John Oliver: Confederacy – when we are ashamed of our history

Spray paint lettering covers the confederate monument on the Denton courthouse lawn Monday morning. Photo by Kristen Watson/DRC

John Oliver: Confederacy – what happens when we are ashamed of our history

Statues of the Confederacy have caused a lot of debate over the past few years in the US. They have now become the subject of the award winning informative comedy show, “Last Week Tonight” with it’s host John Oliver.

It is an interesting subject for Third Culture, as cultures mix and merge, so our standards and view of history also change. What happens when we are embarrassed about a part of our history? Do we attempt to erase it?

This subject is made that much more complex when parts of society still revere figures and periods in history that others do not.

With the case of the Confederacy, the debate intensifies over what to do with the statues that glorify men that were actually rebels and fought to uphold the right to own slaves.

The argument for

Many whom argue that the statues should remain, use the argument that these statues are a part of their history. No matter how ashamed of history a society might be, they can’t simply erase it. In fact, we should always remember our history.

John Oliver points out that some are so hell-bent on defending their monuments, that they are prepared to distort the facts or distance themselves from uncomfortable truths.

The show displays one man who makes an argument to keep the statues, saying that it honours his ancestry. That his ancestor, though he may be a rebel, fought for his rights. That being a rebel, and fighting for ones rights is worth remembering. The sad fact is, that those rights were for the rights to own slaves. This man avoids that by suggesting he does not know that for sure because,  “I wasn’t there”.


Protecting Others

As cultures merge and values adapt, so society has to be mindful of others. The situations can be complicated as arguments can be made that a society might lose much of its culture by being politically correct. However in this case, the statues do cause pain to others and promote a period that had very different values to the current one.


Not responsible for what our ancestors did

It is also extremely uncomfortable to learn that our ancestors may have been involved in a period of history that we are ashamed of.

John Oliver jokes that all Englishmen can relate. He personally, would like to “return to an Indian restaurant at some point in my life” – referring to the complicated period of history when India was colonised by the British Empire.

Oliver suggests that though people may be tempted to ignore those facts or those periods in history, ignorance too may cause pain to others. This can be especially true when, though you may disagree with the actions of your ancestors, those actions may have caused you to have certain advantages or disadvantages.

Instead, Oliver suggests that the best way to deal with uncomfortable historical truths, is to face them head on.

“We do have to reckon personally and as a country with what our heritage means.”

Especially when it comes to slavery:

“You can’t ignore it…You can’t say it’s something else. You’ve got to actively, painfully come to grips with slavery and the lasting benefits and disadvantages that it conferred…”

On Monuments and Statues

The argument, made by some, that removing statues is removing a piece of history and culture; Oliver suggests is “ridiculous”:

“monuments are not how we record history…Books are… Museums are.”

Statues, he offers, “are how we glorify people”.

Therefore the best thing to do with monuments that are no longer appropriate, is not to forget them, but to place them surrounded by appropriate historical context: like a museum.

Robert E. Lee

Oliver highlights an interesting fact, that even the Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, was not in favor of war monuments. When Lee was asked if there should be a monument constructed in honour of Gettysburg, he replied:

“I think it wiser…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”


“Last Week Tonight”

Whether you are American or not, the confederacy and this episode of “Last Week Tonight” raises some interesting cultural issues. Oliver’s suggestions, though always said in humour, are also very poignant.

Watch the full episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on their YouTube channel here:



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