May 31, 2019

One by one the herd picks people out and attempts to trample them. Not content with stampeding over people for fresh crimes, it takes to the internet to sweep the past for misdemeanors. It can now trample over people not only for new crimes of expression but for old thoughts and long-ago voiced views.

This week the bovine stampede found its target in John Cleese. Not for a freshly expressed opinion, but referring to something he had said eight years ago. Then, in an interview with Australian television, Cleese had said that London is “no longer an English city”.

The remark was made in the aftermath of the 2011 riots – during which several nights of violence paralysed the capital and briefly spread to other parts of the country. The point Cleese was making was obviously based on personal observation and said not in a spirit of venom or demagoguery but merely one of observation and regret. Which in any sane and normal world would have been an end to it.

But these are neither sane nor normal times. And, so, when Cleese this week referred again to those comments, saying: “Virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation. So there must be some truth in it…” the herd’s hooves twitched.

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Eight years ago, when Cleese made his original comments, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, criticised the comedian and his points about London feeling like a foreign city, insisting that “we should celebrate” the capital’s diversity. Likewise, on this occasion the present Mayor of London, also criticised Cleese for wrong-think. With startling originality and humour Sadiq Khan hilariously said “These comments make John Cleese sound like he’s in character as Basil Fawlty. Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength.”

Other people pointed to the fact that John Cleese these days lives in the Caribbean, as though this proved that his argument was either invalid or fallacious. Morning talk shows discussed whether Cleese’s comments were racist, while Twitter and other social media platforms seemed to agree that of course they were.

Time to ‘cancel’ him.

As though it remotely matters, I suppose I should declare my hand here. John Cleese is not a man with whom I am always in 100% ideological alignment. Some years ago, he backed a version of proportional representation being introduced into the UK voting system. Later he was a vocal supporter of the Leveson process, which threatened to detrimentally neuter the free press.

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That said, I can see why a reasonable person might have arrived at these views. And in mitigation he is John Cleese, and it would be a very sad world indeed if I ever interrupted my constant pleasure at masterpieces like The Life of Brian or Fawlty Towers for a dispute about Alternative Voting systems. But the herd does not detain itself with such finely tuned considerations. It just belts towards the target.

Still, there is clearly something especially forbidden about the other particular hornet’s nest of an issue that Cleese has now prodded twice in one decade. I suspect that is because there is some truth in there, and one of the reliable guides for gauging that you have trodden on some truth is that people start losing their reason and chanting mantras while you are trying to have a discussion.

You would get the same response, as I have explained in my last book, if you were to remark upon the official findings of the 2011/12 UK census. Which found that people who identify as ‘white British’ are a minority in London.

Whether it is Conservative or Labour politicians in charge, after the initial outrage, the mob always comes back after any such observation is made: “Diversity is our strength.” This means, then, that the progression of their general argument in relation to the demographic and cultural make-up of London goes something like this: 1) You can’t say that. 2) It’s not true. 3) It is true but it’s great.

Whenever anybody discusses the findings of the last census, this is the response: don’t mention it; you’re lying; it’s true so deal with it. Since the next census is unlikely to find an enormous reversal of those trends, we must perhaps expect only an escalation of those shrieks that emanate whenever anyone remarks upon the facts in the official documents or what they see before their eyes.

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Anyhow, since we need to find reason to be optimistic where we can these days, it is perhaps worth saying that there is something rather wonderful about this latest episode of herd mentality as it has encountered John Cleese.

It is that, true to form, the 79-year old comedian has stuck to his guns. In 1979, when ‘The Life of Brian’ was released, Cleese and his Python partner Michael Palin were memorably involved in a television debate with the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, and the then prominent Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge. The debate can still be seen through the miracle of YouTube. It has generally been agreed in the intervening years that Stockwood and Muggeridge did not win the argument.

In that studio, 40 years ago, Cleese and Palin stared down the clerical, po-faced, literalists, one of whom was of course literally wearing clerical gowns. On that occasion, Cleese made an especially impassioned and precise defence of the rights of comedians and anybody else to say what they liked even about those things which other people held to be sacred.

And he also, crucially, insisted on sticking to the significance of facts. So, when his debating partners in 1979 pretended that they knew what Cleese and the rest of the Pythons had been doing in The Life of Brian and those studio opponents were wrong, Cleese told them so.

Likewise, this week Cleese refused to back down. As the Twitter herd stampeded, Cleese insisted that people shouldn’t misrepresent his 2011 remarks. He pointed out that he was concerned about culture, not race. And he pointed out that it is perfectly “legitimate” to prefer some cultures over others.

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Cleese said, “I prefer cultures that do not tolerate female genital mutilation. Will this be considered racist by all those who hover, eagerly hoping that someone will offend them – on someone else’s behalf, naturally?”

In the world of social media mobs, this is an un-returnable move. To not prostrate yourself before the mob is an unforgivable move. To behave like an independent adult, with a mind of your own, confident in your own opinions and receptive (though dismissive when necessary) of the opinions of others, is something the herd cannot deal with.

Well good. Forty years ago Cleese’s opponents actually wore clerical frocks. Today, they might as well. Forty years ago they talked of “heresy” and “blasphemy”. Today, they talk about “diversity” and its “celebration”. They are the same breed, these opponents. Always scolding. Always unamusing. Always hypocritical. What a glorious sight it is to see that while the clerical class has entirely changed over the last 40 years, John Cleese has not.