John Oliver isn’t Mad Max, he’s part of the problem

When I was first recommended John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. Oliver had the benefit of coming from The Daily Show, which became a cherished liberal institution under Jon Stewart and had a unique power to shape conversations among a lot of progressive internet users. If anything, Oliver has the potential to be more influential than the show that birthed him. “That John Oliver’s weekly video(s) will go viral is a given,” wrote John Herrman in a post on a clickbait ritual he calls the “John Oliver video sweepstakes.” John Oliver is “winning the internet.” More than just a content factory, though, on his HBO show Oliver is getting credit for something like prime-time activism—Time lauds what they call the “John Oliver effect.”

He’s really, really, popular. When I watched the first clip I HAD TO SEE from his show, though, it was obvious why it’s gotten so much traction. The clip I saw, covering the election that would make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India, was from Last Week Tonight’s 1st season, back in June 2014. The election of Narendra Modi was consequential, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are:

Modi’s election proved all sorts of points, from capitalism’s extremely cozy relationship with the militant far-right to the way that the media whitewashes fascism when the fascist in question advances the ruling class’s interests.

According to Oliver’s widely shared reckoning, though, the important aspects of India’s 2014 election are:

  • It was big.
  • It was under-reported.

For something ostensibly journalistic, the segment was light on specifics. Between jokes about Modi’s holograms, Oliver makes one brief point about Modi’s culpability in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogroms, which he diminishingly describes by saying that Modi “arguably failed to stop a massacre.” The problem here, according to Last Week Tonight, is just that The People need more information. “Our cable news has been ignoring India” is the segment’s leitmotif, and it offers nothing deeper than hand-wringing over the vapid US media. The only intervention to inject something of substance is a whitewash of Modi’s participation in racist mob violence. All viewers need to do is just know about the election, which puts Last Week Tonight’s viewers miles ahead of the bovine Faux Snooze-watchers in the flyover states. The fetishizing of information for its own sake, the low-context bathos, the whitewashing, the signaling that lets liberal viewers feel superior to their Republican relatives—I could tell this was going to be bigger than The Daily Show!

When Stewart announced his retirement a few months ago, amidst the slew of identical thinkpieces praising his show was another more measured response. Stewart, the alternative consensus went, had done a lot of good satire but gotten soft following the departure of George W. When he held his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” he had gotten too high on his own supply of above-the-fray centrism. Since I stopped checking Salon sometime around their billionth listicle of epic Tea Party fails, I hadn’t kept up with Oliver’s show, besides occasionally seeing his clips ricocheting around the internet. Based on the fact that many came to see Stewart’s “jester liberalism” shtick for what it was—toothless and overly servile—I had assumed, naïvely, that there would be some latent skepticism to Oliver. At least, instead of restarting at square one like every time a new vaguely leftish celebrity comes along, we could start from an understanding that radicals don’t make it on TV, and moderate hopes for late-night hosts accordingly.

I was a little too starry-eyed, judging from a piece that Jacobin published yesterday by Thomas Crowley. Titled “John Oliver Should Be More Like Mad Max” for maximum zeitgeisty-ness, the subheader explains that “John Oliver is mad at corporations but not capitalism.” So far, so true. The piece begins by explaining how Oliver favorably compares to Stewart and Stephen Colbert, since “Oliver was exciting because he took on corporations so directly, and with such gusto.” However, Crowley is disappointed that Oliver limits his criticism to extreme corporate excess, rather than the capitalist system itself. Continue reading

Election 2016 Snapshot

Did you hear about what that awful Rethuglican turkey Marco Rubio said this week? In a speech laying out a future foreign policy vision for the Rubio administration, the senator claimed that

We must recognize that our nation is a global leader not just because it has superior arms, but because it has superior aims. America is the first power in history motivated by a desire to expand freedom rather than its own territory.

According to the straight-shooters at Democratic party astroturf factory Crooks & Liars, this statement is “the big lie” undergirding his foreign policy approach, “which also will disqualify him from the White House for ignorance if not warmongering.”

Hear, hear! As far as historical whitewashes go, this kind of exceptionalist garbage is as ahistorical as it is evil. “And it’s a line that helps explain why this would-be president is campaigning with a truly extremist foreign policy ‘doctrine,'” according to reliable liberal click-miner Elias Isquith, “and it is utterly insane.” These two articles set the tone for a slew of pieces currently populating the Proggy corners of the internet, which differ only in varying amounts of sub-Colbert riffing leading up to the same capitulation of the US’s bloody settler-colonial, imperialist history.

If Rubio’s “utterly insane” words, animating a “truly extremist” set of quote-unquote ideas sound familiar, it’s probably because they’re almost identical to similar comments from the current occupant of the Oval Office. In the blessed Erewhon called the days before the current presidential election cycle, a.k.a. March 2014, Barack Obama defended the Iraq war by claiming that

it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.

Rubio probably would’ve played better to the Daily Kos crowd if he’d referenced “vigorous debate” like Obama did, since those code-words invoke hand-wringing, parliamentary procedure, and Aaron Sorkin-esque speechifying in a trifecta of self-regard that leaves liberal chumps at half-mast.

That’s how Obama’s comments went over last year, anyway. Obama “struggled” to adequately make his case. At worse, Obama “inflamed…accusations of hypocrisy,” which really isn’t as bad as being insane. Digby was “embarrassed for him,” the poor guy. Liberal responses didn’t disqualify Obama from the presidency, nor did they explicate how his whitewash was well in keeping with the imperialist political core which he’d articulated dating back to his days as an Illinois state senator. It’s high on excuse-making for powerful individuals and context-free outrage, low on analysis and anything resembling the journalism that liberals love to wail and keen about. Given that establishment wisdom is morally vile, at least when voiced by someone from Team Red, there should be much-needed bullshit-calling on the whole rotten enterprise.

Anyone who ends up reading this blog probably isn’t too keen on America’s endless election spectacle, either. I know I’m definitely not intending to write about the election again in any capacity; 2008 felt like living through a creepy year-and-a-half long Twilight Zone episode, 2012 was more discipline- than hope-oriented. I have little doubt this one will be more like the latter. Avoiding another presidential election was a sizable motivator for finally expatriating: I’d genuinely rather be strapped down, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to watch every single Eurovision contest than hear the words Hillary Clinton again, unless that name is followed immediately by the words “…is a walking profanity.”

Because in between the starry-eyed marketing operations and vicious power-serving smear campaigns, elections are a nearly endless stream of moments in which propaganda blows up a micron of difference into the fantasy called democracy. Or worse, moments like this one–in which ruling-class unanimity is remade as something else. Here’s how the sacred experiment really works, as the differences are wholly manufactured and a bipartisan cast of ruthless moral cretins is turned into tableau of good vs. evil.

On the plus side, though, at least there are only 18 more months of this shit. Enjoy, everyone! It’s going to fucking suck.