The renegade British television presenter Jeremy Clarkson has been fired from his wildly popular automotive show, Top Gear, and his fans are not happy. A petition, hosted by Change.org, attracted more than a million signatures in under two weeks, and was delivered to its intended recipients in a tank. “We the undersigned petition the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson,” the missive reads. They are fighting, they say, for their “freedom to fracas.”
To peruse the many comments that have been left under the entreaty is to garner something of a false impression. “I pay my TV license,” one contributor insists, “to ensure that irreverent people can express themselves.” “A minority of over sensitive people should not ruin one of Britons [sic] favourite shows,” proposes another. “Jeremy,” one man suggests simply, “is a bastion of light in a dark PC world.”
As it happens, this lattermost asseveration may well be true. And yet, all things considered, it is wholly irrelevant to the question at hand. As the BBC has confirmed, Jeremy Clarkson was fired after he physically assaulted a colleague at a hotel; he wasn’t fired for his profanity or for his impertinence or because he upset the sensibilities of his employer. He hit a guy. He had to go.
Still, one suspects that to look for intellectual consistency in this instance is rather to miss the point. Whatever they may say in public, the harsh truth of the matter is that Clarkson’s apologists are not so much defending their man’s immediate behavior as they are lamenting the loss of a much-loved and much-needed public figure. For years now, Clarkson has served as a totem of resistance to all of the closed, humorless, effete, and “politically correct” pathologies that have become all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. Now that he is gone, you can hear his fans ask, who will speak up for us?
At present, this is a question that cannot be answered with any specificity. But this much we can say: If he disappears from view, somebody else will come along. Why? Well, because Jeremy Clarkson is what happens when a nation’s cultural elites set out to forge an environment in which nobody is allowed to say anything remotely risqué without drawing condemnatory looks and an open invitation to apologize. As yin invites yang and positive necessitates negative, political correctness has created Jeremy Clarkson to serve as the anti-scold.
This he did with great aplomb. On Top Gear, in a series of best-selling books, and in the pages of Britain’s many rightward-leaning newspapers, Clarkson has for years now played a starring role in the country’s national life. He is the man through whom the commonsensical meek can live vicariously; the man who can say what others will not dare to say; the man who has never had to grow up. Most important, perhaps, he has been the grumpy old codger who still remembers the days when it was acceptable to poke fun at everything — including oneself — and to do so without being hauled into court.
Within the collective imagination of the rest of the world, the British have a reputation for politeness and, in some corners at least, for the sort of decorum that one sees on exported television shows such as Inspector Morse, Downton Abbey, and, a little while back, Brideshead Revisited. To a limited extent, this estimation is deserved. And yet sitting happily alongside the stoic glances and stiff upper lips and reflexive self-deprecation is a sense of humor that is pointed, thick-skinned, and even a little cruel. The Australian-turned-British comedian Steve Hughes has noted how extraordinary it was that the Irish were the first to ban smoking in pubs. “It’s us?” Hughes has an astonished and befuddled Irishman say. “But we live in pubs.” That the British have of late done so much to castrate their own national pastime, humor, is similarly bizarre.
Nothing escaped Clarkson’s withering eye. Not German cars, which he suggested are capable of traveling from “Berlin to Warsaw in one tank” and come with a GPS system that “only goes to Poland”; not affirmative action: “If one presenter on a show is a blond-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian”; not Stephen Hawking: a “great man, but most of him doesn’t work”; not Mexican nationals: “lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight” types who spend their days “leaning against a fence asleep looking at a cactus with a blanket with a hole in the middle on as a coat”; not public-sector unions on strike: “I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families”; and certainly not the United States of America, for which he has a particularly pronounced dislike of precisely the sort that is common among Englishmen of his class: “Most Americans,” Clarkson argued caustically in 2005, “barely have the brains to walk on their back legs.”
Clarkson was never one to shy away from making the controversial comparisons or from going for the obvious joke. Rather, he spoke to his audiences as middle-aged British men speak to one another in the pub when they think that nobody is listening. “The only person to ever look good in the back of a four–seater convertible,” Clarkson proposed sacrilegiously, “was Adolf Hitler.” How bad is the “Maserati’s gearbox”? Worse than “AIDS” and “Iran’s nuclear program.” Why were Britain’s nuclear submarines deemed unsafe? Probably “because they don’t have wheelchair access.”
It is perhaps the greatest irony of the “political correctness” movement that the more its leading lights repress anybody who steps out of line, the more brazen the dissenters become and the more leeway their admirers are prepared to give them. Clarkson is a talented man, certainly. One does not reach his level of fame and success without possessing a genuine charm. But one cannot help but suspect that he has found himself as the voice of the vast middle of his country less because he is unusually gifted and more because many people who would not usually go in for laddish humor found themselves enjoying fruit that was now deemed to be forbidden. Clearly, one does not have to think that these things are funny or true in order to be thrilled that somebody is saying them with impunity.
And so, secure in his position and with a growing audience, Clarkson began to preach to the fed-up. “Health and safety” — that endlessly malleable excuse for nannying and excessive taxation — became a rich target. Once, Clarkson reported with glee, his employer presented him “with a booklet explaining how to use a door.” On another occasion, he was forced to sit through an extended warning that had been designed to prevent his walking through glass windows. He took aim at big government, too, often wondering aloud what the government thought a free people would do if left to their “own devices.” In a book appropriately titled “Is It Really Too Much to Ask?” Clarkson insisted that he really could be trusted not to “park on zebra crossings for a year” without an army of government employees nagging at him. The relationship between the citizen and the state “has broken down,” he concluded, “and it’s time for some civil unrest.” “This is what should be meant by people power,” he added: “The power for people to choose which of the government’s petty, silly, pointless laws they want to obey.”
At their root, these criticisms had something important in common: They left room for common sense, and carved out a space for honest human error. “We are going to have to stop penalizing people for making that most human of gestures — mistake,” Clarkson submitted in one tirade. In a nation of sinners — and of a trigger-happy and judgmental priestly class — this message was welcome indeed. To err, we might say, was Clarkson.
Which is, ultimately, to say that it didn’t especially matter that Clarkson’s primary vehicle, Top Gear, was about cars, and neither was it especially important what he was doing when he was talking. Providing that it afforded plenty of opportunities for bonding and for ranting, that it could be used as an excuse for adolescent shenanigans, and that it presented a pretext for some good old-fashioned tinkering, any broadly masculine subject would have sufficed. Sure, Top Gear began life as a serious car show. But for more than a decade now, its worldwide audience has rendered itself witness to something else altogether — namely, a long, slightly adolescent, and always irreverent bachelor party that was organized for, attended by, and celebrated in the name of one man: Jeremy Charles Robert Clarkson. Today that man has fallen from grace — removed from the field of his own jubilee for violent and ungentlemanly conduct. It is time to grow up, perhaps. And also to regret the passing of our youth.