Eric Idle, the Monty Python group member, has made headlines of late by openly chastising other comedians, most notably his old partner John Cleese, but now also Dave Chappelle, for crying “censorship” when in fact they are making tons of money saying whatever they want in various popular forums. That is, Idle has come down decisively on the progressive establishment side of the “cancel culture” question, which side consists largely in objecting, with wide-eyed mock-innocence, “But where’s the so-called cancellation?”
Here is an excerpt from a recent interview:
Kara Swisher: Well, what do you think of the comedians, like Dave Chappelle, for example, is saying he’s being subjected to censorship or that he can’t say what he — He said it this week on SNL in his monologue.
Eric Idle: Yeah. Where does he say it? On SNL.
Kara Swisher: That’s right. Yeah. That’s a fair price. Yeah.
Eric Idle: Well, you’re not being that much canceled, are you? If you were in your room complaining, I, I’d, I’d have a lot more sympathy.
This is the standard way progressives avoid the issue by pretending there is no issue. “Well, he got to host Saturday Night Live, so obviously he isn’t cancelled, tee-hee.”
Now, it is fair to point out, in response to Idle, that in truth Chappelle has lost opportunities and venues, received massive amounts of hateful press from various “sensitive” groups,” and even been physically attacked on stage, over the past couple of years, due to the supposedly controversial things he says in his comedy routines, particularly about certain fashionable identity groups of the political moment. That is, like so many well-known comedians these days, Chappelle is subject to the aggressive shift from many people merely disliking his offensive jokes, which is an accepted part of the territory — the potential to offend being intrinsic and essential to all comedy of the satirical or social commentary sort — to this new radicalized climate in which leftist interest groups, their corporate supporters, and sundry other self-appointed morality police, are openly calling for him to be barred from performing in public at all, due to his offensive jokes. This is analogous to people trying to silence Aristophanes when he satirized Athenian politics, or Swift when he eviscerated modern scholarship. Or like religious leaders and moral majority protesters in 1979 trying to get Monty Python’s The Life of Brian removed from all theaters because of its supposed mockery of the Crucifixion. That actually happened, and Idle, along with Cleese and their fellow Python members, had to fight tooth and nail against church leaders and politicians, in both private meetings and public debates, to keep their best film from being banned in Britain and America. Apparently, however, when the mob assaulting the free speech of comedians, and specifically their right to risk offense by tackling subjects of social relevance and topicality, happens to be on his side of the political spectrum, Idle has no problem with such sensitivity crusades.
But this objection does not quite hit the core of the issue. For the reason people like Idle think they can get away with saying “Well, you’re not being that much canceled, are you?” is that, in most of the prominent cases, the calls for banning “insensitive” performers, or for not giving them a venue, are still largely restricted to the arena of public outcry, rather than overt policing or legislation. That is, Chappelle and Cleese are not being hauled off the stage by officers, but merely denied access to certain stages by organizers and sponsors, which fact allows those wishing to pooh-pooh fears of “so-called cancel culture” to claim that no one’s speech is really being denied, but rather that public performers are merely being held to account in public opinion for the things they say, or for the feelings they hurt. And there would be some legitimacy to this claim — after all, do not members of the public have a right to complain about matters of public decency? — were we not also aware that the activists and mobs raising these outcries are in truth clamoring for legislation, policing, and specifically criminal charges against those they deem guilty of (identity)-phobia or “hate speech.” Have they not, in fact, already made significant strides in the direction of government regulation of offensive thought and speech, not to mention government indoctrination of correct or sensitive thought and speech through public schools, government worker reeducation programs, and the like?
In other words, as I have explained before, the reason cancel culture is called cancel culture is precisely that it is, for the most part, a movement taking place within the private or quasi-private sphere, but one which is working towards a political goal. Cancel culture, as it exists in advanced societies today, is just your standard, garden variety Marxist tribunal, but without the complete control of the levers of political authority that would allow our morality overseers to impose their progressive agenda in thought and speech by state mandate and midnight raids, the way their spiritual predecessors had the power to do. They do not have this state power to silence their “offenders” yet, but they are working on it, day by day, right in front of our eyes, if we choose to notice. The problem is that so much of the mainstream of our public discussion has already accepted so many of the premises and moral constructs of the progressive agenda, that even those people who might not, in principle, be comfortable with state regulation of speech and thought, will turn a blind eye to this increasing threat to political speech and social critique, simply because they sympathize with the agenda of the current vanguard of power-hungry thugs. Thus, the people Eric Idle had to fight against in 1979, being “religious conservatives,” were evil and deserved to be resisted, whereas today’s adherents to the progressive religion of identity politics and anti-capitalist (i.e., anti-West, anti-freedom) activism, when they attempt the very same kind of social control through performative outrage, are to be praised for raising legitimate concerns about the proper limits of free speech.
Eric Idle has enjoyed the late-career renaissance that has evaded all his old Python mates, largely on the strength of the Broadway hit Spamalot, which of course was mostly rehashed Monty Python bits — nostalgia for the generation that graduated from the youthful subversiveness of Monty Python to the milquetoast conformism of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Today, apparently too rich and comfortable within the entertainment world’s progressive mainstream to feel any of the old anti-establishment fire of his own heyday, Idle sees people struggling against the forces of coercive moral conformism and thinks, “Why don’t they just stop complaining and be more careful about what they say?”
“Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more!” The man who made those words a catchphrase and instant smile for fifty years throughout the English-speaking world is now, implicitly, delivering that same message to the world he once brilliantly occupied, this time without the insouciance of sexual innuendo, but rather with all the emphasis on the final phrase, delivered to those men today who have the fearlessness and satirical eye that he has forsaken: “Say no more.”
Same to you, Eric.