A couple weeks ago, HBO’s Last Week Tonight host John Oliver pulled off a major journalistic coup: he flew to Russia to interview NSA-document leaker Edward Snowden. Oliver’s perceptive and hard-nosed interview put most so-called serious journalists to shame, and that became the story in the coming days. Politifact fact-checked the interview; the Daily Beast claimed that Oliver “made Snowden squirm”; Infoworld helped us to “decode” the interview; and the World Socialist Website totally missed the point.
The point, I would argue, can be found in the comments found below the interview posted to YouTube. Someone with the handle Khorothis put it succinctly: “John Oliver, teaching smart people how to translate their smart ideas to concepts everyone can understand and relate to.”
For the first three quarters of the interview, Oliver does an excellent job interviewing Snowden. He holds his feet to the fire about whether he actually read every document he released and whether the New York Times could be trusted not to screw it up (they couldn’t), and he probes about Snowden’s reasons for doing what he did. He also, in a truly poignant and depressing part of the interview, reveals through a few man-on-the-street interviews in Times Square that the American public seems to no longer remember Snowden, indeed regularly confuse him with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Note: Conservative columnists love this part of the interview, laughing at the queasy look on Snowden’s face as he watches the videos and realizes that his sacrifice of freedom is all but forgotten. Har har har. Pathetic dweebs.
Like the socialists, the conservatives miss the point as well, which is what they do best.
Oliver, in his introduction to the interview, talked in no uncertain terms about the invasion of privacy built into the broad and hastily conceived Patriot Act, which comes up for renewal on June 1, 2015. He is not only is personally outraged by it, but more importantly he wants the American people to be outraged as well, so that they will bury their congressmen under a pile of letters and emails telling them to repeal the Act or, at the very least, fix the deeply-flawed Section 215 (the Library Records Provision). In other words, he wants people to do something.
That’s the point, conservatives and socialists (I love putting those two groups in the same sentence). And in order for them to be moved to do something, they need to not only understand the issue intellectually, but more importantly understand it personally, emotionally, viscerally.
After letting Snowden go from abstraction to abstraction for three quarters of the interview, Oliver can’t take it anymore. He tells Snowden that there is no doubt that the issues he raises stand at the center of a critical conversation that the American public has to have, but then asks Snowden the million dollar question: “Is it a conversation that we have the capacity to have because it’s so complicated we don’t fundamentally understand it?”
Snowden admits that “it’s difficult for most people to even conceptualize. The problem is the Internet is massively complex and so much of it is invisible…. It’s a real challenge to figure out how do we communicate things that require years and years of technical understanding and compress that into seconds of speech.”
It’s the perfect cue line.
Oliver makes clear to Snowden that this is an absolutely critical moment: “Everything you did,” he tells Snowden, hammering each word home, “only matters if we have this conversation properly.” And this is where Oliver takes the wheel: “so let me help you out a little.”
He starts by reminding Snowden that he said that members of the NSA staff regularly passed around naked pictures they had discovered as part of their data mining activities, and Snowden admits that it is not seen by the NSA as a “big deal” because they “see pictures of naked people all the time” as part of their work.
Oliver pounces: “That terrifies people.” He proves his point by showing Snowden videos of the same people who didn’t know who he was saying how angry they would be if the government was able to see pictures of their dick. Suddenly, these formerly confused members of the general public are galvanized — they get it. What had been abstractions become real; what had seemed an academic debate about “privacy” becomes a concrete discussion of your junk. “If I had knowledge that the U.S. government had a picture of my dick,” one interviewee says with anger in his eyes, “I’d be very pissed off.”
“This is the most visible line in the sand for people,” Oliver says. “Can. They. See. My. Dick?”
So with that in mind, Oliver passes to the nonplussed Snowden a file folder that contains, he says, a picture of Oliver’s own dick. “So let’s go through each NSA program,” Oliver instructs, “and explain to me its capabilities in regards to that photograph of…my penis.” And he does. “702 surveillance: can they see my dick?” Executive Order 12333? Prism? Upstream? Mystic? 215 Metadata?
And suddenly, the issues comes alive. Snowden himself, who for the first part of the interview seemed boring and pedantic, is transformed before our eyes, becoming forceful, even dynamic — hell, he even gestures with Oliver’s file! — as Oliver forces him to describe how each program can see his dick. We’re laughing as we watch, but by the end we understand the reality all too well. “Edward,” Oliver concludes, “if the American people understood this, they would be absolutely horrified.” And Snowden responds reflectively, “I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk!”
As a comedian, John Oliver is an artist. You can draw a line directly from him back to Aristophanes, satirists who use laughter to make the audience understand an issue. Brecht, a ferocious satirist himself at root, like Oliver, wanted his Epic Theatre to “arouse [the spectator’s] capacity for action.” And the way he and Aristophanes and Oliver do that is by making abstractions concrete, giving issues flesh and bones and skin and laughter and tears and, well, dicks.
A year and a half ago, I wrote an article here on The Clyde Fitch Report entitled “The Art of Transformation,” in which I discussed the meaning of the word “transformational” as it related to the arts. Is it, as we so often use it, a blinding flash of light followed by a puff of smoke and — voilà — a spectator is instantly completely changed, from stem to stern, like some sort of revival tent conversion? No, it isn’t, because we know that that rarely, if ever, happens. But there is another definition, coined by Noam Chomsky in his groundbreaking study of linguistics entitled Syntactic Structures, which he called the “transformational rule.” This was a rule that functions, he asserted, to “convert deep structures to surface structures.” “Ultimately,” I went on,
isn’t that what artists do? They bring deep structures to the surface so they can be experienced more powerfully and directly. Through the selection and ordering of events, of words, of music, of movement, of pattern we get a glimpse of the underlying meaning and significance of our lives, of our communities, of our societies. The chaotic randomness of everyday life is stripped away, and in its place we encounter the truths upon which our lives are built. Perhaps when Russian Formalist Viktor Schlovsky wrote that “art exists to recover the sense of life, in order to feel objects, to make the stone stony,” this is part of what he meant.
What he meant, I see now, thanks to John Oliver, is that artists convert deep structures into junk, we transform the abstraction of “privacy” into the hard reality of our privates. This is no mean trick. It’s not about proselytizing, it’s about making things real, making them personal, making them felt.
Pundits complain that young people (it’s always young people) get most of their news from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Last Week Tonight, and they fret that this indicates a lack of seriousness about the issues that plague our country. But like the conservatives and socialists above (I had to get another one in), they miss the point. Yes, Jon Stewart and John Oliver make spectators laugh, but more importantly they help them grasp what an issue really means at the level of the individual. The Roman poet and theorist Horace believed that arts exists to “entertain and instruct,” but John Oliver just revealed that in reality art instructs by means of entertainment.
Snowden’s realization that, if he wants to be effective, he needs to make his points “in the context of your junk” ought to speak directly to every artist, comedic or otherwise. It’s about metaphor and analogy. Make us see the connection between your characters and our very own junk — not just the “junk” in our pants, but the junk in our lives, the chaos and seeming meaningless of our everyday experience that, nevertheless, is what we care about most deeply. It’s always all about us. The best artists find our lines in the sand and make them visible to us. They make us talk about their story in terms of ourselves. “If I had knowledge that the U.S. government had a picture of my dick, I’d be very pissed off.” I. My. Me.
When Aristotle described his idea of catharsis, which lies at the very center of his understanding of tragedy, he talked about the “unmerited misfortune” that leads the spectator to feel “pity” for the tragic protagonist. But Aristotle knew that in order for a tragedy to be powerful, pity needed to be accompanied by “fear,” the realization that what we are seeing could happen to us.
The best tragedy, he seems to say, and I would add the best comedy as well, is always first and foremost about our junk!