Holy Spittle and Miseducated Media: On ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’, 25 September 2015

The September 25 episode explores the media's fetishization of Pope Francis' visit, and the tyranny of the "expertise on nothing" ethos afflicting both politics and journalism.

In the September 25 edition of Real Time, Bill Maher expressed considerable surprise at the rampant, sycophantic coverage afforded Pope Francis during his brief sojourn in the U.S. I confess I was more incredulous than merely surprised. I understand the toadying public interest, of course, particularly given Francis’ overtones of liberation theology, but I, something of naïf when it comes to devotional madness, was still taken aback. Twenty-four-hour coverage of the pope’s every ambulation? Play-by-play analysis of each hand gesture? Why, Pennsylvanian Congressman Bob Brady was so overtaken with fervor that he absconded with Francis’s drinking glass and anointed his office staff with whatever papal residue clung to the bottom. In John 9:6, Jesus famously heals a congenitally blind man with a mix of clay and holy sputum. Now sacred spittle, presumably in short supply, must be surreptitiously thieved — and the eyes of the afflicted only shut together.

There is plenty of Pavlovian saliva to go around. The allegedly liberal (but in fact distressingly moderate) media have salivated considerably over the papal visit. MSNBC, home of mild secular humanism, lauded Francis’ every gesture and celebrated the democratic masses’ abasement before a Vatican dictator. Imagine if Americans scraped and begged before Angela Merkel, and the mass media forgave the apparent treason by pointing out that Merkel acknowledged climate change and favored clean air?

Oh, but the pope isn’t “political”, say apologists, as if Catholicism never attempted to control the behavior, desires, and goals of the polis — and in fact did so with far greater efficacy than any fly-by-night junta. For that matter, Jesus, who had far more to say about the inheritance of the meek than about supply-side economics, capital gains, or humanizing multinational corporations, is mainly a metaphysical vessel through which Christians can feign transubstantiation. The content of Jesus’ words was relative, you see, especially since they privileged the poor (but don’t misunderstand — only the words of Jesus, the ostensible foundation of the religion, are relativistic, and nothing else). Jesus’ words, in fact, are terribly dangerous, and should we take them as anything more than empty allegory, we’d instantly becoming rifle-toting Sandinistas or, at best, a revolutionary ascetic like that socialist bitch, Mother Theresa.

But what can apolitical zealots do when the Pope apparently politicizes his speech, emphasizing the preferential option for the poor and adopting tenets of liberation theology, not as Marxist rhetoric per se, but as the logical outcome of the Sermon on the Mount? What happens, as Maher says, when “the pope comes to town and shits on everything [John Boehner] stands for?” Francis, of course, does not hold a doctorate from the London School of Economics, so his opinion on economic matters is merely that, an uninformed opinion. Likewise, the pope isn’t a scientist, as enervated presidential candidate Jeb Bush claimed, so his views on climate change are likewise irrelevant.

Oh, wait, Francis is a scientist. As Maher’s guest Ron Reagan noted, Pope Francis studied chemical engineering before commencing his Jesuit studies. With his MS in Chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires, Francis is actually better equipped to speak on the deleterious effects of methane than on any aspect of sexual morality, as I assume he hasn’t read vastly on the diverse history of human sexuality and derives his sexual mores from a single, monothematic, antiscientific book.

Republicans’ recent talking point — that one shouldn’t speak of science unless one is a scientist — turns out to be a terrible defense of conservative ignorance, not least because it invites climate skeptics and disbelievers to avail themselves actively to scientific proofs, not ill-informed conspiracies. The argument also raises questions about the validity of any speakers, rhetoricians, politicians, or plain hucksters who veer from their fields of expertise. Perhaps Republicans who aren’t doctors, chemists, or biologists should stop talking about the alleged dangers of cannabis. Perhaps prejudiced political candidates who don’t have an eighth grade education in civics — enough to know that Article 6 of the Constitution prohibits a “religious test” for public office — shouldn’t vie for civic jobs. Maher’s guest S.E. Cupp joked that “If Ben Carson can talk about politics, then the pope can talk about climate and science.” Yet it isn’t clear that Carson — a brain surgeon who somehow places dimwitted creationism above his own scientific training — should be speaking about politics at all. Given his denial of evolution, I wouldn’t necessarily trust his views on vaccination, either.

Somehow, only in politics — and in journalism — does legitimacy ostracize specialization. If your pet cat breaks its leg, you would go to a veterinarian, not a steelworker or pickle-briner. If you are a politician, however, you can speak about any topic with near-impunity, as long as you couch your rhetoric in ideological platitudes or political correctness.

Occasionally, liberal voices in the media do raise the paired issues of specialization and legitimacy whenever they shine light on the Congressional House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which requires of its members no background in science and which in the past has welcomed vaccination skeptic Michelle Bachmann, Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, and arch-creationist Poul Brown, best known for claiming that evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell.” What views, I wonder, must one hold to become excluded or disqualified from the Science Committee? Satanism? Voodooism? Or, with terrible irony, atheism?

One might hope that the Bachmanns and the Akins are exceptions, and that the House Science Committee has been otherwise composed of legitimate, well-trained voices. Curious, I decided to find out what, exactly, our present House Science Committee members had studied, spending a rather tedious hour ascertaining their academic backgrounds and degrees held. Where possible, I retrieved this information from Congresspersons’ own official websites; I’ve indicated only the last degree earned, unless undergraduate degrees were earned in a scientific discipline. Of the 39 current House Committee members, exactly one-third were educated as lawyers (J.D.’s). Of the 11 who have science-related degrees, only seven hold an advanced degree, including a dentist, a veterinarian, and two foresters. The full list of members’ degrees is as follows, divided by party affiliation (as is the House Committee’s own website):


Lamar Smith, Texas (Chairman): J.D., Southern Methodist University Law School

Frank Lucas, Oklahoma: B.S., Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University

F. James Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin: J.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dana Rohrabacher, California: B.A., American Studies, University of Southern California

Randy Neugebauer, Texas: B.S., Accounting, Texas Tech

Michael T. McCaul, Texas: J.D., St. Mary’s University

Mo Brooks, Alabama: J.D., University of Alabama

Randy Hultgren, Illinois: J.D., Chicago-Kent College

Bill Posey, Florida: Associates Degree, Brevard Community College

Thomas Massie, Kentucky: M.S., Mechanical Engineering, MIT

Jim Bridenstine, Oklahoma: M.B.A., Cornell

Randy Weber, Texas: B.S., University of Houston, no major indicated

Bill Johnson, Ohio: Master’s degree, Georgia Tech, no discipline indicated

John R. Moolenaar, Michigan: Master’s in Public Administration, Harvard

Steve Knight, California: High school graduate (no college degree indicated)

Brian Babin, Texas: B.S., Biology; D.D.S., University of Texas Dental School

Bruce Westerman, Arkansas: M.S., Forestry, Yale

Barbara Comstock, Virginia: B.A., Political Science, Georgetown University Law Center/Middlebury College

Dan Newhouse, Washington: B.S. Agricultural Economics, Washington State University; graduate of the Washington Agriculture and Forestry Leadership Program

Gary Palmer, Alabama: B.S., Operations Management, University of Alabama; honorary doctorate, the University of Mobile

Barry Loudermilk, Georgia: B.S., Wayland Baptist University, no major specified

Ralph Lee Abraham, Louisiana: Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, LSU School of Veterinary Medicine


Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas: B.S., Nursing, Texas Christian University; Chief Psychiatric Nurse at Dallas V.A. Hospital

Zoe Lofgren, California: J.D., Santa Clara University

Daniel Lipinski, Illinois: M.A., Engineering — Economic Systems, Stanford University; Ph.D. Political Science, Duke University

Donna Edwards, Maryland: J.D., University of New Hampshire

Suzanne Bonamici, Oregon: J.D., University of Oregon

Eric Swalwell, California: J.D., University of Maryland

Alan Grayson, Florida: J.D., Harvard Law School; Masters of Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government

Ami Bera, California: M.D., University of California—Irvine

Elizabeth Esty, Connecticut: J.D., Yale

Marc Veasey, Texas: B.S., Mass Communication, Texas Wesleyan University

Katherine Clark, Massachusetts: J.D., Cornell

Don Beyer, Virginia: B.A., Williams College (no major specified)

Ed Perlmutter, Colorado: J.D., University of Colorado—Boulder

Paul Tonko, New York: B.S., Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, Clarkson University

Mark Takano, California: B.S., Government, Harvard College

Bill Foster, Illinois: Ph.D., Physics, Harvard University

The distressing (if expected) preponderance of lawyers among committee Democrats speaks mainly to the technocracy embedded in governance; I doubt lawyering helps one master the technical ramifications of ozone depletion or groundwater contamination, even if such areas are fertile soil for lawsuits. One wonders if Bill Foster, the only person on the committee with a doctorate in Physics, has any more influence than Bill Posey, who holds only an Associate’s Degree from a community college, or Barry Loudermilk, who holds an undergraduate degree from a Baptist school.

Don’t misconstrue my point: I am loath to fetishize the acronyms that follow a surname, and I cringe at investing mythical meanings into institutionally-derived privilege. After all, MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, and Princeton graduates — who include ingenious developers of chemical weapons and theorists of trickle-down economics — have harmed civilization more than a million uneducated delinquents ever could. Certainly, there are plenty of mediocre Ph.D.’s who slide by with sheer perseverance and threadbare dissertations passed by apathetic committees. Were I a Congressman, however, I’d proudly refuse a post on the Science Committee, declaring myself unqualified and inexpert and chastening egoists who believe the electoral process in itself invests one with unearned insight.

This “expertise on nothing” ethos is mirrored in — and energized by — a similar ethos that undergirds professional journalism. Perversely, we’ve accepted as normative wide-ranging newscasts spearheaded by semi-ignorant generalists whose off-the-cuff remarks are supposed to replace topical expertise. Stories about local crime are not reported by criminologists; the Iraqi war is not covered by political scientists; city planners and architects do not relate stories about transportation; a three-minute news segment about an assembly-line robot is presented so simplistically that an on-camera engineer is hardly warranted. Sometimes, a news show will retain an in-house doctor to present developments in health and medicine, but only in a feel-good or self-help context, bereft of worrisome technicalities. The news team’s only full-time technical specialist is its most worthless member — the meteorologist, who earnestly reports what is beyond our control.

Hiding under journalists’ useless generalism is the faint odor of false democracy: because we are all equal, because degreed expertise cannot substitute for the common man’s earthy wisdom, any person can access, digest, and disseminate knowledge as well as anyone else (as long as one has studied journalism, presumably). Knowledge cannot be a prerequisite for participation, lest we descend into aristocracy. Thus did Bill Maher end his weekly diatribe with a list of ill-educated, sadly propped-up Republican poster children, each signifying the common American’s provincial wisdom, from George Zimmerman’s gallant defense of the Second Amendment to hillbilly Cliven Bundy’s disquisition on racial harmony (“Let me tell you one more thing about the Negroes…”). And let’s not omit John McCain’s one-time poster boy, Joe the Plumber, the patriot who, never having studied economics, dreamed of one day paying lower taxes should he ever become employed.

Despite the proliferation of channels, television journalism become increasingly consolidated and monothematic. MSNBC is just as egregious as Fox in its nightly amalgamations of talking points, as the news topics of one talking head are recapitulated by the next, a coherency (or redundancy) doubtless orchestrated in the corporate heavens and then numbingly distended by endless ads for cars and cell phone service. It was to politicians’ great advantage that TV news, threatened by new media, had to slash its budgets and close down nearly every international bureau in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East: now there could be no foreignness to distract from our insular partisan games.

A despairing coincidence: at the very moment when multicultural liberality establishes itself, when we are poised to cast off provincialism, we are becoming more illiterate, enslaved to the homogenizations of “news” and banal, journalistic tomes that inexplicably claim “beautifully written” on their rears. (I once attempted to read a Bob Woodward book — I stopped after five minutes, realizing his style is limited to stringing together declarative sentences, staccato.) Admittedly, ours may also be the last era in which miseducated rednecks are hoisted up as the bearers of unicultural purity writ as “freedom” — but will posterity be sufficiently literate to appreciate our struggles? Or will our present homogenizations, seasoned only with stale, salty partisanship, be seen as the last golden age of public discourse by a future more homogenized than anything we can now imagine?