somehow) a real opportunity to see both sides of a coin of suck. Video after the jump.
Yes, Kingston is from the South, and yes, Bill Maher’s voice seems to bring out the crazy in Republican congresspeople, the way holding a glass of milk in front of your mouth is supposed to make a tapeworm leap out of your neck. Still, that is some old-school crazy. Kingston’s smug declaration that “I believe I came from God, not from a monkey, so the answer is no, [I do not believe in evolution,]” was a surprising throwback to 1927’s most infuriating counterargument, especially from a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.
We’re not talking about some wacky Tea Party freshmen, here. Kingston has been in the House for almost twenty years, and his decision to laugh smugly at the very concept of evolution—without invoking intelligent design or some other stalking horse that argues for creation in at least pseudo-scientific terms—is a sign of how overtly religious the Republican Party has become.
The exchange that follows is also a sign of how difficult it is to actually talk about something around Bill Maher. One of the other guests—whom I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recognize, but I think she’s some sort of fused Joy Behar/Arianna Huffington entity—gamely tries to get Kingston to admit that he at least believes in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is a contemporary manifestation of evolution. It would have been a great way to force the congressman from Georgia to acknowledge the absurdity of his position, had Maher not talked over her into his slightly-louder microphone the entire time.
There’s a term for that kind of discussion—in which everybody simultaneously proclaims their own beliefs and treats any other viewpoint as laughable—and it’s called “religious.” Even without DL Hughley, herein lies the problem with Maher. Jack Kingston doesn’t have to make a compelling argument for creation on Real Time, because what you do on Real Time is establish your position and then start firing. For a man who claims to reject religion because it lacks a logical foundation, Maher has developed a forum that weirdly privileges claims above evidence. It’s not a debate show; it’s a declaration show.
In this way it reflects our present political discourse, which values personalities above positions and therefore places a much higher premium on making bold statements than on arguing to back them up. In such an environment, for Kingston to say “I don’t believe in evolution because the component organs of the mammalian eye confer no functional advantages as discrete structures,” would be a misstep. When he says he “came from” God, not a monkey, and then adopts the grin one wears during the eating of shit, the viewer files him under “religious, old-timey” and is excused from listening to further arguments.
Whether you like that category or not, it’s an enormous boon for Kingston, who gets to firmly establish an identity without having to worry about seeing it subsequently undone by, say, logical discourse. He has made a confession of faith, in the strictest definition of the term, and the authenticity of that confession cannot be challenged. Never mind that what Kingston has faith in makes not goddamn sense at all. His smirk and his stupid Monkey Defense move us right out of the realm of sense and counterargument anyway.
Such an approach works just fine in environments where A) you have no intention of changing your viewpoint and B) no one else can be convinced of anything, either—for example, cable shows and the Republican Party. It’s toxic for a pluralistic democracy, though. Rhetoric that makes conclusions into articles of faith makes political positions into cultures, and people don’t change their cultures. At least ideally, political parties make compromises with one another. Cultures just go to war, and you win a war with another culture by propagating your own as rapidly as possible. The sound of Jack Kingston, Bill Maher and Joy Behuffington all talking over one another is the sound of democracy stuck in neutral, with a brick on the accelerator.