The national debate over Confederate monuments has been going on for so long now that it hardly seems possible that Sunday night was the first time John Oliver gave it a full airing in the main segment of his show. But although Oliver talked about the Confederate flag after Dylann Roof’s shooting spree in Charleston, then again when South Carolina finally stopped flying it, those were in his opening roundups of the week’s news, not the main part of the show. Sunday night, he finally gave the controversy his full attention.
Oliver found a smart, personal framing in the career of Jimmy Savile, the British TV host who, after his death, was discovered to have sexually abused hundreds of children. Oliver reveals that, as a child, he was a fan of Savile’s show Jim’ll Fix It, in which Savile granted wishes to children who wrote in with requests. Although Savile never replied, a young John Oliver wrote one of those letters, asking to be made the mascot for Liverpool Football Club. But despite being a nationally beloved part of British culture during his life, the country made short work of monuments to Saville—a statue, a street name, and even the man’s headstone—after his victims came forward. The reason, as Oliver says, was simple:
Once we found out that he was a monster, we accepted that it was no longer appropriate to publicly glorify him.
When it comes to the Confederacy—“America’s tracksuit sex offender”—you shouldn’t really have to make more of a case than that, but Oliver does, winding through everything from the Cornerstone Speech (Oliver: “if the Confederacy was not about slavery, somebody should really go back in time and tell the fucking Confederacy”) to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, which Slate’s Aisha Harris reported on in August. There’s not a lot of new information here, but Oliver’s explanation of the states’ rights argument is a spectacular bit of nonsense writing in the service of exposing nonsense:
And on that states’ rights argument: For the record, the southern states were ardently pro-states’ rights, but with some glaring exceptions. Notably, when northern states passed laws to help protect runaway slaves, the south wanted the federal government to override those states’ laws. So they loved states’ rights, as long as they were the right states’ rights. The wrong states’ rights would be states’ wrongs, wrongs which would need to be righted by the right states’ rights—look, to put it really simply, they wanted to own black people and they didn’t much care how.
Oliver also shows a notable empathy for the descendants of Confederates, noting that, “sometimes, the understandable desire to want to distance your relative from that cause can lead to people distorting the cause itself.” As a model for how to reckon with discovering that your ancestors did evil things, Oliver offers Larry David, who, in his appearance on Finding Your Roots, seemed delighted (in a “well, what-do-ya-know!” way, not a “that’s my heritage and I respect it” way) that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had managed to locate both a Confederate soldier and a slave-owner in his family tree. (Ben Affleck was less thrilled when Gates did the same thing for him.) But his argument here isn’t for blitheness so much as it is for honesty: the national reckoning with slavery’s awful legacy that we have somehow avoided for centuries.
But there will always be a conflict between the natural human desire to be proud of who we are and where we came from and the fact that, for white Southerners, where they came from was a kleptocracy built on racial violence. Fortunately, Oliver has some ideas about great Americans we could honor in the place of Robert E. Lee: Robert Smalls, who escaped slavery by commandeering a Confederate gunboat and went on to serve in Congress, Bessie Coleman, who became a daredevil aviator despite having to travel to France to get a pilot’s license, and a couple of more outlandish proposals, including a very much-not-a-statue cameo from Stephen Colbert. While the state of Florida might not appreciate Oliver’s suggestion that they replace their Confederate monuments with a statue of an alligator flipping the bird, they’ll have a hard time claiming the moral high ground: New monuments to the Confederacy were still being erected in Florida in 2005. Talk about a middle finger.