Visible Language Spoken to Invisible Men: On 'Real Time with Bill Maher' 8/28/2015

Andrew Grossman

The August 28 episode highlights the "rhetorical schizophrenia" that has poisoned political discourse.

Real Time with Bill Maher

Airtime: Fridays, 10pm
Cast: Bill Maher, Rick Santorum, Wendy Davis, Robert Costa, Dana Rohrabacher, Michael Weiss
Subtitle: August 28, 2015
Network: HBO
Air date: 2015-08-28

Once, at a dinner party, Simone de Beauvoir found herself seated next to a Jesuit priest in full regalia. His orthodoxy notwithstanding, the Jesuit had perused The Second Sex with considerable interest, professed an open mind about feminism, and greeted De Beauvoir in the spirit of honest discourse. “I look forward to sharing ideas with you this evening, Mdm. De Beauvoir,” he said. She turned to the Jesuit, scrutinized his vestments, and blankly replied, “What could I possibly have to talk about with you?” She then turned away, justified in the knowledge that, when existential principles confront absolutist dogma, dialectics become useless, and it is preferable to spare both parties the embarrassment of a futile, passive-aggressive exchange.

As much as Plato excoriated sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias — celebrities in the Greek polis who charged high prices for their lessons in tortuous rhetoric — he still held out hope that logos could overthrow preconception, and that dialectical skepticism, ideally executed, could win the day. Of course, dialectics are never ideally executed. Fueled by egoism, narcissism, expediency, and ordinary fear, realpolitik lays bare the human limits of dialectic exchange. Clearly De Beauvoir understood that no degree of logos or enlightening politics could dislodge the Jesuit’s faith; at best, they would default to that terrible corruption of logos and hallmark of liberal democracy, “agreeing to disagree.”

Seeing Rick Santorum put himself through empty rhetorical paces on August 28’s edition of Real Time with Bill Maher reminded me of why De Beauvoir rebuffed that priest. As Santorum, drum-major of the derrière-garde, attempted to joke his way through questions on climate change and sexual morality, he created a humiliating spectacle (granted, seeing Santorum try to charm an audience is humiliating in itself). Throughout the passive-aggressive exchange, Maher seemed rather amazed that he was interviewing the deeply unpopular candidate — many have already forgotten his presidential bid — and even asked Santorum, “If you were not at 1% [in the polls], would you be on this show?” That is embarrassing enough. Santorum’s response was good-natured but utterly clueless, akin to the spirit in which the Jesuit engaged De Beauvoir. “People who watch this show never see people like me,” he said, not realizing that one’s presence is far less important than one’s ideas. Obviously, Santorum had nothing new to say: the only thing arch-conservatives love is repetition.

Santorum is no sophist — he is too ingenuous — but he is a hypocrite, insisting that college degrees signify “snobbery” (in a now-infamous speech) while he holds both an M.B.A. and a J.D. and resides in Great Falls, the most affluent suburb of Northern Virginia. Yet his Christian populism has effectively masked his hypocrisies. Sensibly, Maher asked the ex-senator whether he could draw the line between personal belief and public policy, quoting one of his most unfortunate, theocratic proclamations: “Contraception is a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be…” Santorum, blushing and wary of defending before a liberal audience the statements with which he lubes conservatives, responded by saying, “I was talking about my Catholic faith,” as if to reassure us that his faith is unconnected to any future presidential actions.

But there’s the fudge: if his beliefs will not translate into potential legislation, and if, as Santorum himself said, immoral acts shouldn’t necessarily be illegalized, then why should his faith matter at all? If his faith is legislatively untranslatable, what political good does it do? Are conservatives to vote for him on the basis of his admirable but professedly ineffectual moralism? Is he, in fact, so ethically strong that he can resist the temptation to defile the wall between church and state, much as he resists ungodly temptations of the flesh?

Santorum is lying, of course: if elected, he’d do everything within his power to translate his faith into action. One almost longs for the forthright, frothing era of Reaganite crusaders: at least the profane Jerry Falwell, always dripping with hog-sweat and obviously titillated by his own homophobia, made no hypocritical attempt to pose as a likeable everyman. Now, I almost appreciate Falwell’s bigotry; to paraphrase Nietzsche, today hypocrites are not even honest in their own hypocrisy. Nevertheless, Santorum, like Falwell and all Victorians, obsesses about sex to the degree that he obsesses with sexual repression, including (presumably) his own. When he speaks about the worldly terrors of contraception, anality, promiscuity, and so forth, we can only picture him spanning his conjugal bed, dreading the taboos lurking beyond its cushioned borders, attempting to peer over the fence of his Protestant repressions.

Pretending to advocate liberty but then situating that liberty within Christianity’s overall fatalism and apocalypse, conservative Republicans make indistinguishable their sexual repression and their phallic aggression (the latter dressed up as “freedom”). One wishes that fundamentalists were more complex animals, more deserving of the nuanced analysis and the empathy they so fervently lack. But their complement of public erotophobia and private repression too conveniently fits Freudian molds. When homophobic Alabama pastor Gary Aldridge auto-erotically asphyxiated himself and was discovered lifeless, sporting head-to-toe leather and rectal toys, a gloating September 27th, 2009 headline in The Constantine Report read, “What is a Right-Wing Evangelical Christian Pastor without a Rubber Suit and Dildo?” I do not want to gloat or engage in such childish games — but how can we not gloat when hypocrisies are so un-closeted, waved before us like flags on a battlefield?

When Maher’s questions turned to climate change, dialectical embarrassment became asinine deadlock. As soon as Santorum denied that 97% of climatologists agree on the man-made basis of climate change, conversation plunged into mere gainsaying. “It’s a bogus number!” cried Santorum. “No, it isn’t!” said Maher. In the absence of a resident fact-checker or climatologist, Maher suddenly acknowledged the comic infantilism of the proceedings, imitating the antics of a small, flailing child who taunts and contradicts his playmate. As in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano or any Marx Brothers movie, language becomes a fool’s pursuit, the non-sequitur becomes normative, and the Socratic process is disclosed as a utopian fantasy. When communication fractures, we’re left with degrees of comedy, and here Maher wound up playing Groucho to Santorum’s uptight Margaret Dumont.

I say none of this out of partisan spite, for partisanship is our inherent problem. More embarrassing than Santorum’s failed display of charm — we know he’s ideologically implacable from the get-go — are Democrats’ corruptions of language, for they are allegedly the party of reason. In a moderately publicized appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews, Democratic National Committee Chair (and occasional Maher guest) Debbie Wasserman Schultz did everything to avoid a rather straightforward question from the host: “What is the difference between Democrats and Socialists?” A marginally above-average high schooler should be able to muster some response. But Wasserman Schultz was nonplussed, repeatedly saying, “What I really want to talk about is the difference between Democrats and Republicans!” before trailing off into propagandistic talking points.

She could at least have said that Democrats are essentially capitalistic despite their belief in governmental hegemony, or remind audiences that every world economy (exempting North Korea) is to some degree a mixed economy, or argue that “pure” capitalism has never existed outside of pre-civilized barter systems and anarchic agoras. But she, a hack untutored in history, could only clumsily try to spin the question, while Matthews, to his credit, continued to press her. The amateurishness and artlessness of her rhetoric were humiliating and infuriating in equal measure. Were this any other profession, she’d be fired on the spot. Luckily for her, the concision of television appearances allows us to see only the protruding tip of a witlessness presumably fathoms deep.

The American psychologist Rollo May once described a press conference between a skeptical journalist and an American general busily making apologias for U.S. involvement in Vietnam around the time of the Tet Offensive. The journalist badgered the general, trying every rhetorical tactic to get him to admit American wrongdoing, incompetence, and moral failure. But the general — even in 1968, before political spin became standardized — was intractable, albeit in a fumbling, unconvincing way. Ignoring the specificities of the journalist’s questions, the general responded with sunny platitudes, insisting that “We are making progress,” “Fighting for the good of democracy,” and so forth. We’ve seen how incongruities between questions and answers become the stuff of low comedy, but May emphasizes that this disconnect predictably occurs in only one other area of human conduct: schizophrenia. Instead of responding to a question, the schizophrenic, broken off from reality, will delight in his own private language, oblivious to the logic of his fellow speakers. American political discourse could thus be called a kind of “rhetorical schizophrenia,” as the practice of spin mimics the language habits of psychotics ungrounded in reality.

Switching to its panel format, Real Time gravitated toward gun control and America’s latest fatal shooting, the on-camera murder of a Virginia news anchor and cameraman. The conservation went nowhere — or only to the usual, intertwined issues of mental health, failing healthcare, and an excess of available guns — because participants in gun debates always fall silent when constitutionality is raised. Yes, we are all inheritors of the horribly written, over-interpreted Second Amendment, but why do conservatives find guns so much more attractive than everyone else?

There is the blatant Freudian explanation, and the love of heroic firearms is consistent with the sentimentality at conservatism’s core. But I believe the real answer lies in materialism. The Founding Fathers were idealists, but they, too, needed to pin their idealism on something material, metallic, and lethal. Putting aside the imperiled physical home implied in the Third Amendment and the excessive bails and fines prohibited in the Eighth, only the Second directly names a physical object that is immediately comprehensible and that requires no strained reifications. (Some time ago, I wrote an essay, “Pseudo-Innocence and Encased Fantasies: Inside the Unconscious of the National Rifle Association” that expounded on this idea; ) It is thus no accident that sentimentalists and nostalgists should fixate on the Second Amendment above all the others, for it supplies a potent material totem around which intangible ideals can constellate. The cult of the gun is consistent, too, with conservative sexuality: just as religious fundamentalists need the gun’s materiality to destroy an unfit material world, they need the sinful flesh to make a heroic show of resisting fleshly temptations.

In any event, whenever shootings occur, conservatives pretend that their willful blindness to mass murder is the utmost form of patriotism. Against all logic, this has proven an effective strategy. But for them blindness is a luxury rather than a disease, while the logic of causality is just another left-wing conspiracy. Conservatives’ response to the unchecked shootings of African-American civilians reveals their blindness in another guise. Asked about the epidemic of racialized killings in the glum Republican presidential debate of August 6, Ben Carson toed the conservative line with the usual prescriptions: “We need to get past this", “Let’s move on", and so forth. On the issue of race — but never religion — historical forgetfulness becomes a virtue and holistic denial a philosophy. The conservative solution is intentional invisibility: without skin or pigmentation, we all become transparent and interchangeable. We should pretend that the hero of Ellison’s Invisible Man bears no bloody scars from the battle royale of his adolescence. At the same time, the rhetoric of denial is so embarrassingly false that its lies become nearly visible. This visibility is apparent in every awkward exchange, every avoidance of the matter at hand, every forced laugh, and every limp talk show appearance. The dialectic has been turned inside out — it is language that is now visible, and we who are absent.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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