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.

[H]e excels [at] exposing corporate chicanery, making clear the human costs of companies’ insatiable thirst for profit.

Then towards the end of the segment, he invariably steps back, and fails to follow his investigation to its logical conclusion. Despite the scale of the problems he has exposed, he suggests that they are specific to one industry (whatever it happens to be that week), and that they can be addressed with some regulation here, some public outcry there. He rarely raises the possibility that there may be a more systemic rot, even if that’s what the sum of his episodes suggests.

This is all an accurate summary of Oliver’s shtick, and the racket that brought fame to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. However, just like Oliver, Crowley fails in the prescription stage–when it comes time to draw larger conclusions about the evidence in front of us, he can’t see how the problem is systemic. Crowley decides that Oliver “doesn’t seem to know what the central target is,” while speculating that “Perhaps he feels that he is already pushing the boundaries of political satire in the United States.” Instead of advocating small changes in the form of legislation, Oliver should “draw connections between the many issues he has raised and to question not just individual industries, but the larger system that drives them. Instead of endlessly riding through the salt flats, Oliver could take a chance and dare his audience to storm the Citadel.”

I’m sure that there are dozens of outlets that would pay to run such a piece, and America’s premier leftist magazine happened to be the taker. Judging by the piece’s positive reception on Twitter, most readers have found the piece to make cogent points about Oliver, his politics, and his place in the ruling class’ media ecosystem. This, then, is an object lesson in the power of popular liberal celebrities. By my count, this piece demonstrates total cluelessness about 1) the difference between liberalism and radicalism 2) the basic function of the culture industry & 3) how the establishment media operates. The piece is so clueless that it’s necessary to recapitulate these basic points, if only because Oliver’s popularity makes him a typically good example of what purpose liberal media celebrities serve.

What Crowley is describing, evidently having never encountered one before, is a liberal. Though there’s some difference between liberals—some are avid war-mongers, for example, but some are more anguished—liberals seek to maintain the capitalist system, while occasionally stemming some of its worst excesses with minor course-corrections. Someone who advocates for the abolition of the wage-system and private property has politics substantially opposed to someone who just wants corporate taxes restored to 35%. Oliver, like his old boss Stewart, will never call for the overthrow of capitalism for the simple reason that he doesn’t seek the overthrow of capitalism.

Oliver’s centrist politics aren’t just evident in his apologia for capitalism. Of the Last Week Tonight segments I’ve watched, Oliver never seems to miss an opportunity to contain the implications of his argument with a minimizing, incrementalist framework. Segments on the police usually include calls for better training, more equipment, and the removal of Bad Apples. A segment on the CIA focuses almost exclusively on ineffective PR and “excessive secrecy,” as though those things matter in discussing an organization that has contributed to the deaths of millions of people. A segment on America’s prisons repeats the exculpatory idea that the “prison system is broken,” rather than the more damning reality that the prison system is functioning perfectly in its intended role as a system of social control.

If these things sound too depressing or complicated to delve into during a 30-minute comedy show, keep in mind that the willingness to be dark and deep is what’s supposedly so great about John Oliver in the first place. A crucial elements of the show’s success, according to one breathless review, “is choosing topics that are hard not because they’re controversial but because they are, often, deadly dull.” So when Crowley speculates that Oliver’s prescriptions are so tepid because “he doesn’t want to alienate his audience,” it doesn’t hold water. Viewers of Last Week Tonight watch 15-minute segments on FIFA’s backroom dealings and civil asset forfeiture, so it’s not time constraints dictating Oliver’s politics. Given that Oliver’s material is firmly within the centrist mainstream, and the fact that he and his crew seemingly have free reign over their subject matter, it may be time to consider another possibility: that Oliver is exactly the capitalist, center-right liberal he plays on TV.

A good indicator of genuine opposition to corporate power is how supportive someone is of Latin America’s Bolivarian revolutions, the most powerful socialist institutions in the world and current targets of Washington. On his podcast, The Bugle, Oliver has spent years smearing Latin American socialists as deranged dictators. A few months ago, at the same time that the US was attempting another coup in Venezuela and declaring it a human rights violator to lay the groundwork for regime change, Oliver did several segments on Last Week Tonight targeting Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa. The US is following a similar course of action in Ecuador as it is in Venezuela; like Nicolás Maduro, Correa is being painted as a despot—one who has it out for cartoonists, even, like those al Qaeda guys who did Charlie Hebdo! Though Oliver’s segment was more superficial rather than overt red-baiting (unlike his podcast), it was contiguous with a larger campaign to paint South American socialists as tyrants. The message was clearly received by the US press, and “the John Oliver effect” was praised for attacking “Ecuador’s troll-in-chief.”

As in the case of Correa, Oliver reserves his biggest guns for those perceived to be America’s enemies. His vaunted interview with Edward Snowden, for instance, was extremely reactionary even by his standards. Tom Allen points out that in contrast to Snowden, Oliver’s interview with NSA chief Keith Alexander provides the spymaster a series of opportunities to regurgitate Deep State propaganda. Understandably so, since Oliver is by his own accounts an American patriot. Oliver’s wife, whom he met at the 2008 Republican national convention, was in the US Army, and he says that this makes him “a little more defensive of how America is perceived overseas.” In a Boston Globe interview, he explains that he views the US military as a force for good, and that despite the often-justified criticisms of America, it is the world’s stabilizing force.

Oliver isn’t going to be Mad Max, nor will he be Howard Beale, Eugene Debs, or Spartacus. He’s going to be John Oliver—an employee of the Time Warner media empire who’s valued highly enough as a corporate asset to make millions of dollars a year. If he or any other celebrity threatened the corporate bottom line rather than serving it, he wouldn’t have his own show, he’d be stuck writing media criticism for free on a WordPress site. If that isn’t obvious, then someone needs to read more Chomsky and watch less John Oliver.

Oliver’s fans might object to this critique on the grounds that he’s doing important work. He may shy away from criticizing capitalism as a system, but he’s doing vital stuff in the meantime—making a difference, even! A Time magazine write-up backs this up, claiming that the “John Oliver effect is having a real-life impact.” As a high point, Time singles out a segment on the civil forfeiture laws that enable police forces to take law-abiding citizens’ things by fiat. “After the increased exposure given to the issue by the [Washington] Post and Oliver, Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would enact major limitations on the law.” This seems like an unqualified lefty success story on first glance.

However, civil forfeiture laws are a particularly unpopular externality of the War on Drugs, not least because they target middle-class white peoples’ possessions. Furthermore, opposition to these sorts of high-profile negative excesses of the drug war is quite common, rather than transgressive. As The Wire creator David Simon said while telling Baltimore’s protestors to go home, opponents to the War on Drugs include Newt Gingrich, countless Republican governors, and Koch industries—to say nothing of mass-incarcerators Barack Obama and Eric Holder. Even Tom Tancredo, possibly America’s most racist politician and an advocate of bringing back poll taxes, supports ending the War on Drugs. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about how the groundwork for mass incarceration was being laid as the consensus for Jim Crow was falling apart. Whatever “stand your ground” proponents are planning behind closed doors in a tactical alliance with liberal jailers, it’s easy to predict that it won’t lead to material benefits for America’s underclass. Elite opposition to the drug war is fully bipartisan, and it’s not going to be anti-capitalist or even radical. Into this fray steps John Oliver, piggybacking off a WaPo report, accumulating a liberatory sheen largely by repeating conventional wisdom. Like many other liberals held up by leftier-types as something more, Oliver’s politics are mainline centrism remade as radicalism through some empty signaling and a tough-talk exterior.

Even though Oliver’s politics are conventional and his successes overblown, many fans argue that figures like him and Jon Stewart are doing their best and deserve some slack. “Jon Stewart shouldn’t have to be more than an entertainer,” according to one account; “his prominence in the liberal imagination is a symptom, not the disease, which is the way in which Democrats, both moderate and liberal, have worked so hard to smother nascent left-wing reform movements within the party.” In other words, these celebrities aren’t the real issue, and their imperfections are just manifestations of bigger problems originating in the Democratic Leadership Council. Consequently, there’s no point in criticizing them. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

This might be fine, if the political shortcomings of these shows were anywhere as benign as their supporters make them sound. However, Jon Stewart wasn’t just a talented satirist who occasionally descended into excessively circle-jerky self-regard. He was also a Viacom employee who consistently whitewashed state murder when committed by Team Blue, sold his viewers imperialist propaganda, helped burnish the reputations of ruling class criminals, and cordoned off war crimes as the sole domain of third-world despots. Stewart didn’t just fail to do some good deeds; he was actively engaged in propaganda. Furthermore, by virtue of being Jon Stewart, he sold these messages to audiences that wouldn’t buy it coming from a different salesperson.

Similarly, maybe John Oliver isn’t a proto-Marxist who’s a few entreaties away from calling for the return of the guillotine. What does it say that Oliver runs interference for a system of exploitation, consistently minimizes ruling class crimes, and pushes a flag-waving nationalism that wouldn’t be out of place on Fox & Friends? Maybe the media is highlighting Oliver as a liberal success story precisely because his semi-radical trappings are wrapped around this reactionary core. Maybe the exact reason that Oliver enjoys his success, fame, and iconoclastic reputation is because he fails to identify capitalism as the engine of human exploitation.

Maybe “nascent left-wing reform movements” aren’t just smothered by Rahm Emanuel, but by a whole ecosystem of pseudo-left figures. Held up as examples of robust dissent, they’re actually a vital part of the mechanism for co-opting discontent and steering criticism away from the capitalist system. Rather than being symptoms of anemic mass-movements, these celebrities actively help kill resistance by pushing tepid centrism on disenchanted Americans and injecting reactionary ideas into liberal discourse. That’s why they’re rich and famous: because they serve the ruling class more than they hinder them. Consequently, they don’t deserve passes because they’re helping preserve an exploitative system.

Maybe Jon Oliver will never be Mad Max, because he and his ilk are part of the problem.



The excellent twitter account A Big Fan pointed out that The Atlantic magazine just called comedians like John Oliver “the new public intellectuals.” Whose interests does a development like this serve?

If comedians are the new public intellectuals, this means that instead of coming from academia or activism, for instance, the “truth-tellers” who act “as guides through our cultural debates” will first go through countless stages of corporate vetting before they reach the public eye. As Jon Stewart has attested countless times, when criticized for their political shortcomings, comedians can also respond by saying that they’re “just” comedians. All this means no more pesky Cornel Wests, with their inconvenient demands for justice and wealth redistribution.

30 thoughts on “John Oliver isn’t Mad Max, he’s part of the problem

  1. damn straight. I 1st watched j.o. on a piece on awful pay day loans & he made some slight connections with other consumer debt (c.c.’s, student loans), and i tho’t, “kind of obvious if you know anything, but not bad.” i can’t remember what it was now, but i turned off the next show in 5 minutes & have never looked back. Kevin Alexander?!? what else do you need to know?

    we must also consider the target audience: 20-30 yr olds with more education than not. these phony lefty/leftish/leftward/lefticle shows are directed to the cool kids. why does/did Colbert regularly have an iphone in his hand on set? to protest slave labor in Apple factories?

    ditto Bill Maher. He had J. Stiglitz on recently, pretty weak, but when Stiglitz asserts that increasing inequality has been a bipartisan affair since WW2, Bill suddenly looses all his smart alecky BS, adopts a hang dog look & whines, “but what are we supposed to do?” I don’t think he’ll miss a stride in defending Obama again any time soon. For some reason, his “But the Democrats *want* to do” x,y, or z failed him in this instance so he flees into utter defeatism.

  2. Hi Lorenzo:

    This is really great. I think you have hit every single point in the problems with the relationship of media celebrities to the Left. Jacobin’s entreaties to Oliver are just the perfect jumping off point. It’s all there in a nutshell. Clearly we’re moving from the WTF Obama years to the WTF [celebrity] years, with people being every bit as clueless about power, but thinking they’re cooler because they’re sour on partisanship. I honestly have trouble understanding where people who think that large media companies and their products can be allies in the struggle are coming from. Like what do they think we’re struggling for? And what does a smirking, self-pleased, reactionary, fascism-minimizer offer us? I honestly want to know what the strategy is. Are these people thinking tactically at all? I just don’t get it.

    • Thanks, Tarzie. Like you said, after Obama, I think the savior-ism has just been distributed among different figures. All this stuff about pushing celebrities to be more strident anti-capitalists is, conspicuously, just a warmed-over version of the “we must MAKE him do it” tall-tale. But at least the president is nominally a public servant–these people are assets of gargantuan companies. Consequently, I’m also at a loss for what the end game is supposed to be. I resisted writing about John Oliver for a long time since he’s so wearisome, but the Jacobin piece floored me just that much. When did basic Chomskyite media literacy stop being required reading?

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  4. This is wonderful and should be required reading for all 10 million Ivy League graduates currently living in the East Village.

      • Well, you’ve certainly enlightened me. After reading some good critiques of Jimmy Fallon, I decided to research the issues with my own favorite comedian, Oliver. When I first clicked on your article, I almost dismissed it because it was on wordpress (a fact you point out), but I’m very glad I read it. I had never thought about the fact that Oliver is an employee above all else to a corporate conglomerate; I was ignorant of the whitewashing; praised his band-aid solutions, too caught up in feeling superior because I knew more about foreign policy than my peers. Thank you for writing this article, I really appreciate it. I’m now going to read some Chomsky and reevaluate my sources of news. Are there any news sources you recommend?

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    • Hah, going to have to wait until DVD. It looks too stupid, I just can’t bring myself to do it.

      Free idea for Terminator: Ex0dys: someone goes back in time, and everyone is terminators.

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  7. While it is hard to find fault with your perspective, I believe there is value in attacking actionable issues and perhaps I am cynical in my opinion that taking down capitalism is beyond the scope of a TV show. Peoples lives have directly benefited as a result of the work of LWT, sure it’s on a small scale but is it reasonable to criticise those who achieve something so aggressively when most are wholly ineffective in the face of myriad injustices. I don’t really think so although I recognise the instinct to be contrarian on the face of perhaps and the over exited sycophantic fandom that may surround Oliver. And yes his pieces may seem narrow and peppered with jokes, but that is exactly the point. Without the jokes, nobody hears anything anymore, we need producers like Oliver who know how to craft laughtivism because the audience for sombre activism is painfully small and laughably divided. If his representations seem bipartisan at times, it’s because that is the most effective way to appeal to the most amount of people. Context is collapsing and discourse is becoming integrated, our comedians are our journalists and our pop culture must contain gentle messages so that we can move in the right direction. The fall of capitalism, if it ever comes, will bring death ad destruction all round, and perhaps necessarily so for the long term common good. However, this concept is perhaps a little beyond what people tuning in for light entertainment are willing to endure. So while you theorize the destruction of the tree, be a little more generous to the people picking at the leaves.

    • We’re definitely in agreement one one issue: the impossibility of an anti-capitalist TV show. Although from what you’ve written, I get the impression you’ve concluded that I’m calling for such a show? I am pointing out the absurdity of this after a writer for Jacobin opined that Oliver’s viewer’s should somehow “make him” be anti-capitalist, as if such a thing were possible.

      I do not agree about Oliver’s power to effect change, for the reasons I outlined when I discussed his vaunted segment on asset forfeiture laws. As I said above, these are an unpopular facet of the drug war largely because they target the upper-middle class, rather than the largely black underclass. As I also demonstrated, there is elite bipartisan consensus driving this, not populist outrage ginned-up by Oliver’s segment which was a retread of an existing WaPo story. Again, as I said already, every shift in the form of American ruling class social control over African Americans has contributed to a new system of control, rather than liberation, so I appropriately apply a critical eye to the current elite moves behind the War on Drugs–unlike many liberals who, against all historical evidence, see no cause for skepticism over the proposition that the Kochs are suddenly interested in imprisoning fewer poor people.

      Yes, without Oliver’s jokes no one would hear him. In this piece I lay out what Oliver is actually saying while people are laughing, and it includes not only diminishing, excusing, and erasing police state tactics, but smearing democratic socialists in Latin America and whitewashing the fascism of India’s PM Modi. I also agree that this is the point: Oliver is given his spot and celebrated to the heavens because he can look like a critic while being quite reactionary. I don’t criticize Oliver for being “bi-partisan,” as you diminishingly put it, I criticize him for being reactionary–like when he gives his utterly repulsive flag-waving schpiel about how much foreigners will eventually beg for the US military to roll up on their shores. What’s the excuse for these sorts of comments, which I demonstrate are indicative of his core political beliefs, over the course of 2,700 words that you don’t seem to have read? Who among his audience needs to have Narendra Modi’s involvement in a racist pogrom whitewashed in order to be told that three-strikes laws are bad? I know tons of people who watch his show, and no one I know would turn switch off HBO if Oliver called fascism what it was. I’ve burdened myself with amassing a great deal of evidence for why Oliver does things like whitewash fascism; I don’t find vague allusions to “context collapse” and baseless assumptions that his politics are well-meaning to be compelling.

      Liberals and I just have irreconcilable differences over why people like Oliver end up on TV. I think that, at a time when Western capitalism is becoming increasingly more vicious, people like Oliver serve a valuable purpose to the ruling class. Increasing numbers of Americans think socialism sounds better than capitalism, and people like Oliver are here to misdirect those people. Many of those will think that Oliver shares their disaffection because of his superficial signals, and because other ideology-producers tell people he does. And because people trust Oliver, they will believe the shitty, reactionary things he’s saying more than they would coming from someone else. This makes him a net negative if one grades public figures based on whether they’re making the world better or worse.

      • It’s a great argument Lorenzo, and you have clearly done your research. I absolutely agree with much of what you are saying,and indeed have found his positions to be problematic on a number of occasions. I currently want to avoid taking such a macro perspective on the issue as I am currently writing about Oliver with regard to discursive integration and the vacuum it fills when news media has long become unequivocal bullshit,and I mean that by Frankfurt’s definition when he describes it as a “subset of speech that doesn’t simply misrepresent the facts of a situation, but displays complete disinterest in the very concept of truth. It is speech emptied of any notion of validity—that resists efforts to ascertain its truth-value—and is instead constructed to achieve an effect on its target audience. Anyway, perhaps his weaknesses don’t bother me as much because I don’t expect much in the first place but from a micro perspective, his recent piece on obstructionist legislation to make abortion inaccessible to many was extremely informative and packaged in a way so many people can actually learn, and perhaps act, utilising the information. Just like Stewart did with the James Zadroga 9/11 health and compensation act, or Colbert did with Super PACs, or even as “The Big Short” did with the financial crisis. Looking at these techniques for education packaged in entertainment, I can’t hep be glad they exist because I look around me and I see a society that simply will not take the time to gain knowledge about these things without them being packaged in an entertaining or perhaps beautiful way. I don’t say this to disagree with you per sé. Perhaps it is a net loss as you suggest, it is a matter for debate I feel and worth discussing with an open mind. Research has shown that a lot of the problems with Colbert and Stewart’s efficacy was tied to their clear partisan nature. If Oliver decried the current government as Fascists and extolled the virtues of socialism, massive swathes of the audience would be gone and the whole thing would be moot. I know this does not negate the problems you’ve highlighted, he is a corporate puppet, there can be no doubt because the translucency of the strings is less than optimal. I don’t know if he is well meaning or not to be honest but I do hope that there can continue to be satirical voices within popular culture and that they can perhaps evolve in scope and power, in the way that us humans have a habit of doing. We always get better at things, unfortunately that includes hegemony and control. But as Jameson suggested – “There is the possibility of a cultural politics that deploys a postmodern political aesthetic, which would confront the structure of image society as such head-on and undermine it from within…undermining the image by way of image itself, and planning the implosion of the logic of simulacrum by dint of ever greater doses of simulacra”. Ideas are nothing without people knowing them. I’m in Europe and refugees are suffering in unimaginable ways because people have been made to fear them, Trump is soaring because of millions of individuals. Whatever happens, part of progress is going to have to stem from pop-culture. I appreciate your insightful words though, and like I say I don’t disagree with you really, I am just seeking to find positives to build on.

      • My interest isn’t in whether Oliver is “well-meaning,” since I can’t read his mind, I have to go by what he says and does. My interest is in Oliver at the macro level, seeing how he helps maintain the system by which he’s handsomely compensated; rather than at the level of praising individual segments for reflecting my own politics in this or that way. Seeing how these things fit together is essential for any kind of holistic critique, which is why I bring things that liberals dismiss as “problematic” or irrelevant into the picture.

        For instance, I’ve been thinking about Oliver’s coverage of Modi this week, given that Modi and his BJP have ramped up very scary campaigns of McCarthyism in Indian universities and increasingly genocidal language against non-Hindus. A liberal might think that fascism arises because an evil demagogue manages to sway brainwashed masses, but history shows that fascism arises and is tolerated or encouraged by capitalists when capitalism is in crisis. So when someone like Oliver minimizes, erases, or makes excuses for the fascism of Modi, it’s not some momentary shortcoming, but the vital role that liberal celebrities like him play in advancing the ruling class’ interests. Oliver launders his credibility by offering some mild criticism within acceptable channels.

        To expand this last bit, every example of a valuable piece of pop culture you cite here sounds less like a glimmer of hope than typical liberal minimizing and misdirection. I haven’t seen Oliver’s clip on abortion, but I imagine he doesn’t discuss how little interest the Democratic party typically evinces for abortion rights, as evidenced by their motto “safe, legal, and rare.” Color me unimpressed in an election year, where abortion rights and electing Supreme Court justices are the two cudgels pulled out to compel support for Democrats given that the two parties are largely indistinguishable when it comes to privatizing everything in sight and mass-murder. Similarly, does “The Big Short” discuss the essential role Obama played in passing the bailout? As Glen Ford has recounted, “Bush’s bailout failed on a Monday. By Friday, Obama had convinced enough Democrats in opposition to roll over – and the bailout passed, setting the stage for a new dispensation between the American State and Wall Street, in which a permanent pipeline of tens of trillions of dollars would flow directly into Wall Street accounts, via the Federal Reserve.” Ditto for Super PACs–every time I hear Super PACs mentioned, it’s in the context of scaring Democrats about the outsized influence of the Koch brothers. In 2008, when Barack Obama earned more Wall Street money than any candidate in history, how much did that have to do with Super PACs? I remember telling countless Obamaniacs this fact back in 2007-8, and in response they would robotically repeat that he didn’t take money from PACS, so I know from firsthand experience that the focus on PACs serves a usefully minimizing role. What good is all this information without prescription? Riling people up over the banksters and giving them anything but a socialist solution isn’t just worthless, it’s brand-building so that he can more credibly sell fascists like Modi to the liberals who watch his show. And as I’ve already laid out, Oliver doesn’t offer a socialist solution not because people would turn it off but because he is not a socialist, and seems to hate actual socialists as evidenced by his slandering of Bolivarian politicians.

        References to the “power of ideas” are purposefully vague, because it matters what these ideas and subsequent solutions actually are. All these criticisms target easily identifiable excesses or minimize blame, because that’s a vital part of maintaining the system. I live in Europe, too, and though the refugees endure brutal things to get here, they aren’t in Europe because of bad ideas or due to xenophobia. They’re refugees because imperialism has destroyed their homes and made their previous lives untenable. The culprit is usually the United States military–which finds a full-throated supporter in Jon Oliver, remember that sickening little screed of his? Similarly, Donald Trump isn’t the president, and very few of the world’s existing problems can be laid at his feet (beyond his baseline evil of being rich and famous). Trump is another perfect example of the despicable service rendered by people like Oliver–how many liberal critics talk about Trump’ comments about deporting all the latin@s, and how many talk about the fact that Obama has deported more Hispanics than all the 20th century presidents combined? Do you see why it’s useful for the liberal wing of the ruling class to make so much noise about Trump’s 11 million imaginary deportations and not Obama’s 2.5 million real ones? Blaming Trump and European racists is exactly the kind of worthless, minimizing perspective that people like Oliver are paid to propagate, for a reason. People like Oliver distract their viewers from the deeper causes, by blaming the typical culprits who liberals love to sneer at and feel superior to: small-towners, dumb poor people, Republicans in the flyover states, etc. All this is to bludgeon people into voting for neoliberal, imperialist slime who call themselves Democrats (or Labour in the UK, Liberals in Canada…) and keep the charade going, under the false pretense that they’re in any way a lesser evil.

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  9. Very well written. I’m not left nowadays, but i still agree with most points (except Chomsky hahaha) and the update is spot on. I will definitely be following 🙂

  10. Thanks for articulating a critique that has been on my mind for awhile. Much the same could be said about Samantha Bee’s show, among others.

    • Glad you found the piece useful. I haven’t seen any of Samantha Bee, but someone was describing a recent Trevor Noah sketch and it sounded like more of the same. Jon Stewart has left behind a string of successors who are all worse than him.

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  13. Thank you,it is a great piece.Can you please explain how the Snowden interview was reactionary?

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