The Cowardice Of Political Comedy And The Mendacity Of A Political Comedian

I suppose people will say I am harping on this. And I hope they do.

Time Magazine – a publication that Glenn Greenwald recently referred to as a ‘…click-hungry gossip website’ gleefully highlighted how the comedian John Oliver told Edward Snowden that nobody knows who he is or even cares.

This segment – discussing one of the most egregious violations of American constitutional protections and the continued blasé manner in which these protections have been summarily dismissed since 9/11, to say nothing about the flood of lies by our political leaders, including Obama, our military and our intelligence administrators about these programs, is a classic example of how comedy and jokes denude the issue of meaning, gravity and concern.

I will also point out that John Oliver repeatedly mis-states the issue. And offers us comedic excuses for our continued apathy.

He claims that it is an issue too difficult to get our head around. That is not true. The issue is actually quite simple and many journalists, academics and pundits have explained why it is illegal.

He, parroting mainstream media that has done this, mocks and dismisses Julian Assange as ‘unlikable’ and just a comic character. In two sentences he condemns a man who in fact began this work, and was the one who took some of the greatest risks even before Snowden got the idea. He mocks a man who has been hounded and has had his life ruined by the US government, and its collaborating governments in Europe, and who even now is barely holding on, all for the ‘crime’ of having revealed an avalanche of illegal acts and activities of our government. Oliver’s insidious mockery sets the stage for us to not take any of this seriously because the people involved are ‘unlikable’. The audience laughs. Assange is dismissed.

Not the least when he suggests that ‘There are no easy answers here. We all, naturally, want perfect privacy and perfect safety’. This is a ridiculous explanation of this issue, and has never ever been the argument. This is an absolutely incorrect explanation of the issue at hand and reveals that Oliver has no idea what it is that he is reporting on.

The issue has been about constitutional protections and due process. It has been about the need to maintain a tight judicial over sight over the behaviours and actions of our police and intelligence agencies, and to ensure that they operate within the rule of law, with the clear understanding that individuals are innocent unless proven guilty, and that any invasive investigation and surveillance – made necessary because of security or criminal concerns, has to be reviewed and approved by a court of law. These protections are in the interest of citizens, and in particular, in the interests of those who are involved in the fundamental acts of democracy: dissent, criticism, resistance, and activism.

The state police and intelligence services have always had room to carry out investigations where evidence and real facts were present to do so. Instead, post 9/11, what has been granted – and what Assange and Snowden have revealed, is a sweeping surveillance and snooping on all Americans without reason, without facts, and without any relation to crime.

Furthermore, we know that these all-inclusive surveillance programs have repeatedly been used for non-criminal collections as well, including snooping on other world leaders, economic negotiations, environmental activist infiltration and much more that has little or nothing to do with any criminal act. We know that the intelligence services have repeatedly used their powers to violate the very protections our constitution promises.

As Oliver makes us laugh – and notice that each time Oliver says something serious, his immediate follow-up us with a comedic and ridiculous analogy which powerfully reduces our ability to comprehend the gravity of the serious information he has given us, and instead compels us to concentrate on the jokes, laugh and relates the concern.

Under the guise of holding a serious debate, but cleansed and disarmed by jokes that immediately follow any time anything serious is said, Oliver becomes responsible for disarming us entirely. He does this throughout the entire episode. If you watch, you can’t help but notice how this works. It is as if he cannot allow the serious statement to stand, or believes that we as audiences are there to listen to the serious issues. That instead, what we are there for, is entertainment.

And in the end, this is what we get. Entertainment. Oliver is taking on serious issues, but then intentionally under-cutting them with jokes that reduces their meaning, and erases their impact on us. We laugh, and during that laughter, we release our sense of responsibility and engagement.

Oliver hypocritically says that we have to have this conversation, but he repeatedly blocks his own arguments with trite and silly jokes. He undermines his own public position. Note also how he refers to Snowden as ‘The most famous American hero and /or traitor in American history!” when Snowden walks in. So what is this episode about if Oliver constantly ‘balances’ it all out and refuses to take any sort of stand on it?

By the way, Oliver’s entire interview of Snowden is ridiculous. It could just as well have been carried out by a Fox News hack because its entire position is hostile, and of someone who assumes and believes that mass surveillance is necessary and important. His entire line of questioning is about holding Snowden to account, but yet again, as so many pundits have done, to not hold the government whose illegal activities and practices Snowden revealed. Not once does Oliver argue that the reason all this is even being discussed is because we have been made aware of the unconstitutional nature of the programs, and the overt and explicit targeting of innocent people. It is against the law. And our intelligence and political leaders have lied about it. Instead, once again, you see a media spokesperson masquerading as a ‘liberal voice’ while remaining silent on the governments illegal actions and practices. There was nothing original, and nothing important in the entire interview. Oliver arrives as an American flag waving patriot, never discusses the scope and scale of the illegality of the State’s actions. And then gleefully shows to Snowden that no one in American knows you, or cares about you. Boo Yah!!!

This was truly a low point. John Oliver truly hit a sickening low – watching the final sequence of this video, with Oliver laughing at Snowden and saying ‘Hey, no one knows who the fuck you are, so you can just go home!’. Instead of arguing that the American apathy and ignorance is the issue, he instead sits there and mocks this young man who placed his life at risk and who acted with courage. Oliver cuts Snowden whenever he tries to speak seriously about the issue. He takes tangents and dismisses his arguments. He insists that America needs a serious conversation, but never allows Snowden to have it. It is truly a low in American television to look at the face of Snowden as Oliver plays for him his interviews about the ‘dick-pic’ program as the only substantial response to Snowden’s sacrifices. The last substantial minutes of his interview with Snowden is based around ‘dick-pics’ and Oliver’s insistence that Snowden explain surveillance as it relates to the NSA’s ability to see his penis.

Snowden’s humiliation is complete. A truly shameful moment in American television history.

This video reveals the cowardice of political comedy, and how in the end, what they are looking for are jokes. They use serious political issues for laughs, but I would argue, they denude them of seriousness and meaning. Snowden’s acts were reduced to a cheap joke, and Oliver did precisely what he claimed we as Americans did not need to do: ignore the seriousness of this issue. He not only ignored it while sitting with a man who changed the way we see our government and our place as citizens, he actively throws shit all over it ensuring that Snowden came across as a naive idiot, and that the concern over mass surveillance is really no more serious than our concern over seeing dirty pictures of ourselves. How was this the serious conversation Oliver claims he wants us to have?

The segment undermines so much that people have been fighting for. With the renewal of the Patriot Act – that egregiously criminal legislation unthinkingly passed within days of 9/11, and because of which so many, including Afghanis, Pakistanis and Americans, have suffered grave injustices if not death and displacement, up for renewal on June 1st, 2015, what we needed was not another corporate media hack reducing this issue to jokes, and demeaning the people who have risked their lives to reveal its importance and gravity.

Oliver is making us laugh. But we have to realise that we are laughing at our own risk, and at the risk of the future of our political meaningfulness and relevance.

(Aside: There is a hilariously stupid moment in the video where Oliver is seen sitting in a hotel room in Moscow, clowning around and suggesting that the reason Snowden is late is because their hotel room is directly across the former KGB headquarters building and russian intelligence knows that they – oliver and his team – are there in the hotel. this is actually also a terribly insidious argument given that Snowden is living in Russia because he is escaping the clutches of American intelligence because he fears he will not get a fair trail or be allowed to speak in America. For all his comedy brilliance, Oliver fails to notice this hypocrisy as he quickly sinks into an anachronistic anti-Soviet joke that actually is the opposite the very situation he is standing in – a free man who travelled freely to Russia to do an interview with a targeted and marked American citizen who believes – rightly I would argue – that American is no longer a place that will protect his rights and give him due process! The audience laughs…they say the signs to laugh, and of course, probably missed the irony entirely! His jokes about Russian surveillance being un-ironically being made while trying to speak about mass American intelligence surveillance that outshines anything the Russians / Soviets may have ever had! Of course, Oliver The Clown misses this entirely, behaving as he in this interview as a patriotic flag-waving representative of the American people!)

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From “Headmen” To “Hitmen”–A People Brutalised Yet Again

Another photographer turns up at another manufactured ‘traditional’ geography, and produces another set of racist, reductive and entirely fake set of images. I don’t mean ‘fake’ in the way that most photographer’s get all concerned about. I mean ‘fake’ in a much more serious way, one that reduces people to social, political and historical caricatures and makes them into concocted objects for class titillation and voyeurism. And this American magazine–mired deep in the heart of American imperialism, its violence and its brutality–publishes the images and accompanies them with what can only be described as one of the most incredibly ahistorical, obfuscatory and infantile articles I have read outside of stuff frequently published by Time Magazine and/or The New York Times.

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Thomas Sankara’s Restless Children

The project is now complete. Although, we may never really complete the telling of this remarkable story. You can see the project by clicking on this link here, or on the image below.

Eyes Of Aliyah–Deport, Deprive, Extradite Initiative By Nisha Kapoor

I have publicly and on this forum very explicitly argued against the strange ‘disappearance’ of black/brown bodies that are the actual targets and victims of our ‘liberal’ state policies of surveillance, entrapment, drone assassinations, renditions and indefinite detention. I recently argued:

“Western visual journalism, and visual artists, have erased the actual victims of the criminal policies of the imperial state. Instead, most all have chosen to produce a large array of projects examining drone attacks, surveillance, detentions and other practices, through the use of digital abstractions, analogous environments, still life work or just simply the fascinating and enticing safety of datagrams and charts. Even a quick look at recent exhibitions focusing on the ‘war on terror’ or wars in general, have invited works that use digital representations of war, or focus on the technologies of war. An extreme case of this deflection are recent projects on drone warfare that not only avoid the actual brown/black bodies that are the targets of deadly drone attacks, but are not even produced anywhere near the geographies and social ecologies where drone attacks continue to happen! Yet, these works have found tremendous popularity, though i remain confused what kinds of conversations or debates they provoke given that the voices of the families of those who have been killed, are not only entirely missing, but people who can raised the difficult questions about the lies and propaganda that are used to justify the killings, are also entirely missing.”

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Public Release of “The Sinner”

This is my first feature length documentary film and we–Justice Project Pakistan, with the guiding support of Sarah BelalRimmel Mohydin and others at Justice Project Pakistan, are finally releasing it.

And we are doing it first in Pakistan.

The film takes us into the world of capital punishment in Pakistan through the life of one man; Jan Masi. Jan Masi worked as an execution for nearly 30 years, and claims to have executed over 1800 people. He started his work in the enthusiastic pursuit of revenge for the execution of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

This isn’t a typical documentary film. No talking heads. No linear story-telling. No polemics or moral grand standing. No righteous exclamations against capital punishment. Instead, Jan Masi, his life, his scars, his fears and despair, act as metaphors for the meaning of capital punishment in Pakistan, and the consequences it has on the broader Pakistani society.

Sudhir Patwardhan

Sudhir Patwardhan.

Can you discover ‘an influence’ after the fact?

What do you call someone who seems to embody your eye, your sensibility, and yet you had never seen his / her work, and yet, when you now see it, you see the ‘influence’…the similarities?

Is he confronting the same questions? Is he seeing this incredibly complex and multi-layered world with the same desire to depict it as close to that complexity as possible?

I was taken aback. The aesthetic pursuit is so familiar. It is as if he is a step ahead of me. He is a step ahead of me.

I am going through these images–gorgeous, striking, unique, and no, I refuse to give you some ‘European’ reference to understand them in any way. They are Patwardhan’s and his alone. But I want to make them as photographs.

They are the photographs I would make if in Mumbai. It is beautiful stuff. It makes me want to go and make photographs.

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Make It Right For Palestine, November 4, 2017

Be there. Hyde Park. Speaker’s Corner. London. 12:00 noon. 4th November, 2017.

The Polis Project…Is Up And Running

If you can’t join them, then just do it on your own.

We launched a new collective focused on research, reportage and resistance. The specific goals and objectives are being developed as we speak, but the idea is a simple one: to collect under one banner a group of individuals from different fields – artists, writers, academics, photographers, intellectuals, poets and others, who are consistently working against the grain. In this time of collective conformity, and a media sycophancy to power and extremism, some of us felt the need to create a small space where people are still determined to refuse the agendas of political power, debilitating capitalism, nationalist extremism and neoliberal idiocy, and remain fools in their hearts, and idealists in their souls.

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Short Doc: “As If A Nightmare”;The Story Of Former Bagram Prisoner Abdul Haleem Saifullah


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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Short Doc: “Prisoner 1432” – The Story of Former Bagram Prisoner Amanatullah Ali


We are commemorating 9/11 this week, but by remembering the ‘other’ victims of that event that few chose to remember. These are the brown bodies that rarely make it into visual media projects, that since 9/11, have chosen to hide behind digital representations, data charts, and other visual forms that do a lot, but never permit us to see or hear the brown and black people who actually suffer the consequences of drone attacks, sweeping surveillance, targeted entrapment, renditions, indefinite detentions, torture and other forms of inhumanity that today liberal minds seem to be able to easily justify.

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10 Things To Consider…

I recommend that photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers remember these wise words by Tania Canas, RISE Arts Director / Member – I am copying and pasting it here. As brown and black bodies are stripped of their clothing, as brown and black children are dehumanised to mere misery, as brown and black women are reduced to simply victims, as ghettos and brothels and refugee camps and slums become the ‘paint by number’ formula for White photographer’s career and publishing success, it becomes increasingly important that those of us on the receiving end of White ‘largesse’ begin to build obstacles, speak back, and refuse / reject these ‘representations’ and their reductive, violent and brutal narrative frames. We have lost too much, and are in danger of whatever little we have left as humans and as histories, if we permit this process to continue.

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