On his show last night, John Oliver did the best interview with Edward Snowden conducted so far, as well as the only one involving both a picture of John Oliver’s penis and a pair of stars-and-stripes patterned truck nuts. It was a triumph of both journalism and artful dick metaphors.
This is by far the biggest interview since Last Week Tonight launched; Oliver interviewed Snowden in Moscow, something not many journalists have been able to achieve. He asked him immediately whether he missed America, Hot Pockets, and the state of Florida (kind of, yes, long silence). He also really pushed Snowden to explain why he felt releasing the NSA documents to the press was acceptable despite the potential risk to American security personnel, pointing out that the New York Times improperly redacted a 2010 document, making it possible to see the name of an NSA agent and the fact that they had an Al Qaeda target in Mosul.
Oliver also delved into a fairly challenging discussion about why Americans tend to believe domestic spying is unacceptable but why mass surveillance systems are just fine when deployed against other countries, a subject, Oliver pointed out, that Americans “don’t give any remote shit about.”
Snowden expressed relief that so many Americans did seem to give a shit, though, telling Oliver: “I was initially terrified that this was going to be a three-day story. Everybody was going to forget about it. But when I saw that everybody in the world said, ‘Whoa, this is a problem, we have to do something about this,’ it felt like vindication.”
But Oliver cleverly used man on the street interviews to show that a lot of people only have the barest grasp of who Snowden is or what he released (“He sold some information to people,” was one answer. “He revealed a lot of documents through WikiLeaks,” was another. That’s Julian Assange.) So he had Snowden explain the NSA and Prism — the program the U.S. government uses to collect internet communications from several major providers, including Google, Yahoo and Facebook — by handing him a picture of his dick in a manila folder.
“This is the most visible line in the sand for people,” Oliver said. “Can they see my dick?” They went through each NSA program, establishing that in each, John Oliver’s internet-sent dick pic, as well as, in some countries, his phone conversations regarding his dick pic, are surveillable by the NSA.
“I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk,” Snowden said, straight faced.
“Would a good takeaway from this be, until such time as we’ve sorted this out, don’t take pictures of your dick?” Oliver asked.
“No,” Snowden replied. “You shouldn’t change your behavior because a government agency somewhere is doing the wrong thing. If we sacrifice our values because we’re afraid, we don’t care about those values very much.”
You heard Edward Snowden. When you send your next nude photo, do it in his honor. Or because you’re like the majority of Americans and you still don’t get who he is or why we care.