Jeremy Clarkson’s long history of escaping accountability
Cancel Jeremy Clarkson, cancel Top Gear and cancel British jingoism.
Like Musa Okwonga, I was not going to write about Jeremy Clarkson mumbling the n-word and feigning indignation at the slap on the wrist he received from the BBC over it. Much like the time he proudly announced he’d named his black Scottish terrier Didier Drogba, or any of the numerous other racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, anti-worker, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic bullshit that’s dribbled out whenever he’s opened his mouth, the whole incident is following a predictable script.
We’re now in scene one of act two. Clarkson, sent to the naughty corner, has resorted to recrimination and is squealing that moral panic has made him the inevitable victim of an impossible standard of behavior, as though normalizing the racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-worker, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic status quo as he does were somehow brave and those outraged by his actions and long history of escaping accountability are an overly sensitive, pitchfork-wielding mob.
“I’ve been told by the BBC that if I make one more offensive remark, anywhere, at any time, I will be sacked,” he wrote in his weekly Sun column.
“And even the angel Gabriel would struggle to survive with that hanging over his head. It’s inevitable that one day, someone, somewhere will say that I’ve offended them, and that will be that.”
[The sounds of a weeping violin fills the silence as a sympathetic group of mostly white straight cisgender men gather around Clarkson. And scene!]
I’ve lost the appetite for these predictable performances. I’d rather focus on writing about the historical and structural elements to prejudice and ways of perceiving and defeating them through a solidarity of the oppressed, as they are often socially invisible to those who they do not affect directly. And, anyway, my ambivalence about Top Gear (and the kind of car culture Clarkson promotes), which I’d mostly enjoyed watching, made me feel a bit of hypocrite.
However, over the last dozen seasons, the show has frequently left me reeling and I haven’t found the words to express why until the more recent reactions to Clarkson’s offensiveness.
In the season 21 finale, for example, a two-part special set in Burma, the Clarkson remark that rightly caused a public backlash was another cleverly disguised racial slur. But it was telling that there was hardly a fuss made about the episode’s trumpeting of British imperialism as a civilizing force the world over while, at the same, the hosts guffawed disbelievingly at the brutality of Burma’s post-colonial rulers. The show’s producers and hosts had subtly infused much of the episode with this dichotomy of civilizing Britons and unselfgovernable natives, without cognisance of the strong causal links between Britain’s actions in Burma (the divide and rule tactics that embedded a fractious potency into ethnic and racial differences in Burmese society, for example) and the actions of the country’s post-colonial leaders.
This kind of jingoism is a frequent feature on the show, especially in special episodes set in former colonies. I used to read a pathetic and laughable irony into it, like when hearing impotent old men reminisce about their glory days, when they sowed their idiomatic wild oats—code for the often one-sided (or at best disproportionate) pleasure they derived from their sexual conquest of women’s bodies.
But I’ve either become less able to tolerate this kind of militarised industrial-grade irony, for I’ve begun to see how destructive it is, or the show has become distinctly less ironic and more genuinely and unabashedly celebratory of Britain’s imperialist actions. Probably a bit of column A; a bit of column B.
More nauseating than the celebration of Britain’s imperial conquests is how such is socially accepted.
Presently, Britain regards its brutal imperialist actions as so benign that the national broadcaster screened, without compunction, a skit in the Burma special where the punchline was what appears to be an urban legend of a “jam boy”, a young brown man (the “jam boy”) who British gentry in colonial India apparently smeared with jam and used as a decoy to keep insects away while they played golf. In the segment in question, Clarkson—lazying about while the Thai workers he hired (and likely didn’t pay a decent wage) built a bridge the hosts had appointed themselves to bring into existence—made his own “jam bear” using a teddy bear.
Responding to co-host Richard Hammond’s remark that the “jam boy” practice didn’t seem fair, Clarkson said: “Oh, it was [fair]. It was! Because at the end of the day, he [the jam boy] got to keep the [insect-laden] jam.”
The racist imagery and infantilizing (because man vs boy vs teddy bear) needed to make the gag work and level of casual indifference exhibited by the producers and the BBC to repugnant colonialist practices, real or mythical, in this instance is staggering. Entering its 22nd season, the show’s current iteration is littered with many other similar w-t-f moments. That Clarkson and Top Gear are able to romanticize and diminish the crimes of the British empire in this way, with neither adverse reactions nor repercussion, is a mind-blowing illustrative example of how cultural products (like TV shows, books, music, plays, etc) deploy humor and irony to dissimulate and efface the brutality and prejudice of the powerful. These cultural products were once hailed as a boon to plurality, and humor and irony were supposed to be ways to lay bare the contradictions of power.
This suggests that in the contestation of perspectives implicit in cultural production in a multicultural society, the counterfactual idea that Britain (and Europe) civilized as opposed to brutalized the world has prevailed. Unlike imperialism, which is by definition the oppression of one group by another, racism, sexism and such are at least still being contested in mainstream discourse when they reemerge on TV and in music, books, news and opinion, as repetitive as the performance might be.
Worse still is that societies like Britain are hailed as models of success developing nations should follow. It was Arundhati Roy who observed that with no one left to colonise, India is colonising itself; impoverishing its underclasses, destroying homes and habitats, and building gargantuan monuments to itself in the same way its colonial masters did. And, based on recent history, Ngugi wa Thiong’o expressed the fear that Kenya’s governing class “will continue to be no more than mimic men—copying their western counterparts in greed and contempt for the regular folk.”
Here in South Africa, the Marikana massacre woke many up to the reality that Steve Biko’s prediction has come to pass. Instead of a real egalitarian reorganization of our society in 1994, we had only a change in the faces those in government, which is why Black people remain poor and many aspects of our society operate in the same way they did in the centuries the country was run by the oppressors.
Highlighting how Top Gear romanticizes British imperialism (and the invisibility of this action) as I have here should not be taken as diminishing the objectionability of any of Clarkson’s racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, anti-worker, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic remarks. If anything it gives greater cause to object, because casual bigotry and romanticized views of imperialism are symptoms of the same malaise, the postcolonial melancholia afflicting Britain today. Clarkson’s puerile sensibilities and Top Gear’s jingoism aren’t aberrations. They are the projection to a global audience of Britain’s resistance to multiculturalism and substantive global equality; a resistance made possible by a glib denial and downplaying of the inconvenient aspects of the country’s history.
AIAC’s Elliot Ross asked last year, shortly after Britain settled with the survivors of the Mau Mau massacre, what it will take to break through the jingoism that’s suffused British society so that the nation might finally face up properly to its past. I’m inclined to believe nothing will break this impasse, because few even care to acknowledge it exists. If conscious Britons somehow believe otherwise, a good place for them to start in the here and now is to use this latest incident to get Clarkson and Top Gear off our screens, and to diligently and consistently dismantle every other attempt at using humour, irony or any other rhetorical subterfuge to efface or sanctify bigotry and the history of Britain’s brutal actions.