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John Oliver Confronts Swiss UN Ambassador On Neutrality During World War II (VIDEO)

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:50 PM ET

What Makes A Man Turn Neutral

On last night's "Daily Show", correspondent John Oliver followed up a segment on a recent vote in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets with an interview that displayed the sort of journalistic guts so sadly absent among the landed gentry in our press. I hesitate, greatly, to blow a comedy bit out of undue proportion, but there are nevertheless some key journalistic virtues at work in the piece that deserve some magnification, if you'll allow the indulgence.

Oliver used the news story to make a point about the overall character of the nation of Switzerland. Rather than take the glib remarks of Switzerland's UN Ambassador Peter Maurer at face value, presenting them as stenography and letting it stand as just another "interesting viewpoint" in the marketplace of ideas, he confronted the illogic and batted it back, unconcerned that it would make his interviewee upset or ruin someone's opportunity to have "access." This is precisely what "meeting the press" should look like.

The key exchange occurs at 7:50 in this video below, after several minutes of comedy beat-sweetening, that's all just a set-up to the actual prosecution of a viewpoint. Watch as Maurer attempts to advance precisely the sort of point of view that flourishes in a media culture that privileges nonsense at the same level of intelligence, and how Oliver reacts:

OLIVER: How hard was it to remind neutral during World War II?


MAURER: Well, I think this is always a debate and I think we do make a clear distinction between our neutrality as an instrument of foreign policy and what we think as individuals and what the country thinks.

OLIVER: But then, the neutrality issue seems complicated. Now obviously, Hitler did some very bad things, we know that. How do you focus on the positive things to balance that out?

MAURER: It's not a question of positive. It's a question of our neutrality has always been a state-driven concept of not participating in war.

OLIVER: Was there not just a little voice of humanity inside you saying this is terrible, we should really do something about it?

MAURER: As a question of principle, it's unadvisable for a country as small as ours to participate in war. Why should we?

OLIVER: So: Easy to take a position on neutrality, hard to take a position on Hitler.

MAURER: We did take strong positions on Hitler and many other things. We didn't participate in the war. That's two different things.

OLIVER: [imitating Hitler] "Would it be possible for me to keep my gold here?" [Imitating the Swiss] "Ah, Adolf! Of course! Lovely to see you again. Come back in! What have you been up to? Actually, don't tell me, I want to be able to say I don't know."

[uncomfortable pause]

OLIVER: Is this neutral anger, or real anger, Mr. Ambassador?

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