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February 10, 2003


Home, Home on the Home Front

A book review

When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden
By Bill Maher.
132 pages, illustrated, $27.95.

Reviewed by Howard Williams (howardx@pacbell.net)

"When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden" is the new book by comedian and commentator Bill Maher, former host of ABC TV's "Politically Incorrect" and future host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher."

The book is thought provoking and often funny, though a little uneven. Maher's blunt with his opinions and everybody (including me) will get offended at some part of the book. In other words the book is just like its author.

Fans of his TV shows will notice that the book's words almost sound like Bill's talking to them. And his bluntness is mellowed by humor and sincerity.

The book is 132 pages, of which 81 are text. Most of the rest are illustrations that Maher hopes the U.S. Government will make into posters for the Home Front in the war against terrorism. My guess is that the government will open a secret file on him — if they haven't already.

Maher doesn't seem to expect that the government will actually get serious about civilian help in the war against Al Qaeda, but he certainly wants all Americans to realize that there is a Home Front. And it doesn't involve sucker punching the corner grocer just because he's from a country most of us can't find on a map.

The book explores the responsibilities of American civilians in the war against terrorism. The title refers to an illustration based on the World War II era poster, "When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler." During that war conserving gas meant there was more for the war effort against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Wasting gas denied it to American troops under fire from the enemy. As Maher points out, now when you waste gas you're financing Bin Laden.

Incidentally, readers of the SF Call's January 7, 2002 issue may remember that this writer's article, "Driving Bin Laden to the Bank," came up with the slogan "Bin Laden rides with you" several months before Maher's book came out. Just another example of the cutting-edge Call being out there ahead of everybody else.

Now, before I start picking apart "When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden," let's get one thing understood: This is an important book. Every American who still thinks it's OK to drive two blocks for a six pack needs to read this book. This even includes the people who are getting that six pack for me! And those of us who don't waste gasoline or other natural resources — except hops and barley malt — should read this book so that we can educate others.

Some people still don't think there's such a thing as a Home Front in the war against Al Qaeda. Look at it this way: Next time some upper-middle-class Saudi with a self-esteem problem steers a 747 into a building, it just might be the one that you’re inside.

Bill Maher's book brings up many issues that need to be addressed. His analysis doesn't always score and sometimes he's just plain wrong, but he deserves mega props for putting them out there. Especially since few others are.

Since 9/11 the Right has all but declared just about everything beyond questioning. Indeed, it was in response to Maher's suggestion that suicide bombers might have some guts that Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer warned that Americans should watch what "they" say. (Notice that the Fleischer referred to Americans as "they," not "we" — but that's a topic for another article.) And since 9/11 the Left has for the most part failed to raise the issues that Maher addresses.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 demand a serious and concrete review of our way of life, not just outdated rants. It has actually been Centrists like Bill Maher and Arianna Huffington who have asked in practical terms if our way of life just might be too extravagant — and ultimately dangerous.

Maher points out that corporations continue to seek offshore tax havens even while we're at war with terrorists. Has anybody on the Left noted that context?

When Maher says "We are bogarting the earth" (referring to Americans' consumption of 30% of the planet's resources), he means we — as in all of us in the USA. The Left seems to imply that only wealthy Americans do that. The Right seems to think that 30% isn't enough.

As I stated, not all of the book is on target. Maher repeats the common error that U.S. armed forces overthrew the Taliban. That's not exactly true. Our bombing campaign was an indispensable part of the defeat of the Taliban. But after the U.S. air campaign weakened the enemy, it was the Afghans on the ground who routed the Al Qaeda/Taliban forces from their cities and forts. In consideration of the book's calls for Americans to know more about the rest of the world and for moderate Muslims to take action against the likes of Al Qaeda, this error about a poor but important country deserves mention.

Like "Earth in the Balance" — Al Gore's bestseller about the environmental crisis — Maher's book never mentions the word "bicycle." His plan for combating gasoline waste is car pooling. Nothing bad about that, but what about bikes, electric cars, and public transit?

Maher's worst error is a comment that "people are sheep."  This remark is so contrary to the book's theme of citizen responsibility that it almost leaps off the page.

The sometimes glaring errors make the book a bit uneven, but overall, "When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden" scores more hits than misses. The hits — and even a few of the misses — make you laugh, think, or get angry. And with only 81 pages of text you can easily read it in a couple hours and then make it a present for a misguided friend or relative who still drives too much or leaves the TV and lights on after leaving the room.

A slightly different version of this article appears in the latest issue of Cognition, the newsletter of the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association.