Johnsplaining
August 3, 2020

"Sadly, history isn't always fun, weird mummy ventriloquy — it can be painful, too, as America has recently been reminded," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "Because George Floyd's murder has forced a hard national conversation about this country's present, which is impossible to do effectively without re-examining its past. And unfortunately, that's not a conversation that all Americans are well-equipped to have." Some attempts to explain the history of systemic American racism are aimed at persuadable skeptics. Oliver's meta-history lesson, peppered with NSFW language, seems designed more for people who already see the problem and want to learn more.

"With so many people misunderstanding our history, either by accident or very much on purpose," Oliver said, pointing at Fox News, "we thought tonight it might be a good idea to talk about how this history of race in America is currently taught in schools: What some of the gaps are, why they're there, and how we can fill them." The battle over how to teach history "has always been political," and it was especially "intense" after the Civil War, he noted. "You know the saying, 'History is written by the winners?' The South set out to prove that wrong," with some success. "The impulse to downplay the horrors of slavery has marked how schoolchildren have learned about it ever since," he said, and that's caused "real harm, because those kids grow up."

Oliver focused on "three big mistakes that many historians believe that we make and should correct in schools and beyond," including the role of white supremacy, viewing American history's progress as "constantly and inevitably upward," and the failure to "connect the dots to the present."

Just last week, Trump tweeted about keeping low-income housing out of the suburbs. "What's notable there is not that Trump's being racist, which is not remotely surprising, it's how neatly he fits in to a systemic racism that's been baked into this country from the beginning and which will still be here when he is gone," Oliver said. "And if kids aren't taught this, what chance do they have to understand what's happening right now?"

"History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world," he said. "But history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve." Peter Weber

July 27, 2020

John Oliver said Sunday's Last Week Tonight was going to be about eyelashes, and that was mostly just to set up a TikTok video. Its creator "is right," he said: "A lash-curler is a vital tool in anyone's beauty arsenal, and there's an ethnic group in China being systematically surveilled and imprisoned in an attempt to essentially wipe their culture off the map." Oliver started with the basics: "The people in question are the Uighurs. They're mostly a mostly Muslim minority in a region of China called Xinjiang, and the Chinese government has been treating them absolutely terribly."

"If this is the first time you're hearing about an estimated million people who've been held in detention camps — mostly Uighurs but also Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities — you are not alone," Oliver said. "And it's probably because China has done its level best to keep this story from getting out." That may be harder now, because some of the face masks and other PPE used in America is likely made by forced Uighur labor, making us complicit, he added. "And while there is clearly nothing new about horrific practices being hidden deep in the supply chain of global capitalism, what is happening to the Uighurs is particularly appalling. So tonight let's talk about them: Who they are, what's been happening to them, and why?"

Oliver ran though a bit of the historical enmity between Uighurs and Beijing, the 2009 riots, and China's crackdown with President Xi Jinping's 2014 Strike Hard Against Violent Terrorism law — "think of it as the Patriot Act on steroids" — and current Minority Report-like pre-emptive arrests and Chinese excuses: They are "simply being proactive" and sending them to helpful "vocational training facilities," among other euphemisms for "cultural erasure."

"Whenever pressed on this, the Chinese government has been quick to use whataboutism," Oliver said. "They responded to U.S. criticism by invoking atrocities ranging from he genocide of Native Americans to George Floyd's death." Those "are fair hits, those are fair points right there," he said, "but it's also completely possible for two things to be wrong at the same time." What can you do? Pay attention, he said. Watch below. Peter Weber

July 20, 2020

Sunday's Last Week Tonight was about conspiracy theories. "As you've probably guessed, the reason that we need to talk about this is that the coronavirus has created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists," John Oliver explained. He ran through some of the bigger conspiracy theories. "The problem is, some online theories have already prompted some worrying real-world actions," he said, including fatal ones.

"So tonight, let's talk about conspiracy theories, particularly why they're so appealing, how to spot them, and what you might be able to do about it," Oliver said. One of the huge draws of conspiracy theories is "they help explain a chaotic, uncertain world and appeal to the human impulse to what's called proportionality bias, which is the tendency to assume that big events must have big causes," he said. "These theories have always been appealing, and have actually been particularly seductive during global health crises," and the internet has made them irresistible.

"All of this would be dangerous enough before you take into account that one of the most prominent spreaders of conspiracies on Earth is the current president of the United States,'" Oliver said. "And I cannot believe I'm saying this, but the person with the clearest sense of just how deeply cynical Trump's use of conspiracy theories is" is Rush Limbaugh.

The only way to fight the flood of current and future conspiracy theories is to take personal responsibility for not spreading them around, "and there are actually three basic questions that you can ask yourself that could help in that regard," Oliver said: Is there a rational, non-conspiracy explanation? Has this been held up to scrutiny by experts? And how plausible is this conspiracy, as a practical matter?

You might be able to persuade other people, too. "What experts say is that the most effective way to approach someone is not by shaming them for believing something, or overwhelming them with counterevidence, but to try and be empathetic, meet them where they are, and nudge them to think a bit more critically," Oliver said. He conceded that he's not a great bet for convincing the conspiracy-minded, so he roped in Alex Trebek, John Cena, Paul Rudd, Catherine O'Hara, and Billy Porter to reach various conspiracists in your life. You can find their attempts at empathetic persuasion at Oliver's TheTrueTrueTruth.com site and watch his segment below. Peter Weber

June 29, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is bad enough on its own, but also "we have a huge COVID-related catastrophe that's actually just around the corner," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "As if things weren't bad enough, in the middle of a pandemic, we may be about to see evictions on the rise," a "shocking" but "completely foreseeable" crisis given the hit to jobs and incomes as work stopped. While state and federal economic measures and moratoriums "undoubtedly helped hold back the tide, those mechanisms are now starting to run out or expire, and if we do nothing, experts are predicting horrific outcomes," he said, "with millions of people left vulnerable" to homelessness.

Even during the moratoriums, landlords were filing papers to evict tenants at the first possible chance, and some courts have held hearings online — sometimes "throwing people out of their house via Zoom, a platform you're only using because it's not safe for people to leave their homes," Oliver said. "The fact is, we're about to go out of our way to throw people out of their homes at the worst possible time, and even in normal times evictions are incredibly damaging, with long-term effects."

"So tonight, with rent due in just three days, I thought it might be a good time to talk about evictions," he said. "And let's start with the fact that the lack of affordable housing is yet another systemic problem that the coronavirus has thrown into harsh relief." About a million households are evicted each year, with Black families particularly hard-hit, and it shouldn't be left to the kindness of landlords to prevent the spike we're about to see. The House approved $100 billion in rent assistance back in May, but Senate Republicans and the White House have not yet touched the bill — or proposed an alternative.

"It's important to remember, everyone is in this crisis together right now, and this isn't just a rainy day — it's the great flood," Oliver said. "Everyone deserves the basic stability of shelter, and if you are in a position where you've begun to despise the house that you've been shut inside for the past three and a half months, it is worth remembering, the only thing worse than knowing you're going to spend another day stuck under the same roof is not knowing that." Watch below. Peter Weber

June 22, 2020

There's been "a series of alarming spikes" in coronavirus cases across the U.S. in recent weeks, "but one particular kind of place has been getting hit especially hard," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "The five largest clusters of coronavirus are correctional institutions." Federal, state, and local prisons and jails collectively house 2.2 million inmates, who tend to have higher health risks, he noted. "Inmates feel like it's just a matter of time before they get sick, which is terrible, because we don't punish people by giving them diseases."

"Tonight let's talk about a few things: Why the coronavirus has spread so rapidly behind bars, the impact that has on absolutely everyone, and what we can and should be doing about it," Oliver said. "And I know that if you are fortunate enough to have little to no familiarity with the prison system, it can be easy to ignore this problem. And that attitude is actually reflected by some in local government." But among other things, he said, because about 445,000 people work at prisons — at least 9,100 of them have contracted COVID-19 — and jails are revolving COVID-19 incubators, "coronavirus doesn't stay behind bars, it travels easily."

"The fact is, we should be depopulating prisons and jails as quickly as we can right now — and I know how that sounds," Oliver said. "Because we were all raised hearing that 'you shouldn't do the crime if you can't do the time,' but in our current system, you're never just being sentenced to time: You're being sentenced to a lifetime of social stigma, futile job interviews, and roadblocks to necessities like housing. All of that is immoral enough. There is frankly no reason whatsoever we should now also be sentencing people to die from a virus, because that's not justice, it's neglect." There is NSFW language. Watch below. Peter Weber

June 15, 2020

"Our main story tonight involves facial recognition," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "The technology behind facial recognition has been around for years, but recently, as it has grown more sophisticated, its applications have expanded greatly," bringing "a host of privacy and civil liberties issues." To demonstrate "just how terrifying" the technology can be, Oliver highlighted a Russian stalker app. "One of the biggest users of facial recognition is, perhaps unsurprisingly, law enforcement," he said, and there's a good chance the FBI has searched your face.

"There are currently very serious concerns that facial recognition is being used to identify Black Lives Matter protesters," which is "a pretty sinister way to undermine the right to assemble," Oliver said. "So tonight, let's take a look at facial recognition," which "governments all over the world have been happily rolling it out," even though "there haven't been many rules or a framework in place for how it is used."

China's embrace of facial recognition had escalated into a "terrifying level of surveillance," Oliver said. "Imagine the Eye of Sauron, but instead of scouring Middle Earth for the one ring, he was just really into knowing where all his orcs like to go to dinner." The technology is already being used in the U.S., too, despite being "very much a work in progress," he said. And "we're about to cross a major line."

That line is Clearview.ai. Founder Hoan Ton-That's "willingness to do what others have not been willing to do — and that is scrape the whole internet for photos — has made his company a genuine game-changer in the worst possible way," Oliver said. "The notion that someone can take your picture and immediately find out everything about you is alarming enough, even before you discover that over 600 law enforcement agencies have been using Clearview's service. And you're probably in that database, even if you don't know it," and even if your account is private, because the company has discarded cease-and-desist letters from Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, claiming a nonresistant "First Amendment right to harvest data from social media."

Some cities and states are stepping up, but we need "a comprehensive, nationwide policy" on using facial recognition, "and we need it right now," Oliver said. In the meantime, he suggested you send Clearview — and law enforcement — a message by posting special photos to social media. Peter Weber

June 8, 2020

In a change of format, "our whole show is actually going to be about one thing, and you probably know what and you probably know why," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "All week, protesters have continued to fill the streets in all 50 states in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd by the police. And in response to those protests, which have been a stirring pushback against institutional racism and brutality, it's been frankly sickening to see them met with" more police brutality.

"Look, for any viewers sitting at home shocked by the scenes of police brutality, I get it — I'm white, too — but it's worth remembering, that's the tip of a very large iceberg," Oliver said. "It didn't start this week, or with this president, and it always disproportionately falls on black communities." He listed some "hard facts," including that 1 of ever 1,000 black men in America can expect to be killed by police, and laid out his three topics: how we got to this point, the obstacles to reform, and what we can do going forward.

Oliver tackled U.S. history, police militarization and "warrior" training, the mafia-like tactics of police unions, federal consent decrees, and the "qualified immunity" that protects bad cops from civil suits. He noted that Camden, New Jersey created a new police force "from the ground up" and explained "defunding the police," a "phrase that, on its face, may sound alarming to some" but "absolutely does not mean that we eliminate all comes and just succumb to the Purge," just shifting resources so police can do the narrow job they were hired for.

"This clearly isn't about individual officers," Oliver said. "It's about a structure built on systemic racism that this country created intentionally and now needs to dismantle intentionally, and replace with one that takes into account the needs of the people that it actually serves. And this is going to take sustained pressure and attention over a long period of time from all of us. ... Because it's going to be far too easy for nothing to meaningfully change here. That is what has always happened before." He gave the final word to a woman named Kimberly Jones, and you can watch that (NSFW language) below. Peter Weber

June 1, 2020

John Oliver knows the biggest story from last week wasn't his main story on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "Due to the fact that we're producing remotely, we currently have to tape Saturday morning," he tweeted Sunday night. "That's never great, and this week, it's especially not-great." This week's main story, he said, touches on "how the president spent the first half of his week."

"For some reason, in the midst of 40 million Americans unemployed, 100,000 Americans dead, and racial tensions boiling over," Oliver said, President Trump declared war on Twitter because it fact-checked his "claim that voting by mail in this year's election will be 'substantially fraudulent,'" a claim Trump has tweeted about "a ridiculous number of times in the last two months, and he brings it up constantly." Trump's nonsensical vote-by-mail allegations are "actively harmful to the democratic process," he said, and this year, to public health as well.

If the COVID-19 pandemic "continues into the fall, as it almost certainly will," expanding vote-by-mail is a crucial mitigation tool to facilitate an essential right, Oliver said. "So tonight, let's take a look at why the option of voting by mail is so necessary, why concerns about it are often overblown, and why talking about it right now is actually really important."

"Fraud can happen in mail-in voting," but it's "incredibly rare," in part because despite what Fox News hosts will tell you, "it is a crime that's difficult, high-risk, and low-reward," Oliver explained. What conservatives really seem upset about is the expectation it will increase voting participation and their speculation "that any increased participation would benefit Democrats, despite the fact researchers have consistently found that it hasn't obviously helped one party or the other."

There is "actually one last thing that we may need to personally prepare ourselves for, and that is that in November, if there is, as seems likely, a surge in mail-in voting, it may take much, much longer for all the ballots to be counted," Oliver warned. "And in fact, we may not know who's won until a few days after Election Day. And if it doesn't look good for Donald Trump, look for him to use that to sow discord among his supporters." He urged people to vote by mail anyway and offered a set of four "I Voted" stickers as a reward. Watch below. Peter Weber

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