Let there be Maher

Kira Walker/Staff

I understand there are a growing number of UC Berkeley students who want to ban Bill Maher from speaking on campus. Bravo, I thought. He’s never been that funny, in any of his incarnations. When I was a student at UC Berkeley — in the 1980s — we had a handful of people funnier than Maher on our floor alone at the Clark Kerr Campus residence hall. We shouldn’t need to import him today.

But then I learned the reason for the protested appearance in the midyear commencement arose from some insulting remarks made by Maher in recent shows and interviews, as well as a generally disrespectful attitude toward Islam.

But unfortunately, he’s already been invited, and revoking it now would only help Maher and hurt the campus.

It would, of course, only help Maher by bringing him greater national attention of the 10-second sound bite variety, thereby increasing his ratings, income and audience for his thoughts. I’ll bet his agent, publicist and accountant are delighted and hoping the protests will only grow louder and receive greater TMZ coverage. His writer is probably drafting something more inflammatory right now.

But revoking the invitation would hurt the university. Perhaps some might feel safer and more respected on campus if his remarks were not spit out from behind a rostrum bearing the great seal of the University of California. And it has become commonplace for colleges and universities to protect their students and faculty from speech — and by definition people — they find objectionable. Scripps, Brandeis, Smith, Rutgers and Haverford are only the most recent schools to do so, the latter even pushing out former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau.

But let’s face it, those schools — prestigious though they may be — now look kind precious don’t they? They are smaller places that, I’m sorry to say, now seem small minded as well. Is Haverford really afraid that our former chancellor is going to be damaging to them? Are we honestly afraid of a comic — hopefully — nearing retirement as well as irrelevancy?

UC Berkeley is proud of its radical past, and the truly radical thing to do here is to reject the easy way out of controversy and welcome Maher to Berkeley. Not with loud protests, but with the potent forces of reason and respect, through symposia, debates and, after he has had his say, spirited rallies. Let him talk, listen politely, and watch him sweat.

It seems nearly everybody in the United States believes our society needs more listening and respect for the opinions of others, not less. The Academy is almost 2,500 years old and the University of California almost 150 years old. UC Berkeley is the biggest, most vibrant modern university with a history of strength that can lead the Academy and the nation toward knowledge and understanding and toward public solutions to our common problems.

But if we revoke Maher’s invitation now, we only look worried and afraid that we aren’t up to his challenge — never mind the truly knotty issues that demand our attention. Do we want to look like Brandeis? Which I’m certain is a nice place …

Sure, Maher’s statements shouldn’t have to be heard and refuted at UC Berkeley. He might be insulting. But he’s already been invited, and the seal of our university proclaims, “Let there be light.” We know it is only by welcoming ideas, good and bad, that we can examine them openly in the light of day for what they are, for all to see. That is the best education we can receive and provide on a campus in an electronic age that has no boundaries.

Who knows? Maher just might learn something.

Pete Kutzer is a UC Berkeley alumnus from the class of 1988.

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