The old Oliver oil

When you're swayed by satire, you blithely follow the piper

October 12, 2015 01:55 pm | Updated October 13, 2015 01:58 pm IST

This is a blog post from

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is sheer pleasure to experience. His super-smart blend of comedic timing and soothsayer persona is seriously persuasive even if you discount the formidable research team providing irrefutable data to bolster his hilarious newstainment from backstage. With his unique brand of no-jokes-barred political satire which often borders on pure investigative journalism, he has arguably emerged as something of a go-to messiah among viewers – mostly youngsters deeply sceptical of the mainstream media — across the world today. I like his spinoff show way better than the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, his former workspace.

Oliver's use of satire gives him great power, and dominant narratives are like malleable putty in his hands. Best part is, he knows how to use this power for good. Like the stunt he pulled when he set up a fake church to show how unassailable such evangelical organisations are. And that they get tax exemptions easy-peasy. Or when he created Jeff, the diseased lung, to alter perceptions about smoking.

Now, I love John Oliver and I hope that I’ve established that quite adequately. But somewhere, you can’t help but be wary that he may be abusing the instrument of satire — or at the very least, using satire to advance flawed arguments.

Satire is such a powerful thing. It twists logic into a gravitational field of its own. It invariably sways you. And when you’re swayed, you blithely follow the piper. But I think you should care where the piper is piping you to as well.

And it’s because I admire Oliver so very much that I owe it to his tutelage to read between his own lines and humbly pick some glaring holes in his very entrancingly funny arguments from one of the recent episodes featuring the issue of food waste. I can’t believe he actually tried to use his power to fool us into believing that food which LOOKS bad to us — narrow-minded self-centred beings bent upon ensuring their health is not compromised — is NEVER ACTUALLY bad. Here, check the segment out here and see if you agree:

So, grocers do not want to donate expired produce because they are afraid of being sued. Is that such a bad thing? Would you rather they got over their petty fear of being slammed by a lawsuit and then went on to kill a bunch of hungry homeless people with food that’s gone bad? It’s called DECAY. Food does go bad. Do you not see how Oliver is trying to befuddle you by equating very real jeopardous situations like DYING FROM FOOD POISONING with a blond kid’s irrational fear of post-prandial swimming cramps?

And of course, what more effective way to denounce something than by comparing it to the abhorrent hedonic-capitalistic “American Way”? Yes, we all hate Americans for their gluttony and their heart-clogging high-rise hamburgers. But to say that it is this decadent mindset that makes someone not pick a rotten-looking fruit for his salad is misrepresentative, to say the least.


Ok, Mr. John Nothing-Said-In-My-Naturally-Sarcastic-Accent-Can-Be-Disingenuous Oliver. So, when I’m not allowed to judge the edibility of a food product by its shrivelled appearance, and you won’t allow me to set store by what food manufacturers say is the longest the product can interact with the air without decaying, what AM I supposed to do to ensure I don’t consume a bunch of disease-causing mould and bacteria with the khaki-tinged peach that you’d have me chomp down? Because what you’re essentially telling me to do is lower my health and safety standards. Which is not something you should be recommending to anyone in any context.


So, I have to ask myself — because Oliver never actually answers these key questions while dispensing his unique brand of comic-persuasion-slash-radical-journalism: Is a grocer being hasty in deciding to dump the leftover produce at the end of a certain period? Can the produce have sat longer on the shelves without being deemed inedible? Can food just LOOK bad without necessarily BEING bad? When the Consumer Union senior scientist in one of the clips says the Food Corporation-approved sell-by dates are negligible because there is “complete confusion” in the labelling process, does it mean we need to collectively boycott our only empirical means of exercising health-consciousness or does it mean that we should campaign for better standards in food safety evaluation?


I’m actually pretty curious now as to what constitutes “expired food”. Because that’s the real question. Are these food products that fill landfills really still edible when they’ve been disposed of? If yes, what are the real reasons that perfectly good food is being dumped? Does it come down to sheer profligacy and callousness? Because if that’s the case, that’s just being dumb and all we need to do is be the change, right?

Yes, I do think Oliver is on the ball when he suggests that providing tax credits for donations of food would give grocers/retailers a much-needed incentive to not throw away perfectly good food that’s too expensive otherwise to transport to the needy. And that’s the only reliable and substantive point Oliver makes by way of a solution to the problem of food waste. Not “(a.) resolving to eat uglier fruit (b.) taking expiration dates with a pinch of salt, or (c.) no longer worrying about getting sued by high-powered lawyers representing the hungry”.

In the context of the family/consumer, I’d say the solution has to be to buy food economically with a strict understanding of the proportions you require, and no more. And then, to consume it efficiently. That’s pretty much all that can be done, really, as I see it. But PLEASE don’t propagate or buy into the argument that sell-by dates are mythical notions that only the gullible could have. Or that you are being stupid and prejudiced to shrink from eating misshapen and smelly fruit. Or conflating the cabbage-sellers’ prudent disposal of damaged produce with a fear of lawsuits. These aren’t risks you want to take. Much less recommend to millions who hang on your every comic word like unripe fruit hangs on its stem.

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