John Oliver sits at his desk with a placard reading "we view history's progress as if it was constant and inevitable."

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver Deep-Dives Into America’s Refusal to View Our Own History Accurately

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On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver typically does a deep dive into a topical issue, usually one that is currently unfolding or relevantly recent. In the latest episode, Oliver takes aim at the very concept of American history–or rather, the terrible ways in which we as Americans choose to remember that history.

Oliver began with the ways in which America has erased crucial parts of its Black history, starting with Juneteenth or the Tulsa massacre, which most white Americans had to learn about from HBO’s Watchmen series just this year.

Beyond the straight-up erasure, Americans have an awful habit of viewing our history through rose-colored glasses. We insist on ascribing a happy ending to systemic tragedies and, possibly even worse, an endpoint. We view injustice as having an inherent arc toward rectification, as if–as Oliver lays out–there was a natural progression from slavery to the Civil War ending slavery, to the Civil Rights Movement to an end to racism. “Just a smooth, steady, upward arc,” Oliver says, describing a view that ignores a lot of things, including “white hostility and ugly backsliding.”

Ignoring that ugliness is how we get people like Senator Tom Cotton calling slavery a “necessary evil” and falsely insisting that the founding fathers always intended for the institution to be eradicated. It’s why so many people think of the Civil Rights Movement as existing basically entirely between Rosa Parks peacefully sitting on a bus and Martin Luther King, Jr. peacefully giving one great speech.

It’s how you get people like the man shown in this episode claiming we should look on the “positive” side of slavery and celebrate how we as a country “overcame” it without acknowledging that “we” didn’t overcome anything. Some Americans fought and died to convince the rest of the country to give up their known way of life and legal sense of racial superiority.

But, as Oliver puts it, “The less you know about history, the easier that it is to imagine you’d always be on the right side of it.”

“History, when taught well, shows us how to improve the world,” he says. “But history, when taught poorly, falsely claims there is nothing to improve.”

It’s also worth noting that Oliver’s overwhelmingly white writers room just added two new Black writers: Ali Barthwell and Greg Iwinski. The show, which I already loved dearly, is already better because of them.

(image: screenshot)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.