John Oliver dedicated his latest Last Week Tonight deep dive to the contentious debate over Confederate monuments, exploring the issue’s nuances in a typically well-researched and engrossing main story while still making time for the occasional dick joke.
Oliver starts by using an out-of-left-field example to make his overall case, introducing viewers to English TV personality and predatory sex offender Jimmy Savile. “Once we found out that he was a monster,” Oliver points out, “we accepted it was no longer appropriate to publicly glorify him.”
After making that case-in-point, the Last Week Tonight host turns his focus to the Confederacy itself, using Confederate leaders’ own words to establish that slavery—specifically, “the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man”—was an explicitly stated, core Confederate belief. “If the Confederacy was not about slavery, somebody should really go back in time and tell the fucking Confederacy that,” Oliver says.
Oliver then addresses various attempts to sanitize and even romanticize Confederate history, empathizing with pro-Confederate folks while pointing out the corrosive effects of their mental gymnastics. “I honestly get wanting a more comfortable history for your family,” Oliver says, “but in doing so, you can’t invent a more comfortable history for your country, because you would be erasing the actual, painful experiences of many Americans.”
Oliver goes on to document how not to reckon with the harsh reality of our Confederate history (e.g., Ben Affleck asking PBS program Finding Your Roots to quash a segment exposing his family’s slave-owning ancestry), as well as how to face and come to terms with that history (e.g., Anderson Cooper and Larry David appearing on that very same program, and reacting to the revelation that they each had Confederate forebears).
In a particularly disturbing part of the story, Oliver digs into the facts about when the majority of Confederate memorials actually went up: long after the Civil War, not purely in honor of Civil War-era figures, but as a means of asserting white supremacy during periods of racial unrest. Many of these monuments—including the carving on the side of Stone Mountain, just down the road from Paste’s Decatur, Ga., headquarters—even have direct ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
And Oliver is not having the idea that these statues are worth preserving because they are a part of history: “Monuments are not how we record history—books are, museums are, Ken Burns 12-part miniseries are,” he says. “Statues are how we glorify people.” The host also dismisses the slippery slope argument, suggesting “the Hitler-Hanks spectrum” as a means of judging whether a particular figure deserves a monument in their honor. This particular bit is typical Last Week Tonight: couching an urgent, nuanced bit of wisdom in a silly joke.
Oliver’s segment ends wonderfully, with the host holding up several Southern figures who are far more worthy of celebration than any Confederate. The last of those prospective monuments, which Oliver recommends for Charleston, S.C., is one of that city’s favorite sons: none other than Oliver’s former Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert.
See how obnoxious a Colbert monument would be in the full segment above.