John Cleese’s Fawlty Opinions


Just the other day, the elderly British comedy legend, John Cleese, tweeted – or, as some would say, decided to end his career – thus:

As you can imagine, this sentiment didn’t go down very well. The mayor of London, Saddiq Khan, tweeted back “These comments make John Cleese sound like he’s in character as Basil Fawlty. Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength. We are proudly the English capital, a European city and a global hub.” Don’t mention the culture war, I guess. Needless to say, various other worthies have joined in to chide Cleese, including questioning what is Englishness anyway?

That’s a good question. Cleese no doubt had in mind the ethnic English, or people who come from the Anglo-Saxon or at least the Anglo-Celtic stock and heritage, who for the great majority of the past millennium and more have constituted the great, if not the overwhelming, majority of the inhabitants of England, and who, again over the course of centuries, have created what we know and understand as the English culture, tradition and institutions. Yes, there have always been migrants arriving and contributing to the mix – Normans, French Huguenots, Jews – but they have been relatively small in number and by and large ethnically and culturally similar. But Cleese’s definition is increasingly at odds with the post-nation state view of belonging. As TV presenter Anila Chowdhry replied to the Monty Python alumnus, “John Cleese, your comment is not only ironic as you live in the Caribbean, but it fails to recognise the benefits of multiculturalism AND that people of different colour in London may actually be English too! I was born & bred in England. I’m brown, English & proud. #ThisIsMyHome”, which of course can be true too, if anything as a legal and cultural matter. This is also coincidentally while it is easier to “become” an American or an Australian or another -an of one of the historically migrant countries where the “-anness” is built on shared civic ideas rather than ethnicity.

(For the record, over 40 per cent of London residents have been born overseas, which is one of the highest proportions in the world, and if you consider major cities, over one million in population, only Toronto, Sydney and Melbourne have more first-generation migrants. Whatever you think, and whatever you think of it, the London of today is certainly not the London of Cleese’s childhood or even his middle age.)

But all that aside… We now live in an age where Diversity is a god or at least one of the ultimate goods. As Khan tweets, “Londoners know that our diversity is our greatest strength” (judging from the responses they don’t necessarily). Well, maybe it is, maybe it’s not – there are certainly ways to measure that in various contexts – but all too often this is presented as a statement of faith that brooks no debate, questioning or doubt. Diversity is seen not just as a mean to an end, it’s an end in itself, and an end that’s also a normative good. Thus, the vision of a community like the bar scene from “Star Wars” has been enshrined as a pinnacle of social and moral development.

This does not worry me as an objective state of affairs, except for the fact of the normative judgment attached to it. Because if diversity is indeed the greatest strength and the highest good, than to question it or to prefer less of it makes one at best a silly nostalgic fuddy daddy but more likely a racist, bigot, xenophobe, fascist or a small-minded fool. Any community, from a village to a nation, which wishes to maintain a certain ethnic (or cultural or religious or any other) composition as opposed to a free-for-all is seen by the moral superiors not only as deeply ignorant to deny themselves the benefits of greater diversity but most likely deeply sinister in their motivations to restrict it.

There is, however, a caveat on the above statement, and ultimately also the reason why I would actually find it easier to tolerate that view – if only it was consistent. Perhaps I have somehow missed all the relevant literature and debate, but I simply can’t recall any passionate arguments directed at the residents of, say, Rio di Janeiro, Cairo, Mumbai or Beijing that their communities are dangerously backward and badly need a large scale infusion of diversity from different parts of the world, so that for example a quarter of residents of Tokyo be Caucasian, African and Arab by 2050. Surely what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Don’t all those Latinos, Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians recognise the benefits of multiculturalism? Don’t they know that diversity provides the greatest strength? And if they don’t and they don’t, shouldn’t all the people of good will in the West start educating them? Nudge the rest of the world in the positive direction, and if they show ambivalence or resistance, judge them for their small mindedness and bigotry!

But no, it’s always London, or Paris, or Sydney, or Butthurt, Saxony (pop. 4,738) – ok, the last one is fictional, but it’s a stand-in for any other community of any size in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand – that has to be made into a living poster for the United Colors of Benetton. If people like Cleese, who hark back to the less diverse days, can be so easily categorised and dismissed as bigots, and maybe even white supremacists, it’s at least equally arguable that the diversity proponents are motivated by equal but opposite prejudices, born out of cultural self-loathing and historical guilt: Europeans by themselves are bad enough, and Europeans overseas only bring trouble to others; ergo, Europeans can only be truly civilised by the large – the larger the better – infusion of “the other”. Don’t question diversity, peasants.