John Oliver is here to help us. Like many other deep-thinking entertainers from our nation’s mother country, Oliver has arrived with the answers to our problems. From Piers Morgan to Russell Brand, American Progressives adore these pundits whose outsider status supposedly allows them to see the entirety of the American forest in spite of its trees.
In a recurring segment of his show called “How Is This Still a Thing,” Oliver tries to prune the branches of American history and culture that he thinks are poisoning our country. Columbus Day, Ayn Rand, and dressing in ethnic costumes all fall under the edge of his prattle axe. But what is striking are not the objects of his scorn. They are the predictable Progressive pet peeves that make most Americans roll their eyes. What is far worse is that Oliver is engaging in the very ancient and very dangerous practice of damnatio memoriae.
A Latin term meaning “damnation of memory,” damnatio memoriae is the act of stripping all references of a person or thing from historical memory. Used as far back as ancient Egypt by Pharaohs jealous of their predecessors and codified in Imperial Rome as a punishment for unpopular Emperors, damnatio memoriae was among these culture’s most serious censures. While executing or destroying a person or thing stopped it from continuing the damage it was allegedly causing, wiping it from history sought in some way to erase the past, and in so doing wipe away the crimes that led to the punishment. It never really worked. As it turns out, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to hide all traces of a phenomenon, especially those showcased by controversy. But the historical failure of damnatio memoriae doesn’t stop Oliver from trying.
In all likelihood, when Oliver ponders “why X is still a thing,” he really means, “Why are we still doing X?” Why do we celebrate Columbus Day, why do we read Ayn Rand, etc. But words matter, and so does context. Oliver isn’t arguing that Columbus, Rand, and ethnic costumes need to be better understood, he is arguing they need to wiped from our collective memory. He is attempting to use a rhetorical sharpie to redact history, just as the Pharaoh Horemheb chiseled out all references to his predecessor Akhenaten. It took a few millennia, but eventually Akhenaten was rediscovered by egyptologists and, lo and behold, no disasters ensued from his return to history.
It’s Not Just John Oliver
In fairness the resurgence of damnatio memoriae was widely practiced in Progressive circles before Oliver coined the title of his catchy segments. In a great many areas of American life, Progressives have succeeded in burying the memory of phenomena they deem shameful. Anyone of a certain age probably remembers the yearly broadcasts of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire’s one-time classic, “Holiday Inn.” While the movie, made famous by introducing the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas,” is still shown on AMC, the Lincoln’s birthday number done in blackface has been cut from the film. How better off we are, pretending such musical numbers never existed.
The irony is that when the Museum of Modern Art recently unearthed the earliest film starring a black cast, from 1913, black actor Bert Williams, who played the lead role, wore— you guessed it—blackface. Are we to throw out Williams’s talent and pioneering courage with the bathwater of Crosby’s blackface tribute to Lincoln? Or is a bit of nuanced understanding required here?
In the area of history the Progressive penchant for censorship has caused recent outrage about the new Advanced Placement history curriculum framework. Ben Carson hyperbolically argued that the “new history” would make any student want to join the Islamic State. Calmer criticisms of the changes to the historical record have been found in these pages. Much attention has been paid to the exclusion or short shrifting of once well-respected figures in American history. But the much more serious issue is the wholesale expungement of a once-common favorable treatment of the American experience. The phenomenon having its memory damned in this case is the very idea that the United States was a product and is a producer of good intentions. For many Progressives, the idea that the United States is a force for good in the world simply is, in Oliver’s parlance, just not a thing anymore.
Forget Nuance and Bury What You Don’t Understand
John Oliver comes to bury the objects of his scorn, not to praise them. But many of us who lend an ear to his snappy and often childishly obscene vignettes come away with a deeper understanding of why his targets are still things. His takedown of Rand is a perfect illustration of this. After exploring the “selfishness” of her philosophy with all the depth of an article in Highlights magazine, he proceeds to expose her positions that run counter to modern conservatism, specifically her support for abortion and her poor opinion of Ronald Reagan. But fear not, after sharing these “laudable” opinions, he wraps it all up showing Rand calling Native Americans savages. Maybe, just maybe, Rand is still a thing because she presents a worldview and set of ideas that we are still struggling to fully understand. But in the Progressive paradise Oliver and his devotees are constructing, complicated ideas simply have no place.
Damnatio memoriae is almost always a tool of the tyrant. Like the Cultural Revolution in China or the Protestant Enlightenment myth that the Catholic Middle Ages were a time of ignorant darkness, Oliver is attempting to simplify complex historical and cultural events for totalitarian purposes. His smug pronouncements about how obvious all of this is insult anyone who wants to examine society for himself. It is the act of an ontological policeman, a fascistic attempt to deny the very existence of that which stands between reality and the Progressive promised land. James Joyce realized as much in “Finnegan’s Wake,” with his fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper. He writes: “The Gracehoper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity.” This describes Oliver perfectly. In his fabulist hope for grace, he ignores ontological reality and consumes all of experience in one big bite, failing to understand the value of saving intellectual room for later.
Even a decade ago it would have been easy to laugh off Oliver’s dustbin of history segments as the meaningless musings of a middling comedian. But at a time when NBC News seriously considered having Jon Stewart host the oldest, most established political television show in American history, Oliver’s antics should give us pause—and they should be addressed head-on. When these segments are shared far and wide on social media it should be made perfectly clear that there is not, nor should there be, any body of people or opinions who arbitrate what is or is not a thing.
If John Oliver really wonders why Columbus Day, Ayn Rand, and dressing up as ethnic characters are still things, there is a perfectly obvious answer for him. People enjoy these things, people think about these things, people experience these things, even though other people may detest these things. And these are also exactly the reasons why Oliver’s own television show is, at least for now, still a thing.