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

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Fascism is only fascism when it’s bad for business

May saw two big elections: a European Union-wide contest for Members of European Parliament (MEPs), and India’s election of a new Prime Minister. Both held similar results: the empowerment of neo-fascist elements. However, though the far-right has been victorious in both Europe and India, the reporting has been alarmist in the former, ecstatic in the latter. The way most places reported it, one might not even know that the Indian far-right won anything at all.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

Map of European far-right Parliamentary gains from the Telegraph.

In the European Union, reactionary parties took advantage of the widespread misery caused by EU-imposed austerity measures. All speak the usual language of right-wing populism–xenophobia, racism, and ethnic supremacy. Ghouls who’ve long haunted the fringes of European politics like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the Le Pen dynasty in France benefited as much as relative newcomers like Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. Europe knows first-hand that long-term economic deprivation leads to resurgent fascism, and overt neo-Nazi parties saw gains in Hungary and Greece. Even Germany–where the swastika is banned outright–elected a neo-Nazi MEP.

In India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory. The election was a “presidentialization” of the campaign for India’s Head of State: rather than resemble a traditional Parliamentary campaign, the contest was a slick, American-style PR offensive. The BJP is India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist party, and during Modi’s tenure as governor of Gujarat, he governed as any reactionary ethnic supremacist would. Civil unrest in Gujarat turned into a pogrom in 2002, which killed over 1,000 people, mostly Gujarati Muslims. When he takes office, Modi will be the only Head of State with a US visa-ban, imposed on him by the State Department after his administration’s tacit approval of the violence. Modi will be forming his coalition government with members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the “ideological fountainhead” of Modi’s MJP. It was a member of the RSS who murdered Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, for Gandhi’s perceived accommodation of Muslims. Continue reading

Yasiin Bey’s travel ban wasn’t true, but it was plausible

Hey, did you hear about Yasiin Bey? In late May, a music festival in Boston announced that Bey’s upcoming shows would be cancelled due to problems re-entering the US. Turns out it’s false: a newspaper in South Africa, where Bey is living, has reported that the story was untrue.

All’s well that ends well! Since the artist formerly known as Mos Def is an American citizen, a travel ban would be an incredibly disturbing development. Especially since the rapper, who is Muslim, was most recently known for bringing attention to the legalized torture currently going on in Guantánamo Bay. In a video for The Guardian, Bey undergoes the excruciating force-feeding procedure to which over a hundred hunger-striking detainees have been subjected. As of now, the video has been viewed over 6 million times.

But it turns out there’s nothing to see here! For some reason, people believed that an American citizen would be subjected to some sort of unequal treatment, just because he’s a black Muslim-American whose political activism sheds light on American government torture. Maybe those credulous people had heard something about Saadiq Long, the Muslim American citizen from Oklahoma who was stuck in de facto exile for more than a decade. Long, an Air Force veteran, was forced to live in Qatar due to placement on the No-Fly list for unknown reasons. Maybe they had heard about Gulet Mohamed, a naturalized American citizen who was beaten by Kuwaiti authorities on behalf of the US, intimidated by the FBI, and then told he was on the No-Fly list when he tried to return home.

If they hadn’t heard either of these specific stories, maybe they had some idea of the tens of thousands of other Americans on the No-Fly list. Or maybe they think that being an American citizen just doesn’t go as far as it used to. The British are publicly stripping terrorism suspects of citizenship, and there is evidence that the US is already holding American citizens in secret, lawless captivity under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. There are Americans for whom citizenship couldn’t protect even from murder, much less exile.

Centering around a hip-hop artist, pieces debunking the travel ban story also have the aspect of playing into gaslight-y tropes about conspiracism in the African-American community. Serious, savvy types sneer at beliefs amongst some black Americans that the government played a role in the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics. Of course, if you’re a member of a group who’s historically fucked-over by the powerful, it creates a strong incentive–even a self-preservation imperative–to know how power really works. As with Muslims receiving a different tier of citizenship, these theories dismissed as conspiracism have aspects of truth, from the long history of American medical experimentation on people of color to the CIA’s documented collusion with Contra drug smugglers.

Rather than being self-evidently ridiculous, the original story of Bey’s travel ban is actually pretty credible. The only unrealistic aspect is it happening to a famous person.

The Ukraine flyer hoax was a perfect mix of American propaganda tropes

It happened so quickly in the mainstream American imagination. Russia went from being merely part of the rogues’ gallery of American adversaries to an opaque, Oriental Reich bent on global conquest. Russia is on its way to being another North Korea—a country about which people will believe anything, as long as it’s bad. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, people are seriously discussing whether or not Russia is about to conquer Scandinavia. Russia didn’t even invade all of Ukraine, but the US Pacific Northwest better watch out.

The Russian Empire tried to dominate North America before, it will do it again!  Flag of the Russian-American Company, 1806  Wikimedia Commons

The Russian Empire tried to dominate North America before, it will do it again! Flag of the Russian-American Company, 1806 Wikimedia Commons

Despite liberal fetishism of the idea that “knowledge is power,” information doesn’t confer power or spread based on its quality alone. Stories about the depravity of America’s enemies are amplified because of how they serve the interests of the powerful. A bellicose Russia is an ideal vector for stories that make America look good. It gives the US a chance to perform concern for high-minded ideals. For additional traction, these narratives are reduced to the simplest moral binary. When these elements are married, it guarantees that you’ll be hearing that story–whether it’s true or not. All of these elements came together this week in a widely circulated hoax, concerning anti-Semitic flyers being handed out by Russian-allied separatists in Donetsk. The hoax encapsulates American propaganda’s favored tropes: whitewashing the actions of America and its allies and ascribing Nazi-like behavior to America’s enemies.

The story was that pro-Russian elements had disseminated flyers in the separatist-friendly Ukrainian region of Donetsk, ordering local Jews to “register.” The letter, with its threatening, anti-Semitic nature containing overtones of the Holocaust, caused “an international scandal.” The American mainstream media, from Drudge Report to ThinkProgress, took it up and amplified the story. The letter made its way to Secretary of State John Kerry, who called it “grotesque.”

It certainly would have been grotesque, if it had been true. However, the letter was a hoax, fabricated for as-yet-unknown ends. The content of the letter itself should’ve raised questions. A portion within accused local Jews of collaboration with the “Bandera Junta.” A group aligning themselves with Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian figure who collaborated with the Nazis, would be an unlikely ally for Donetsk’s Jews. The American media loses its already anemic critical faculties to make America’s enemies look identical to the Third Reich. Beyond the American media’s receptiveness to this message, this narrative is very friendly to America’s interests in the Ukraine. At this point, aligning the pro-Russian separatists of Ukraine with right-wing anti-Semites accomplishes a whitewash of America’s support of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis.

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Women lose and patriarchy wins when we ask “who’s more sexist?”

Check out these two pieces, and see if anything jumps out at you. The first, from Al Jazeera, is titled “Chronic Violence against European women” (3/15/14).

double_standard 1

In early March the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a startling new study about violence against women in the European Union. Results show that abuse is pandemic: 62 million women, or one in three, have suffered from violent acts since the age of 15. It is clear that European women continue to endure high levels of violence.

Morten Kjaerum, director of FRA, said of the results: “Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse that the EU cannot afford to overlook.”

Findings confirm Kjaerum’s conclusions. According to the investigation, 55 percent of women have been sexually harassed and 18 percent have been stalked and 43 percent have faced psychological abuse. One in 10 has experienced sexual violence; one in 20 has been raped and 8 percent of women have been abused in the last 12 months. Of all the age groups polled, young women were found to be particularly vulnerable to violent acts. [Emphasis added]

Europe, like everywhere else on Earth, has a serious problem with violence against women. “Abuse is pandemic”… “high levels of violence” constitute “an extensive human rights abuse.”

Usually, reporting on sexism looks more like this–or, not so much like this, because this looks like an Onion headline:

double_standard 2

The latter, from NPR’s Parallels blog, (“Which place is more sexist: the Middle East or Latin America?” 3/16/14) is probably what American readers are more accustomed to seeing. Forget patriarchy’s global war on women, let’s talk Burqas vs. Bikinis. After you’ve scraped your mind off the back wall WHERE NPR JUST BLEW IT by contrasting women who are like, super covered-up to women who are totally naked (makes u think), we can parse the true nature of sexism: a struggle situated in the global south, embodied by the duality of sexually repressed Muslims against lusty Latinos. A yin-yang of nonwhite sexist depravity.

One of the most interesting things about analyzing media is how much coverage of other countries says about us. For instance, we celebrate other countries’s dissidents to tell ourselves we value their principles, no matter how transparently false that is. Our favorite way of embedding our own exceptionalism is to highlight crimes in other countries as a way to erase those crimes when they happen here. If the perpetrators are non-white, then racism and colonialism will get mixed in to implicate entire groups, and absolve us. Though the contrast between these two pieces is stark, the NPR post is typical of the way we talk about gendered violence.

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Stewart Sanitizes Barry’s Bombs

A recent popular Daily Show segment exemplifies the worst aspects of the show’s tepid centrism

Though Jon Stewart is quick to tell people that he’s “just a comedian,” The Daily Show has a unique ability to frame politics in the public consciousness. As a comedy show, it’s able to reach viewers who would otherwise be politically disengaged. Large numbers of people who get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and these people tend to be better informed than consumers of other media sources—belying the idea that it’s “just a comedy show.” The fact that the show appeals to both an audience who considers themselves politically left-leaning and a wider audience that’s more apolitical gives it the ability to shape the popular discourse that a lot of traditional news shows would envy.

However, though the show is a liberal pop-culture institution, the show is profoundly respectful of the status quo. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewer the most obvious hypocrisies of our political system, they show respect and deference to a political system that exports tremendous violence abroad and increasing repression and inequality at home. A widely shared Daily Show segment from February 19th illustrates how pernicious show can be. Reflecting the show’s broad appeal, the opening segment received praise and exposure in both mainstream outlets like Yahoo! TV and leftist news sites like TruthDig.  TruthDig called the video “hilarious and scathing,” but it’s anything but.

The opening segment, with the headline “Jon Stewart calls Obama the ‘Barry Bombs’ of drone strikes,” dealt with the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing policy, specifically the issue of targeting Americans for assassination without due process. When discussing a state claiming an Imperial prerogative to kill its own citizens, Stewart offers only a mild reproach of individual foibles. Worse than insufficient criticism, though, the segment is an active whitewashing of Obama’s assassination policies and his administration’s theories of limitless executive power. The piece is embedded with multiple misleading claims, actually flattering Obama in the guise of a critique. The segment encapsulates all the worst aspects of The Daily Show’s tepid, establishment-serving centrism. Continue reading

Stephen Colbert & Jon Stewart sell millennials military industry propaganda

On the November 13, 2013 episode of The Colbert Report, there was a segment about the Colorado man on a quixotic crusade to institute a “drone bounty” in his town of Deer Trail, CO. Philip Steele, the “brains” behind the proposed ordinance, is an easy target for ridicule. He shows up to a town council meeting in a cowboy hat and duster, demanding that Ennio Morricone play as he entered. As the segment’s straight-person, Colbert has on MIT professor Missy Cummings. While Steele prints up drone-hunting permits from his desktop printer and makes racist comments about Obama’s ancestry, Cummings paints a rosy picture in which domestic UAVs do everything but tuck our kids in at night. To demonstrate Steele’s unfounded paranoia, the show quotes him saying:

There are many reasons to conduct surveillance. Let’s take smokers, how many people have smoke breaks, okay, fly a drone. ‘Oh, did you check nonsmoker on your health insurance form? Oh I’m sorry, we’re going to have to penalize you now.’”

The audience laughs at this, but isn’t it obvious that this is exactly the sort of thing that domestic drones will be used for in the future? Steele sounds like an eccentric reactionary for most of the interview, so consequently the young, liberal audience is laughing even as he says something plausible, if not likely. This is the problem with the tepid liberalism at the core of The Daily Show and Colbert, and how both shows  filter everything into the insipid “Democrat vs. Republican” partisan framework. By choosing a right-wing drone opponent, Colbert primes its audience to laugh at what he’s saying, even when it’s realistic; and trust his opposite, even when they’re a shill for the military industry. Continue reading