Maher Messes With Mississippi

I enjoy REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER, even if I don’t always agree with the host, or with many of the conservative guests he books to help balance out his panels, a trait of the show I particularly admire. (The late Andrew Breitbart, for example, was a regular, as are several of the current young Republican turks in the House.) But I have to call a foul on something Bill did last Friday night.

While introducing some man-in-the-street interviews from filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, he disclaimed any “cherry-picking”: he said the interviews left on the cutting-room floor were just like the ones used, and I believe that. I’m paraphrasing here: “She just walked up to people. Everybody knew it was for my show. And they all think I’m going to hell.” (Maher is not just an atheist, he’s evangelical about it.) Then he proceeded to roll the clip, interviews from — I believe he said Senatobia — Mississippi.

The point of the exercise was to show that less fortunate people in the nation’s poorest state were still likely to vote against their economic interests. The subtext was that racism is alive and well in Mississippi. Nobody used the N-word (nobody except for Maher himself, just after the clip), but one man said he didn’t like the President because “his name is Obama.” When asked if it was because the President was black, he said, “it’s not because he’s black. He’s a halfbreed.” The “button” at the end: some guy tells Pelosi “the South’s gonna rise again.”

OK, fine. Then why did I sit up in my chair in irritation? My beef is with Maher’s disclaimer: everybody we talked to was the same. Trust me. This is what it’s like down there.

All interviewees were white men, unless I misremember some lady. (Demographically unsound for a “cross-section” of Mississippi, and that’s an understatement.) On the economic scale, all were blue-collar at best. By virtue of where she went fishing, Pelosi was selecting for poor or paycheck-to-paycheck white – not trash, there was definitely dignity displayed by some of the interviewees – but a representation of Mississippi that plays directly to the typical liberal stereotype. Despite polls that indicate otherwise, there are plenty of thinking, feeling people in Mississippi, of all races and creeds. The state has the highest percentage of black elected officials in the country, yet its ruling Republican Party is still country-club white guys who look and sound more like Romney/Gingrich/Santorum than Gomer Pyle. There are even progressives in Mississippi! (Sorry, Sen. Santorum: they already done got ’em some goldarn colleges, grglblagit!) Racism is still easy to find down there – you could make the argument that this Muslim canard is nothing but dog-whistle coded anger against a President who dares to be black – but I’ll bet the same thing goes where you live, too.

I grew up in Mississippi, which is why the issue hits me personally. Whether I agree politically with most of the royal white-man powerful in that state isn’t the point. I even took their advice: if you don’t like it here, then leave. I don’t agree with most of the people in Utah either, but Park City is still beautiful around Sundance time. No, this is about fairness. Bill Maher and Alexandra Pelosi furthered prejudice by what they systematically elected to put on the air, but only people who know better can tell the difference. Now Bill says they’re going to continue this during primary season, going next into the “inner city.” I hope they have the down-low and what-what, or whatever the hell it is they say up in there, aight? (see what I mean?) to warn viewers that the margin of error of this “representative sample” is off the frickin scale.

3/15/12: Stanley Graham (see comment below) was the first one to confirm to me that as the Alabama and Mississippi returns were coming in Tuesday night, Bill Maher tweeted: Toothless Tuesday too tight to tally! We’re gathered around the magic picture box with a bowl of grits watching the returns come in! Two WordPress blogs (not the bloggers directly below) had linked to me overnight, but at that moment, those links were all I knew. In case you’re wondering, I think Maher’s tweet is even more reprehensible than the Pelosi piece, since it was done, as they say, with malice aforethought. Bigotry isn’t the sole province of the right.


4 Responses to Maher Messes With Mississippi

  1. Linda Mann says:

    I love Bill too. Jack and I watch him every week. Friday’s show really freaked me because 1.) I’m in tourism and we constantly have to fight the battle against others’ assumed stereotypes of Mississippi rednecks with no shoes or front teeth, and 2.) Hey, I live here too, and I’m a real, left-liberal, tree-hugging, bleeding-heart, yellow-dog Democrat! I grew up here and have seen a lot of change in my 65 years. Here’s the deal; I’ve traveled enough to know that people like those Senatobians live EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD – even just around the corner from Bill’s house. Mississippi (or Alabama, when we’re lucky) serves as scapegoat for all the country’s bigotry and backwardness, and I am so very weary of it. So Bill, you’ve martyred us again! Not a very progressive thing to do. The panelists that night were kinder and more focused on our country’s education problems in regard to the Mississippi story. This time Bill is the hypocrite.

  2. Photograham says:

    Thank you Tom. You expressed what I’ve thought many times in the years since I did not return to Mississippi after tour in Air Force (1972). I have helped friends in Oregon (the state with the fewest blacks in the nation) UNDERSTAND that the term “redneck” is as racist as the “N” word. I grow weary of folks using Mississippi to highlight examples of racism. Your essay helps.


  3. Stanley Graham says:

    I fear that Bill can be just as much of an “entertainer” as Rush at times and that is when his program goes off the tracks for me. I am a 64 year old, white, born and bred liberal Democrat who grew up in and continues to live in Jackson, Mississippi.
    Change is slow and gains are hard to make in many ways, but they are constant and we have come a long way, but you wouldn’t know it if your only source of information is the near constant condemnation from across the nation.
    When Mississippi does something progressive, as in voting down a Personhood Amendment” to our Constitution by a 60/40 margin “even” Rachael Maddow (my fave) repeatedly referred it saying, “Even Mississippi” voted against it!”- getting in a dig even for a positive, progressive outcome.
    Back in the Sixties the incomparable Boston Celtic star Bill Russell came to Jackson and said some things which I believe are still relevant. He spoke of the overt tension between the races in the South and said he felt it held more possibilities for improvement than the kind of racism he faced back home in Boston. He said he was fully accepted when he was on the court playing basketball, but when he bought a home in “a white neighborhood” he ceased to exist for them.
    Russell said the language of the dialog in the South was filled with invective, but it was a dialog; we were talking while black and white people in the North were not. He felt it would be easier and quicker for those already engaged in a dialog to make changes than it would be for those where one of the parties involved was ignoring the others existence.
    Maybe I remember what Bill Russell said because I want it to be true…
    Mississippi is both the Blackest and the most conservative state. I live in Jackson, the capitol city of Mississippi; our mayor, five of seven councilmen, the police chief, and the chief of the fire department are all African-Americans. What is it like where you live?

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