Thomas Nast and John Oliver: Power in the Past & Present (and Future)

Thomas Nast was the most influential artist of the 19th century. Many of his drawings exposed corruption within systems like law enforcement and the government, and even expressed his opposition of certain presidential policies. He had the ability to sway an audience with his brilliance and artistic depictions of his personal standing on political and societal issues in the form of caricature. Nast was a man of privilege who had success and access, but spoke for the people.In the current century and for similar purposes, John Oliver does the same with verbal satire on his show Last Week Tonight.

In the video, John Oliver calls out government sponsored lotteries for false advertising, in which their motives are portrayed to be for the greater good, but what they are really doing is exploiting low income earning citizens and encouraging them to gamble – which equals billions of dollars for them. The lotteries create ads that send false messages about where the player’s money goes and what it’s used for, like funding education. But this is hardly true. The ads also try to give the people a false sense of hope that winning mega millions is possible for them, which is very unlikely to happen. This, in a way, also enables people struggling with gambling addiction.

“Most satirists enhance those feelings [of protest] by careful choice of language. They employ not only accurate descriptive words, but also words which are apt to startle and dismay the average reader. Brutally direct phrases, taboo expressions, nauseating imagery, callous and crude slang – these are the part of the vocabulary of every satirist.” (Dunphy, pg. 17)

Both Nast and Oliver act as satirists, speaking for the people by using their own specific crafts, and in doing so, they establish trust with their audience. I think not only do they attempt to condemn people in powerful positions, challenge their thought process, actions, and right their wrongs, comedians like Thomas Nast and John Oliver also serve to inform us so that we are aware of what goes on within the systems and how it affects us.

“Effective satire elevates the discourse and brings those in power down to the commoners and allows us to laugh at them,” (Dunphy, pg. 50). Another reason I believe the use of satire is powerful is because satirists say what many people already think but don’t have the clout, access, or even the capability to articulate and voice their thoughts publicly.

It is interesting, the amount of power the media has. On the one hand, the lottery ads are powerful because it not only does it persuade people to gamble (regular lotto players in particular), but it even justifies why they should spend their money on tickets with claims that the money spent is beneficial to others. On the other side of power in media, there is John Oliver who has a very respectable following because he knows how to bring the truth forth. His “reports” aren’t merely for laughs (well some of them are), but they are thought provoking.


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