Extremist: in any political squabble, and especially any online political squabble, the label is sure to get slapped on someone sooner or later. Of course, we never consider ourselves extremists: it’s the parameters of acceptable political discussion that wrongly frame our entirely reasonable, truth-informed views. But what if we were to embrace the extreme? “What we never hear about extremism is its advantages,” says Monty Python’s John Cleese in the television advertisement above. “The biggest advantage of extremism is that it makes you feel good because it provides you with enemies.” When you have enemies, “you can pretend that all the badness in the whole world is in your enemies and all the goodness in the whole world is in you.”
If you “have a lot of anger and resentment in you anyway,” you can justify your own uncivilized behavior “because these enemies of yours are such very bad persons, and that if it wasn’t for them, you’d actually be good-natured and courteous and rational all the time.” Sign on with the “hard left,” Cleese says, and you’ll receive “their list of authorized enemies: almost all kinds of authority, especially the police, the City, Americans, judges, multinational corporations, public schools, furriers, newspaper owners, fox hunters, generals, class traitors — and of course, moderates.” If you prefer the “hard right,” they have a list of their own, one including “noisy minority groups, unions, Russia, weirdos, demonstrators, welfare sponges, meddlesome clergy, peaceniks, the BBC, strikers, social workers, communists — and of course, moderates.”
As Cleese tweeted this past weekend, “Hard to tell if I recorded this 30 years or 10 minutes ago.” In fact he recorded it more than 30 years ago, as an endorsement of the centrist SDP-Liberal Alliance between the United Kingdom’s Social Democratic Party and Liberal Party. Having formed in 1981 and gone defunct by 1988 (when it became the party now known as the Liberal Democrats), the SDP-Liberal Alliance leaves little in the way of a legacy, but this clip has only grown more relevant with time. As an extremist, Cleese reminds us “you can strut around abusing people and telling them you could eat them for breakfast and still think of yourself as a champion of the truth, a fighter for the greater good, and not the rather sad, paranoid schizoid that you really are” — a statement that, uttered in our internet era, would surely make more than a few enemies.
Monty Python’s John Cleese Worries That Political Correctness Will Lead Us into a Humorless World, Reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984
John Cleese on How “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are” (a.k.a. the Dunning-Kruger Effect)
John Cleese Creates Ads for the American Philosophical Association
The Psychology That Leads People to Vote for Extremists & Autocrats: The Theory of Cognitive Closure
John Cleese Plays the Devil, Makes a Special Appeal for Hell, 1966
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
Last year I was amused to see a student ask how Monty Python had managed to predict the future with all the political factions in the Life of Brian amphitheatre scene.
The SDP is gaining new members in the UK right now under new leadership. It’s worth checking them out.
The only point of view here which seems “too extreme” is Cleese’s caricature of a decent man who fights for his beliefs, however wrong. Assuming everyone is evil and there are no Truth or Greater Good, apart from being in itself barbaric, nihilistic, and more than a little proto-Fascist, (See “Big Lie” or “Might Makes Right” for context) we can vilify all people equally, assuming all are wrong, and then wage war on anybody trying to “do what is right” (yes: even Tommy Pickles may be cancelled, and by Cleese himself).
This is by no means new; this was predicted by the greatest minds back in the nineteenth century, including Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, both of whom predicted that it would give rise to immorality and evil through the loss of any of that sort of righteous indignation which might stop it. (See “Third Reich” for context.)
Kierkegaard particularly pointed this out in the satirists, insisting, “even if the vulgar laugh, life only mocks the wit which knows no values.” Now, imagine if a man made a career from mocking every value of his own tradition, from religion to the code of chivalry and fealty and anything which Shakespeare wrote about so passionately (all the while collecting checks for his performances of Shakespeare). Would you be surprised if he would mock the passionate “extremists” of his age, for want of any sort of God whom he himself believes in?
Yet is it “extreme” to fight for what is True or what is Good? Perhaps, but M.L.K. embraced the label, while the Soviets employed it as a tool for censorship of dissidence. Perhaps, instead of tearing down the righteous since they are not perfect, one should ask oneself, “Am *I* projecting? Maybe I just do not like extremists, since I *am* one… and that is, perhaps, okay, since all of us extremists are pursuing Something Greater.”
Maybe I was wrong to make a strawman and assume that Cleese himself believes in neither Truth nor Good. Perhaps he should come out and say it: he believes in them, and, by extension, he supports the people who pursue them by all means available, for, if there’s such a thing as either, then no price would be too great to pay for them, for Truth and Good remain the only scales by which we weigh the beef.