Bill Maher frustrates the hell out of me. He’s clearly smart, he’s often funny, and his show allows other smart and/or funny people the opportunity to have lengthy discussions about important things. But he’s also infinitely smug, and Real Time–when it isn’t hosting some of the best political discussions on television–takes far too many detours into lazy, self-satisfied, Jay Leno-style late night pablum. That kind of bad writing reduces the overall quality of the show considerably, but it doesn’t necessarily contradict or weaken the substantive discussion for which I tune in.

This kind of crap does, though: “When it comes to voting,” Maher said on October 1, “you’ve got to grow up and realize that there’s a difference between a disappointing friend and a deadly enemy.” In this analogy, Democrats are the “disappointing friend,” and Republicans are the “deadly enemy.”

Maher’s statement struck me as inflammatory partisan bullshit, probably because it is, in fact, inflammatory partisan bullshit. But to be fair, I heard Bill Maher say that only a few hours after hearing Jon Stewart say that we really, really need be wary of precisely that sort of idiocy.

There’s a difference between disagreeing with people–like newscasters on Fox News that I think are incorrect in their analysis of the day’s events–and people that threaten to kill you for putting a cartoon image of Mohammad in a bear suit. And that’s a line that we too often forget.

Our system genuinely allows for peaceable exchanges of power, Stewart reminds us on NPR’s Fresh Air. Even if [INSERT POLITICIAN YOU REALLY DON’T LIKE] comes to power,

we’ll be fine. You know, we had a Civil War. Just–we’re not that fragile. And I think we always have to remember that people can be opponents, but not enemies. And there are enemies in the world. We just need the news media to help us delineate, and I think that’s where the failing is: That the culture of corruption that exists in the media doesn’t allow us to delineate between enemies and opponents, and that’s where we sort of fall into trouble.

Or to put it as succinctly as possible: Al-Qaeda is my enemy, and Glenn Beck is my opponent, and seriously, there’s a difference.

And it’s a very real difference, and obscuring it is an historically situated political strategy that, according to Rick Perlstein, Richard Nixon helped to pioneer between 1966 and 1972. It is not an inevitable consequence of human nature, or of the political process, but rather a matter of “using the angers, anxieties, and resentments” of the day to unite voters against a common, essentially imagined enemy.

When Republicans suffered humiliating defeats in 1970, Nixon blamed the chicanery of his enemies: America’s enemies, as he had come to think of them. He grew yet more determined to destroy them, because of what he was convinced was their determination to destroy him.

Millions of Americans recognized the balance of forces in the exact same way–that America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which.

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland (Scribner, 2009): xii.

The imagined conflict between the forces of light and those of darkness (with light defined as whatever I think, and darkness defined as whatever I don’t) has come to dominate the American political landscape, to the extreme detriment of the nation’s public discourse. We actually forget that someone who wants to kill us belongs to a different category than someone with whom we disagree about the role of government in regulating commerce.

And I get it: A world composed entirely of absolutes would be much easier to sort out than our own messy, complicated one. But we have a responsibility to live in the real world, because we’re adults, and growing up isn’t about realizing “that there’s a difference between a disappointing friend and a deadly enemy,” as Bill Maher said the other night. Growing up is about realizing that the person with whom you disagree is not necessarily an enemy, let alone a deadly one.

There really are deadly enemies in the world, and we’ll be in no position to confront them if we waste all of our time and energy squabbling with one another along cynically delineated partisan lines.

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