Wednesday, 20 August 2014


I want to highlight a popular mode of contemporary double-speak, exemplified in this short Guardian piece by one Peter Preston. He's bemoaning that John Oliver airs his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on the US' HBO, rather than on a British broadcaster, from which political satire apparently originates. That's fine. He then suggests this came about because British broadcasters have no stomach for "digging the boot in" & speaking truth to power, which is also fine.

The clever ruse at play here is the attribution of Britain's satirical cowardice to an environment of "huff-puff, humourless outrage", or what we in Australia refer to as "political correctness gone mad". The prestidigitation is to present John Oliver's success as caused (or at least enabled somehow) by American culture's more-relaxed attitude towards politically oppressive speech. He offers some examples of the "problem" at work in recent British discourse:

Jeremy Clarkson receives a "final warning" from the BBC for mumbling the n-word in 2012.

The BBC's apology for Iain Lee's casual racism on his breakfast program.

The Daily Mail lambasting Sandi Toksvig for comparing to Ed Miliband to a terminally ill child.

This is a patently idiotic position to take if one knows anything at all about the cultures of these two places, which is why he doesn't say it directly; his statements refer instead to a more-general absence of "bite" in British political satire that renders it lame next to the likes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His examples, however, all uniformly involve examples of institutional backlash against insensitive speech.

Aside from being factually ridiculous from a cultural standpoint, this shamelessly dishonest commentary paints over Oliver's total aversion to insensitive speech of exactly this sort, and the numerous examples of American satirists - such as Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report - being harshly criticised by the public for insensitive speech. John Oliver has indeed demonstrated a masterful ability to deliver timely and hilarious political satire, but he has done so uniformly without straying into the kind of casual denigration of minorities that has plagued vacuous, irrelevant dinosaurs like Jeremy Clarkson or frat-boy misogynists like Daniel Tosh.

This is the double-speak that ossified champions of lazy mainstream maligning of minorities resort to in 2014. "Look how much I love progressive, popular acts like John Oliver" they announce to establish their connection to a time post-1990, "sure would be nice if Britain allowed casual racism huh" comes the completely non-sequitur follow-up. This is not only utter nonsense when spelled out clearly, it's also a slimy attempt to "claim" John Oliver as one of their ilk of rapidly-aging buffoons. In reality Oliver obviously goes to considerable lengths to avoid speaking insensitively, despite his platform on HBO offering him an opportunity to do so.

Herein lies the actual reason John Oliver is a rising star of political satire and Jeremy Clarkson is Britain's most widely-exported non-lethal embarrassment. While Clarkson clings to a simpler age when the absence of social media protected celebs from the consequences of their toxic casual racism (along with more serious crimes), Oliver instead navigates the new age of public accountability via an ingeniously simple method: he just doesn't act like a disgusting piece of shit. While Peter Preston may share Clarkson's view that refraining from racist or sexist speech is so difficult that "even the angel Gabriel would struggle to survive with [it] hanging over his head," figures like Oliver give the lie to their shrill whine that moving with the times is impossibly difficult whilst still managing to be humorous and critical.

So now they resort to desperate co-option of those who succeed without indulging in the moral shortcomings of entertainers past. Don't fall for this rhetorical misdirection: the downwards-punching cowardice of British (and Australian!) comedy is far more detrimental to its success than the rapidly-burgeoning public insistence on political correctness. The "we just need to convince the public it's OK to be racist again!" crowd of decaying social warriors are on the wrong side of history. Disembark from their doomed bandwagon now, while you still have any credibility left! Complaining about political correctness is going to be the future equivalent of your racist grandparent who complains there are "too many black people on television these days."

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