Inserting dick pics into public discourse

Last night I spent more time than I should have watching Last Week Tonight on YouTube, including the episode featuring John Oliver’s Edward Snowden interview. A series of man-on-the-street interviews show near universal ignorance about government surveillance programs in general and the NSA leaks in particular. In a decidedly uncomfortable moment, Oliver captures Snowden’s reaction to interviewees who do not recognize his name or confuse him with Julian Assange. (Hypothetical casting directors for a hypothetical adaptation of Night Watch take note: this is what your Reg Shoe looks like.) Oliver then has Snowden explain various surveillance programs through the more personalized lens of the dick pic. In a segment which is overtly hilarious, predictable, and somewhat uncomfortable in its implications, the man-on-the-street interviews are repeated, and the possibility of spying upon communication in the dick pic genre rouses public ire. It’s a puerile, well-executed stunt, and the underlying message is one that should be taken to heart by public historians and anyone else concerned with reaching a broad audience. Making people care is all about finding the right hook. Oliver succeeded in boiling NSA surveillance down to an accessible elevator pitch and also provided an example of what it is public historians (and other public intellectuals) can do in their most effective moments.

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