What should have been a funny interview with a popular Republican senator about young people not growing up turned unfunny when a liberal comedian used the N word to make fun of slavery.
Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse took to Bill Maher’s show to discuss his book “The Vanishing American Adult,” which argues traditional adulthood is dead. We learn that young “adults” today eat cereal for dinner, wear shorts everywhere, and consider comic books real literature.
The contentious comments came when Sasse unwittingly set up Maher by inviting him to work in Nebraska:
Mr. Maher: “I gotta get to Nebraska more.”
Mr. Sasse: “You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”
Mr. Maher: "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house [N-word]."
Sasse smiled uncomfortably, and some groans were audible from the audience.
Mr. Maher: "It's a joke."
Claps could then be heard from the audience.
Some were quick to challenge Sasse for not responding in the moment, but that overshadows who made the joke to begin with.
Maher made a few mistakes here. First, he compared being invited to work in the fields, which Nebraska is known for, as slave work. Second, he suggested that if he were a slave he would not be one working in the fields but one who worked in the master’s house. That exploits the well-known hierarchy among slaves and the resentment between them. Field slaves endured more arduous, intensive, and brutal work while house slaves did domestic work, which while arduous, was away from the bleating sun and beatings of the overseers. To be clear, slaves were slaves and none were free. Third, he chose a racial slur (the N word) to describe slaves. If there’s one word that’s off limits – and should not be used by anyone, it’s the word Maher chose in his joke.
Both Maher and Sasse responded by the next day as NPR reports:
"Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I'm up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn't have said on my live show," Maher said in a statement. "Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive, and I regret saying it and am very sorry."
In a series of tweets Saturday morning, Sasse wrote: "I'm a 1st Amendment absolutist. Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines. But free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word. Me just cringing last night wasn't good enough. Here's what I wish I'd been quick enough to say in the moment: 'Hold up, why would you think it's OK to use that word? … The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It's therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don't use it.'”
It wasn’t enough though. Twitter lit up with calls for Maher to be kicked off air #FireBillMaher. The civil rights crusader Reverend Al Sharpton didn’t waste this opportunity to stay relevant or extract some good will from HBO calling for a meeting with them “ASAP about normalizing the use of the N word.”
Using racial slurs is abhorrent and unacceptable. There are no excuses or times when using derogatory language is acceptable, no matter who it's coming from. Comedians often push the envelope and have to take the backlash they get for it. Maher is no different.
However, all of the anger directed toward Maher should be equally unacceptable when such terms are used against black conservatives. We draw as much ire because we don’t view the world through the same lens that they do. From slavery references to the N word, congressmen such as Tim Scott and Mia Love, tv and radio personalities, and economists who are black and conservatve suffer the same verbal abuse and nothing is made of it.
Wrong should be wrong, no matter who it comes from and to whom it's directed.