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

What I’m Reading this Week: 15 September 2016

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So in my haste to return to blogging, I consumed a lot of press this week. Some of it is older, but still important.

Vincennes, France holds a festival about American culture and literature, and has been since 2008. This year’s was held from the 8-11 of September. The festival chatted with 15 authors and Libération posted excerpts from their chat, which centered around the authors’ ideas and impressions of their personal vision of America. Fascinating stuff. Des écrivains racont leur Amérique [Authors talk about their America] — the original article is in French.

Going on at the same time, in Paris, was la fête de l’Humanité [The Humanity Festival], which is the French Communist Party’s annual festival. It still happens, though the party is apparently unpopular. This isn’t an article; it’s a video with a small report attached, but it’s interesting. France : la fête de l’Humanité, entre évènement populaire et vitrine politique [The Humanity Festival: popular event and political display– report and article in French].

Think Progress reports on several scientific studies about the mental health of Black people in the United States, especially battling the daily micro-aggressions and constant onslaught of race-based discrimination. It’s a glancing read, but each study is probably worth a look. Being Black in America is a heavy burden, one that many people are either blind to or deny.

Swinging back out to Europe, Arstechnica reports on Denmark’s move to pay for the leaked documents, in a bid to research Danish tax evasion (‘Panama Papers: Denmark to pay $1.3M-plus for leaked data to probe tax evasion‘). I usually read Arstechnica for technical news, but when tech and government mix, it can only be a good or bad thing. I appreciate Denmark’s willingness to investigate tax dodgers, instead of letting them run for high office.

Speaking of running for high office, two articles about the American presidential campaign, obviously. The Economist discusses the similarities and differences between the war-hawk policies of Clinton and Trump. American foreign policy is unattractive and scary thing to me, but there you go.

And finally, the Washington Post‘s 18 August report about Trump’s not-so-charitable giving is incredibly detailed and incredibly disheartening. I’m so bewildered by Trump’s continued existence. I’m very glad there’s only eight weeks until the election, but I have no idea what’s going to happen then. Nobody does, it feels like.

That’s all from me this week! Until next time. – SDM

photo by David Mark.

#atozchallenge: The American Zeitgeist

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So what influence then, shall America have on the future of the Earth? How will America’s past determine the path it takes?

One of my favourite essays in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by AL Franken describes the love he has for America as an “adult” love, whereas some people have a “child-like” love. The adult version is taking the bad with the good, and focussing on bettering America, whilst the child version is insisting that America could do no wrong and how dare one criticise our lovely nation.

As we stand at the beginning of a new election season, where so much is at stake, how should we process the last eight years under an historic presidency? I feel as though President Obama has tried his hardest with the recalcitrant children [aka Congress] in his charge. I won’t pretend that some of his broken promises don’t disappoint me, but I am sure we would be in a much worse place with our other choices. Will this election prove the same? Or will Trump destroy the fragile ecosystem that has been built after President George W Bush’s disastrous time in office? Will Clinton prove as moderate as her husband, overly considerate with conciliatory gestures towards a mean-spirited Republican base?

This election cycle has been the most exciting since 2008. We Americans have an extraordinary chance to create a new country, or engulf it in nationalistic uber-capitalism. It has never been more important to stay informed and ready to vote. I wish us luck.

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#atozchallenge: Winner Takes All

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When Cameron and the Conservative Party became the majority in the 2015 elections, there was an uproar. How did an unpopular Prime Minister keep his place? Blame was meted out: Ed Miliband was a milquetoast leader with no teeth; the Scottish National Party dominated; the Labour Party had no good ideas. The Conservative Party took 330 seats, an absolute majority.

But then, the numbers came out, and things became curiouser and curiouser. The Conservative Party had actually only won 36.8% of the vote, whilst Labour got 30.5%. And here is where first past the post voting breaks apart: No matter how slim your majority, when you win, you win everything.

If this were a two-party system, this would make sense. But the United Kingdom has multiple parties, with different stakes in the system.  In the United States, we are stuck with two parties because that is how it has always been. (I hope that changes, I honestly do.)

In the UK, one might be better served by the Single Transferable Vote system, whilst the United States might be better served by the Alternative Vote (also called the Instant Run-Off). If we are stuck with the systems we have now, we will see two parties that are dissimilar enough to anger the constituency, but never enough to change. – SDM

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If you’d like to read my other posts in this year’s challenge, check them out here.

Photo by Harry Lustig

#atozchallenge: Vote of No Confidence

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When I go to the gym, I generally watch C-SPAN whilst I’m on the treadmill. (I know, I know, you don’t have to say anything–I’m a politics wonk). I am struck by a few things: first, that C-SPAN and C-SPAN 2 are incredibly well-made television stations; second, holy crap senate and house meetings are boring; and finally, what, exactly, have we hired our representatives to do?

Important meetings are very sparsely attended. I realise that in an election season most representatives have shirked their duties to go and beg for resources back home, but the work of being a representative is not over, and should be just as diligently done at the beginning of the year as at the end.

And even in session, representatives should actually be working for their constituents, and not for whomever gave them the most money. I realise this is probably a pie-in-the sky dream, but as long as they are not working for us, we should stop voting them in. The issue is, of course, that not many people watch C-SPAN during their day. The fact that the sessions are boring and hard to follow is done purposefully. It is the same thing as teachers using specialised vocabulary to talk about their job. It makes one feel special; it’s using all your expertise and of course you want to show off. But it cuts off people that could probably help you or at least champion your cause.

Watch C-SPAN! Learn some stuff! Know what your representative is doing in your name. And if you don’t like what they’re doing, vote them out! – SDM

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If you’d like to read my other posts for this year’s A to Z challenge, check them out here.

Photo by PDP

#atozchallenge: USA, USA, USA!

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One of the first things most visitors to the United States mention is that American flags are everywhere: in front of homes; in restaurants; in classrooms. The last one, in classrooms, is always disconcerting. It is a stark reminder of the weird patriotic symbolism of the United States: we are united under one flag, when we cannot be united under any other thing.

Saying the pledge daily is a compulsory activity, but not saying it is protected speech. I stopped saying the pledge in high school, for a few reasons. I was against the war in Iraq and felt that the pledge was compulsory nationalism, something that as a German made me uncomfortable. I also did not feel that America was just, or free, for everyone.

Now, as a teacher, I stand but do not say the pledge. I have had students ask me why, and I generally tell them that I didn’t feel comfortable saying it as a dual citizen. Sometimes I tell them that historically, compulsory nationalism doesn’t always end well. I obviously do not force any student to say it if they do not want to; it’s not my business to know why they aren’t saying it.

Patriotism is a choice, and the compulsory nature of the pledge denies choice. – SDM

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If you’d like to read my other posts in this year’s A to Z challenge, check them out here.

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#atozchallenge: Tout et rien- a September 11th Story

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11 September 2001: We watch the towers come down in horror from a classroom. I sit in the office at school; my mother is coming to take me home. We are all scared, and there are a million rumors flying about. All we know is that it is definitely a terrorist attack and the last plane, the one that came down in Pennsylvania, is the one that was headed to the White House. I write in my journal:

In praise to our Lord and Lady
Help us see the light through the smoke.
Help us in our quest for justice

For it is JUSTICE, not REVENGE
for which we are searching.

I am for the Operation Enduring Freedom. We are no longer allowed to wait for our friends and family at the boarding gate. My mother tells me that my grandfather was at the opening of the World Trade Centres.

15 March 2005: My very best university friend and I go to New York. We visit Ground Zero; it is a huge gaping wound that we stare at through a chain-link fence. We are both stunned, tears in our eyes. We stand and stare at the hole, and then walk on, shaken, saddened. It greys the rest of our day. (New York City itself was a wonderful experience. I can see why it it is easy to fall in love with the place.)

11 September 2006: I am in Lyon, France for a semester abroad. I am out with friends in an elegant café and there is suddenly a crowd of people demonstrating, waving Palestinian flags and carrying anti-zionist slogans. The year before there had been massive demonstrations in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris, and a few months previous there had been demonstrations across France. Both of my parents are nervous but I am twenty and fearless.

The demonstration scares my friends and me, and we nervously head to the subway and to our respective homes. I live in the centre of the city, in the Presque-Île. I call my mother from my bedroom, watching the demonstration from my window. She warns me to stay inside. I don’t even realise the date until the next day.

4 December 2006: I am at a house party in Lyon, sitting on a sofa. The man across from me is drunk, like I am. He keeps asking me questions about Bush, about Iraq, and I am struggling, not just in French, but with my ideology. I feel as though I must defend and explain the American psyche, even though I myself don’t agree with it. I spend a lot of time on the balcony, staring down the beautiful boulevard, confused and dismayed.

11 September 2011: I am in London. It is a beautiful day and I am walking home on the Edgeware Road. There is a police presence, and of course I am curious. There are men with long beards and taqiyahs and hijabi women holding signs that say America is at war with Islam and Muslims and anti-war slogans. I am filled with shame for having supported the strikes in Afghanistan, and I stand and watch the protest.

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Photo taken by the author.

My neighbour tells me that one of the bombs that exploded during the 7 July bombings was the tube station that is directly behind our flats, platform 4, Edgeware Road. It has been a decade for me, but only five painful short years for her. Britain was America’s first ally during Operation Freedom. I do not know anything any more.

Until we meet again. – SDM

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