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Op-ed

John Cleese isn't racist. He's just old.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

If you hang out with comedians a lot you'll hear calls to "punch up" rather than "punch down." If you're unfamiliar with jokemonger parlance, "punching up" means sticking it to people in positions of power, authority, and privilege. Punching down means going after the little guy, or minority groups.

That duality of options has always made me uncomfortable. A standup friend of mine, Joe DeVito, hit the nail on the head during a conversation with me once. The "punching up" metaphor makes sense—if you think comedy is all about punching.

I don't tend to view comedy as punching. I hail from the Dick Van Dyke "tap dance and make people smile" camp more than the George Carlin prophet-cum-comic school of thought. Nothing against George Carlin, it's just not my core motivation. Ironic, I know, given that I make a good living as a political satirist and podcast host. (Recently I advocated legalizing hallucinogenic mushrooms, questioned basic assumptions about nuclear weapons, and made fun of Woke cultural appropriation hysteria.)

When the issue of punching up arises in inter-comic squabbling, I'll often point to Monty Python as a non-pugilistic brand of humor. What were those guys punching, exactly? Class stratification? German punctiliousness? The ossified cultural consensus on how and when to properly use a fish? Nope. Monty Python was a bunch of comedic geniuses cranking out industrial-strength absurdism. Obviously they hit upon all manner of issues, ranging from class to sexuality to the etiquette of returning dead parrots to pet stores. But if you had asked the cast if they were "punching up or punching down?" I suspect they would have rolled their eyes and offered you a lager.

For that reason I felt defensive about Monty Python alumnus John Cleese this week when the aged comedian found his way into the daily Two Minutes of Hate, which is Twitter. (Interesting John Cleese fact — he once turned down a peerage in the House of Lords because it would require him to stay in England during the winter.) Here's what Cleese said:

Some years ago I opined that London was not really an English city any more. Since then, virtually all my friends from abroad have confirmed my observation. So there must be some truth in it. ... I note also that London was the UK city that voted most strongly to remain in the EU.

This turned into a Twitter avalanche indicting John Cleese as a dog-whistling racist. I'm going to climb out on a limb here and say ... maybe he's not?

First, "Some years ago I opined that London was not really an English city anymore." Well, he's right. London is geographically English, but other than its physical proximity to Surrey, it's not English — it's global. Its last census reported that 36.7 percent of its denizens are foreign-born. About 45 percent of the people who live there are White British (Welsh, Irish, English, Scottish). Which is to say, less than half of London is English. The rest are a mélange of Europeans, non-Europeans, first- and second-generation immigrants, Klingons, Vulcans, Wookies, and folks from elsewhere in the Commonwealth and/or Narnia.

It's a global city, like New York. It is richly diverse and cosmopolitan, which is a strength and draw to millions of people who live there. However, I will argue that it's difficult to be ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan while simultaneously being homogeneously English. Mutually exclusive, in fact.

Although to be fair, people aren't mad at Cleese for observing that London isn't English, they're mad because he wishes it were. Cleese appears to prefer Englishness over multiculturalism. (Note the distinction between "culture" and "race.") Following the media storm, he tweeted, "I prefer cultures that do not tolerate female genital mutilation. Will this will be considered racist by all those who hover, eagerly hoping that someone will offend them — on someone else's behalf, naturally."

My read on the situation is that Cleese is not racist, he's old. What I mean by that is: Life is always in flux, cities are by nature dynamic, society is fluid. People tend to want things to stay static, and they don't, and that's irksome for many, particularly as they grow elderly and nostalgic. I question when London was last really "English," given that it was the imperial capital of half the globe well before he was born, and no doubt had several pockets of Indians and Jamaicans and Vulcans living there by the time he showed up.

All the same, is John Cleese allowed to prefer English over polyglot? Because I think that's the root heresy at work here: saying that English culture might be superior to some others, and preferring it to them.

New York City is far, far more diverse and multicultural than, say, Portland, Oregon. Portland is so overwhelmingly white that it's basically a giant bleach commercial with some craft breweries and street buskers thrown in. Ethnicity aside, can Portlanders prefer their cultural homogeneity over the vastly more polyglot city of Houston? So long as people agree that immigration is positive and we should be neighborly and welcoming to newcomers, I'm disinclined to hound people for their personal preferences.

I don't know whether or not John Cleese meets that threshold. We know that he favored Brexit. I suspect, based on scattershot Cleese musings, that he wants a Britain that is open and welcoming to foreigners, but that he would also like them to become polite, uptight, tea-drinking gardeners once they've moved there.

I could be wrong. I don't know the depths of John Cleese's heart, and whether or not his pro-Brexit stance comes from hatred of distant bureaucrats (good) or dislike of foreigners and immigrants (bad). I suspect most of the people shouting at him on Twitter have no idea either.

Which is my main and final point. Maybe a single isolated tweet isn't sufficient information to psychically intuit whether someone is a bigot or not? We're all on the same page here: Bigotry is bad. Don't be a racist. Don't be a homophobe. But if we're going to champion the idea that the worst non-criminal thing you can be in our culture is a bigot, then we should also be at least a tad reserved about passing out scarlet letters just because there's a slow news day and we spot a fun Twitter pile-on to get worked up about.

Were I British I would have voted "Remain" on Brexit. (I appreciate the philosophical argument to leave, but I don't think withdrawing from the common market will work out.) Which is to say, I disagree with John Cleese about Brexit. But there's a big difference between saying John Cleese is wrong, and saying John Cleese is evil.

And therein lies much of the problem with trying to solve the world's problems on Twitter.

One last thing…
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