What I’m Watching: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

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I am currently studying Religion in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University. As part of the literature course, our professor has asked us to write a bibliographical review of sources that we may use for our thesis. I have chosen to write my thesis on media and its effect on immigration policy. Therefore, I will be reviewing articles and books that focus mostly on the refugee crisis sparked in part by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a satirical and serious show that looks at current events issues. Every week, Oliver focuses on an important issue from the news. In two episodes, he focused on the refugee crisis. In one video, he parses the hateful language used by European governments, especially in The Netherlands, Hungary and Denmark. He softens the language with jokes, as when he calls a Polish minister who calls the refugees ‘human garbage’ “the Polish six flags guy” (Oliver 2015a). He backs up every joke with a bit of research, including research about how helpful refugees and immigrants actually are to an economy, especially ones in Europe with a slow birthrate (Oliver 2015a). The end of the video is a tribute to Noujain Mustaffa, whom he especially highlights in the clip. Unlike short clips on the evening news, this first segment from John Oliver places the crisis in some historical context. However he neglects to mention the full context of the crisis itself; that is, the attack on dissidents in Syria and the civil war there.

In the second clip, released after the 13 November 2015 attacks, Oliver updates the situation and adds to it the US response. One of the attackers was rumoured to have posed as a refugee, setting off fears of refugees coming into America on the same pretenses. After the attack, 31 state governors banned refugees from coming into their state, a pointless bit of grandstanding as Oliver points out they have no legal right to do so, and that refugees can just go to more accepting states (2015b). He also debunks a fear-mongering video from Fox News showing a group of Muslim men calling out Allahuakbar whilst riding the metro; the video had been uploaded five years previously (Oliver 2015).

Oliver places the crisis in context for the American audience in the second clip; he points out that Americans have been slow to accept refugees, even sending a boat with Jewish refugees back to Belgium in 1939, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two (2015). With the recent news that the United States is lowering its threshold of refugees it will accept, there is a certain sense of déjà vu.

Oliver’s sarcastic take on the hyperbolic language used by politicians and the media is a less scholarly, but still important, way to explain how media influences policy, and why it is added to my bibliographic resources for my thesis.

photo: geralt

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