John Oliver gets to the crux of why the Snowden leaks matter: mass surveillance of dick pics

"I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk."

John Oliver managed to pull off a Very Special Episode on Sunday evening, surprising viewers by revealing that he'd gone to Russia last week for an interview with Edward Snowden.

As part of the comedian's evolution into a neo-Edward R Murrow, his trip to Moscow had a catalyst - the upcoming 1 June deadline for renewing several crucial sections of the Patriot Act that allow mass surveillance of foreign and domestic individuals and organisations, as revealed by Snowden in his leaks. Except, as Oliver points out, nobody cares. He illustrated it by taking a camera to Time Square in New York City and asking passers-by at random if they knew who Edward Snowden is, and most people had no idea. Some even thought he had something to do with Wikileaks. It's not a scientific poll, but it's probably accurate - the discussions and debates that should have been taking place over the last two years haven't been at the centre of the American political scene.

The thing that makes Oliver's Last Week Tonight so interesting - and so influential, in such a short space of time, compared to his old home The Daily Show - is that Oliver understands what makes people care. It's kind of hard not to develop an intuitive sense of that as a comedian, but the potency of Oliver's advocacy for certain issues is that he makes dull issues into funny ones, while remaining sincerely informative. (Or, if not funny, at least amusing.) He did it best with net neutrality, but it applies just as much to his ribbing of tobacco companies or college basketball.

So, with Snowden, Oliver rightly points out that whenever he (or someone else) starts talking about how a bunch of strange government schemes with names like "Prism" and "X-Keyscore" are dangers to individual liberty, "it's like the IT guy comes into your office, and you go 'ohh, shit, oh shit, don't teach me anything, I don't want to learn, you smell like canned soup'". It's the most down-to-earth recorded interview I've ever seen Snowden be a part of:

Oliver: But, just to be clear here, we're talking two different things here. Domestic surveillance and foreign surveillance.

Snowden: Right.

O: Because domestic surveillance, Americans give some of a shit about. Foreign surveillance, they don't give any, remote shit about.

S: Well, the second question is when we talk about foreign surveillance, we're talking about whether we're applying it in ways that are beneficial-

O: No one cares. [shakes head] They don't give a shit.

S: We spied on Unicef. The children's fund.

O: Sure.

S: We spied on lawyers negotiating-

O: What was Unicef doing?

S: [blank face]

O: I mean, that's the question there isn't it.

S: The question is, are these programs valuable? Are we going to be safer when we're spying on Unicef, or on lawyers who are negotiating the price of shrimp and clove cigarettes-

O: I don't think they'll say that's good. I think they'll definitely say they don't care. Americans do not give a shit-

S: I think you're right.

O: -about foreign surveillance.

Oliver's insight here is this: people will care about what Snowden revealed, when put into the context of genitals. Make it clear that this is about the government's ability to get hold of dick pics, and then you get a conversation going - and that's the thing Oliver is really pushing here, that there should be a real debate about the extension-or-otherwise of the bits of the Patriot Act that make that interception possible. Make it clear that your husband or wife's nude pics are being stored on some bureaucrats desktop somewhere, and it gets right to the crux of the privacy/security thing.

(And, side note: Oliver is also one of the few interviewers to speak to Snowden who really pushes back on some of the ethical issues surrounding his leak that others have often ignored, such as his admission that he hadn't fully read and understood many of the sensitive documents that he passed on to journalists - and he also has him accept culpability for some of the serious mistakes those journalists have made at times in not properly redacting classified information.)

"I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk," a slightly bashful Snowden admits, at the end - while Oliver sums the debate up as one about whether it's right that the US is "a country of barely-regulated government-sanctioned dick sheriffs". It may not be worthy of an Oscar, but it's a pretty effective interview.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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How do you cope after a western invasion? We hear from Iraqis rebuilding their lives

Fifteen years have passed since Tony Blair led Britain into the Iraq war, and civilians are still trying to resurrect a society they almost lost.

Fifteen years on from the Iraq war in Fallujah, a city in the Anbar province just west of Baghdad, Iraqis are still trying to piece their lives back together.

Yasser Hamid, a local civil society activist tells me that – although it’s painful to think about the past – sectarianism no longer grips the communities he works in.

While perhaps not as well-known as Baghdad or Mosul, Fallujah’s successful regeneration will be significant for the rest of the country. Fallujah was one of the first major cities to be captured by IS, and the area was previously known for its rich religious identity. Shias, Sunnis, Jews and Christians had co-existed peacefully, living side by side for centuries in the area and others such as Habbaniya, Ana and Rawa.

This diverse history and culture did not fit the IS narrative of division, leading to the persecution of minorities and an exodus of those who had lived there for their entire lives.

For those I meet, the ability to one day reinstate a culture of tolerance is therefore prized as the ultimate declaration that terrorism has been defeated and sectarianism does not belong in Iraq.

One of the most impressive acts of solidarity can be seen in the Ribat al-Mohammadi, a council of Sunni imams founded to combat extremism. Threatened by IS, the imams escaped to the nearby town of Haditha, uniting with locals who saw IS as no different from their al-Qaeda predecessors.

In the “Anbar Spring” of 2007-8, local civilians had risen up against al-Qaeda. In true defiance of terrorism’s attempts to divide, one imam proudly stated: “We had Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazidis and others fighting side by side to liberate their lands.”

Today, these imams are working to restore Fallujah’s culture of coexistence. While IS preached radical hate, the imams preach humanity, trying to confront extremist thought and demonstrate that Islam is a religion of peace, mercy and civility. They hold workshops with young Iraqis where they use their Quranic knowledge to debunk the lies spouted by radicals, and teach the next generation the importance of a strong society.

I see signs that this message is filtering through. Civil society is relatively new to the country but it is rapidly expanding. Many young people see themselves as agents of change and this subjectivity is exciting.  After all, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 30.

In Fallujah, students are replacing the propagandist slogans that IS smeared across walls with statements reading “We are all Iraq”.

In Habbaniya, I meet a local Sunni Muslim about his Christian neighbours who were forced to flee by IS. Standing near one of the town’s now disused churches, he speaks of his desire for his neighbours to return home.

“We hope that the conditions here will be just like they were before so that they would think about returning to Habbaniya,” he says. “Just like when the birds leave their area, the area becomes empty, so they are like the birds who have left, making this place empty… if they come, this place would come to life, just like a dry tree, when you give it water, it becomes green again.”

The imams of Ribat al‐Mohammadi tell me what it would take to build greater tolerance in Iraq. People here have co‐existed for thousands of years and their continued existence is proof of that,” one says. “It is not a case of building tolerance but returning to the values of tolerance that have existed prior to extremism.”

Citizens want their country to be known for its rich history and influence on modern civilisation – not war and terror. It may take a generation for the damage to be reversed, but rebuilding the social fabric will prove essential in piecing together the diverse sections of Iraqi society.

Haidar Lapcha is a British Iraqi activist and director at Integrity UK