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!)