Bill Maher is probably the most prominent defender of Rush Limbaugh from the firestorm that's spread since his slander of that college student whose opinion can't be dismissed as partisan. In a pair of -- it's hard to write this -- controversial tweets, Maher has chided liberals for not accepting Limbaugh's apology for his "vile" language, that adjective being Maher's own, and for subjecting the radio talker to a "fatwa." Maher has himself been designated Exhibit A by many who decry the inevitable double-standard in play during these protests. They cite his use of a profane monosyllable starting with the letter c to describe former Governor Palin and the failure of those now condemning Limbaugh to condemn Maher with equal vehemence. As this Washington Times article reminded us, Maher was roughly handled by conservatives back in 2001, while he broadcast for ABC, for daring to deny the premise that the September 11 hijackers were cowards, especially when compared with those who kill by pushing buttons from a distance. He apparently emerged from the ordeal a free-speech absolutist, objectively committed to the defense of provocateurs from across the political spectrum. But if anything, the latest Limbaugh scandal should compel people to reappraise Maher. If it is unacceptable for one to call a woman, and presumably any woman, a slut, what makes it acceptable for Maher to call one what he did? Think what you will of Sarah Palin, what good is done by denouncing her with Maher's language? I suspect that there's a "blacks-can't-be-racist" reasoning at work for some people, according to which Limbaugh, as one of the powerful, has oppressed the poor college student in a way that millionaire Maher could not oppress Palin, a peer in celebrity. Worse, it may be assumed that the downtrodden or their presumed spokespersons should always have more license to denounce the powerful, fewer limits on invective, than the powerful should have to denounce the downtrodden. I like to fancy myself a friend of the downtrodden, but such a rule doesn't seem fair.
On the other hand, is Maher right to equate sponsor boycotts or sponsor withdrawals with fatwas, especially given the inaccurate yet likely equation of fatwas with death sentences? At most, opportunistic Democrats are seeking Limbaugh's professional demise. Maher also calls this "intimidation," which it is in a way, but deploring such intimidation begs the question of whether Maher claims an entitlement for himself or Limbaugh to commercial sponsorship. The reasoning seems to be that if an advertiser sponsors you in order to reach your large audience, he should never pass judgment on the content of your show. Sponsorship should be a purely commercial transaction between the sponsor and the performer's audience, with no implicit endorsement of the performer and no need to repudiate him for anything he says. The sponsor should be guided purely by objective economic motives, but why should the sponsor be different from anyone else? It's every sponsor's prerogative to refuse to subsidize a performer who becomes repugnant, no matter what the cost to his business. By refusing the subsidy of sponsorship he isn't violating any recognized right of the performer to the subsidy. He doesn't owe the performer anything, even if the performer believes reasonably that his livelihood depends on sponsorship. In an ideal world, the sponsor should not be intimidated or coerced into repudiating a performer through boycotts, but that doesn't mean the sponsor himself can't repudiate the performer anytime he pleases. There may be no good reason behind it, but that's free enterprise for you. As far as I can tell, Limbaugh's sponsors are dropping out not due to coercion -- correct me if I'm wrong -- but because of sincere revulsion over his slander of the student. Advertisers may have bailed on Maher's ABC show for similarly sincere reasons. It's natural to see such gestures as "political" and thus somehow unfair or illegitimate, but the Constitution only forbids such "political" measures to suppress speech when the government takes them. I stand by my belief that everyone ought to grow thicker skin and take offense less easily so that we all can say what we mean, but there's no law against what's happening to Limbaugh or what happened to Maher in the past, nor should there be. Maher can think what he likes and think better of himself for doing so, but this is still a free country, and Limbaugh will almost certainly survive anyway.