Comedian John Oliver Wants to Make You Laugh, but More Importantly, to Think

My husband and I are huge John Oliver fans. We tune in every Sunday night on HBO and laugh heartily at his roundup of the news, from the strange lost and found mating space geckos to the question of who will hold the 2022 Olympics now that Norway has pulled out of the running (leaving, as we learned last night, only China and Kazakhstan in the running). But Oliver does something remarkable that’s not just making people laugh - he is also educating them.

Oliver has run stories on the riots in Ferguson, MO, on Payday Loans, on Net Neutrality - which itself garnered reports from several news outlets, including the Washington Post and NPR - and many others. His choice of story isn’t just the “hot” topic of a given week or a pet project that has interested him - it’s tapping into a central question, over and over: what is justice? What does it look like? Where are we being ignorant about justice where we should be educated?

Take, for example, his piece this week about civil forfeiture laws. I had never even heard of civil forfeiture, despite being very interested in matters of politics and justice. But, as I learned the other night, laws exist such that your property can be seized without you being convicted of a crime. In fact, as Oliver pointed out, there are several court cases where the investigation is against material, inanimate things - like shark fins or certain sums of money. Oliver points us to this Washington Post investigative report, which came out in September. Not very long ago, but still, long enough that I wonder why I only have the injustice of civil forfeiture laws brought to my attention by my favorite news comedy show.

As the Washington Post reported,

“Cash seizures can be made under state or federal civil law. One of the primary ways police departments are able to seize money and share in the proceeds at the federal level is through a long-standing Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. Asset forfeiture is an extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired.

The practice has been controversial since its inception at the height of the drug war more than three decades ago, and its abuses have been the subject of journalistic exposés and congressional hearings. But unexplored until now is the role of the federal government and the private police trainers in encouraging officers to target cash on the nation’s highways since 9/11.”

So there has been a longstanding controversy on this kind of seizure of property, notwithstanding the strange presumption that your property is guilty until it’s proven innocent. Yet this Post report's focus, and Oliver’s on his broadcast , is on the widespread use of this tactic on interstate highways and how the law has changed from being one targeted towards drug cartels or money laundering, to one where drivers are pulled over and their assets seized for no obvious reason. 

We should be concerned about this. We should wonder why we haven’t all read the Washington Post report and the others that have come before it. The truth is comedians like John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert have long been pointing us in the direction of better engagement with issues of news and culture. Some have a more pointed political stance or a particular audience to mock, others are more widespread. But what should make us think, and indeed, what I hope will make us think, not just about civil forfeiture or net neutrality, is how we can enter the conversation these comedians point us towards. What does it mean to be a citizen who is engaged in reforming civil forfeiture laws?

I think one of the first things is to ask questions of our elected officials. I want to know whether at the state and federal level, officials in my new home state of Texas (actually one of the states featured on Oliver’s section on this issue) are doing about reforming these laws. I want to let them know it is a priority for me that they do so. Similarly, I want to become more educated about the law itself - about what I am required or not required to do as a citizen with constitutional protections should I be pulled over by a police officer.

There is a sense in which these bits of comedic news reporting are almost paralyzing when it comes to doing justice. They tell us that it matters that we know about this, but the picture they paint of it is so gruesome that it seems pointless to engage beyond a lamentation. This isn’t necessarily true, though.

Asking tough questions of the people in political power is our responsibility as citizens concerned with justice. Asking your local representatives about the issues these comedians bring up is a critical next step in engaging, not merely spectating, in our common political life. I hope lots of you do watch John Oliver, whose clips are available on YouTube, and other comedians you enjoy. But I also hope that, as a result of laughing with them about whether or not FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is a dingo, you’ll also start to bring the critical questions they present to your local and state and federal representatives, and begin the conversation we so desperately need in the places where change is truly possible.

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog: chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.