Python swallows Bush!

Monty Python's Terry Jones talks about becoming a political writer, the decline of the British press and how Bush and Blair have erased the line between absurdity and horror.

By Laura Miller

Published January 21, 2005 4:44PM (EST)

Americans may know Terry Jones best as a naked organist and a purveyor of crunchy frog-filled chocolates and "being hit on the head" lessons, but the founding member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus has plenty of other talents. He directed the films "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," "The Life of Brian" and "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life," among others, and he's written several books on the Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (the latest is "Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery"). And early in 2003, English-language readers worldwide were reminded of just how funny Jones can be when an Op-Ed he wrote for the Observer in London, titled "I'm Losing Patience With My Neighbors, Mr. Bush," was quickly disseminated across the Internet.

In the essay, Jones explains that a couple of his neighbors -- Mr. Johnson and "Mr. Patel, who runs the health food shop" -- have been giving him "funny looks." "As for Mr. Patel," he wrote, "don't ask me how I know, I just know -- from very good sources -- that he is, in reality, a mass murderer." Exasperated with friends and authorities who demand evidence of these crimes "while Mr. Johnson will be finalizing his plans to do terrible things to me, while Mr. Patel will be secretly murdering people," he resolves, using the example of President Bush, to take preemptive action, "since I'm the only one on the street with a decent range of automatic firearms."

"I'm Losing Patience" and other Op-Eds Jones wrote for the Observer and the Guardian have been collected in a new book, "Terry Jones' War on the War on Terror." In them he subjects the logic of the current war on terror to subtle twists that expose its nonsensical aspects. Contemplating the likelihood of significant civilian casualties just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he writes, "Mr. Bush says that one of the reasons he wants to kill a lot of Iraqis is because Saddam Hussein has also been killing them. Is there some rivalry here?" Nevertheless, "you can bet that if George W. Bush is going for the record he's going to beat Saddam Hussein hands down."

Salon reached Terry Jones at his home in London, where he talked about the bizarre rationales and twisted vocabulary of the war on terror, the difficulty of satirizing Thatcherism and the similarities between the politics of Chaucer's day and our own.

How did you first come to write these Op-Ed pieces?

It was incredulity that kicked it off. I just couldn't believe how our leaders responded to the events of 9/11. It seemed to me that at every stage they decided to take action that would quite clearly produce the opposite effect from what they declared they wanted. For example, after 9/11 George Bush said exactly the right things. He said we have to catch the evil perpetrators of this evil crime. But if you're going to catch the perpetrators of a crime, I would have thought that what you need is speed and secrecy. What you don't do is announce where you're going to look. [Shouts across the room] "We're going to look in Afghanistan, all right?" You don't say when you're going to do it. [Shouts]: "We're going to do it in two months' time. Two months' time, OK?" And you don't say what you're going to do. [Shouts]: "We're going to bomb you!" I would have thought any evil perpetrators would have got out of Afghanistan by then. I certainly would have done, if I were an evil perpetrator.

Then Tony Blair says, "We're going to make the world safe from terrorism. We're going to protect the U.K. from terrorist attacks, so what we're going to do is go and bomb ... let's see ... Iraq, yes, let's bomb that. That'll make the world safer." It's like the emperor's new clothes. People are making such stark, staring mad decisions and eventually other people just go along with it.

Do you think people go along with it because the government just keeps repeating the mad rationale so forcefully over and over again?

Yes, but it's also the power of words. Words do eventually have an effect. If you keep repeating, "Security forces are putting down insurgents in Iraq," rather than saying "Our illegally occupying army is killing the freedom fighters in Iraq," people will actually start believing it. If we were in France in the Second World War, we'd be talking about brave resistance fighters stopping the illegal occupation of France. We would call the Vichy government quislings and collaborators. Whereas we're talking now about the great [Iyad] Allawi, who's just doing what the Americans want him to do.

Another one is the four "civilian contractors" whose murders prompted the attacks on Fallujah. They were mercenaries. They work for Blackwater, and if you go to Blackwater's Web site, it's really quite interesting. They offer two courses on sniping.

Had you been writing Op-Eds all along, or were these your first?

I'd written some columns for the Guardian's children's page, but that was 15 years ago. I just got so irritated and angry I felt I had to write something. And I just started sending them out. The Observer were the first people to publish them. Then the Observer, curiously enough, stopped printing them after a while. When the invasion of Iraq got under way, the Observer actually rather got behind the government and supported the invasion, and my pieces got sidelined. They'd say, "Yeah, love the new piece, but sorry, Princess Diana's butler's made some announcement and we can't fit it in." It's true they have limited space.

The work you did in Monty Python never seemed particularly political, so was this a whole new thing for you?

That's right. Python wasn't at all political. We deliberately eschewed any overt politicism. The humor was much more abstract. I find that if I try to write something from a political point of view, it can get a bit tedious -- a film or something like that. It can be too much. But at 800 or 900 words, it's all right. But even so, I do get tired of my voice sometimes. I'd like to have a different way of saying something. But yes, it is something a bit new for me.

Yet in some ways it's not, because Monty Python used a lot of absurd humor, and what seems to most set you off are absurd political situations, where people are going about things in exactly the wrong way, or -- I'm remembering one sketch where a guy who's obviously a Scottish gangster goes around claiming to be Louis XVIII of France -- adopting completely transparent disguises that shouldn't fool anyone.

That's it. When you see George Bush and Tony Blair committing these absurd acts and people going along with it, you have to ask, "Wait a minute, which is the real world?" It's only the fact that it has these horrendous consequences is what makes them appalling instead of funny.

I just read a piece in the Guardian this week, in which the writer asked why people were getting so distressed and putting up so much money to help the victims of the tsunami disaster -- which I applaud, by the way -- when the same number of people have been killed in Iraq and nobody's making a fuss about them. No one's running fundraisers or aid programs to help the victims of the West in Iraq, but there have been at least 100,000 killed by U.S. and British bombs and artillery fire, according to the Lancet [a British medical journal], which is the only scientific estimate we've got. That's a huge number of people being killed. You can't say those people are better off than they would have been under Saddam Hussein.

One of the strange manipulations of language you get into is that the war on terror is a war on an abstract noun.

An abstract noun can't surrender; it can't do anything really. How do you know when you've won? When the noun gets kicked out of the Oxford English Dictionary? But that's a very useful tool for politicians, to declare an unwinnable war. They can keep it going as long as they like. They can decide when it's won.

Now, you could say that we declared war against Fascism in World War II, but that was only a pseudonym for Nazi Germany. In this case, we have no idea who we're fighting. It's the first time, I think, that a major country has gone to war and not known who the enemy was. Who are they? We have no idea.

Looking at it that way it really isn't so far off from the kind of humor you did with Monty Python. And, in a way, neither is observing that no one is wringing their hands over the body count in Iraq the way they are over the tsunami victims.

That's partly because the military is refusing to make counts. They're not only refusing to count how many Iraqis are dying, but before the second invasion of Fallujah, they were actually removing anyone who might be able to make a count -- doctors, ambulance drivers, clerics. They hit the hospitals first to make sure that there was nobody who could perform body counts. It's totally cynical, although, from the military view, probably very sensible.

So the only scientific estimate is the one published from Johns Hopkins University in the Lancet a few weeks ago, and immediately the politicians came up saying, "It's an extrapolation technique." Well, what do they mean by "extrapolation"? That's what any survey is, whether it's a political poll or an advertising survey. That's what you do. They say, "It's not a body count," but the American military is not allowing anyone to do a body count. You can't do it! It's rubbish. And the count estimated by Johns Hopkins doesn't even include Fallujah, which has been totally razed.

Some of your Op-Eds are humorous in a black sort of way, but a few are quite straightforward, as if you were so mad you weren't even going to try to be funny.

When inspiration fails, I just run mad! Sometimes it's all there in itself. The things themselves are so ridiculous you don't need to put it in a funny way. These things just sort of write themselves, to be perfectly frank. I feel that I suddenly see something terribly clearly and I have to sit down and write it.

Are there a lot of British writers doing that right now? Is there much political humor?

The only reasonable stuff that's being written is in Op-Ed pieces by people like George Monbiot and John Pilger. Monbiot had a piece in the Guardian recently suggesting that America attack itself, since if it's intent on attacking those who support and train terrorists, well, the American military trained not only Osama bin Laden but Saddam Hussein. Monbiot's not a comedian, by the way. He's just being slightly satirical.

That reminds me of one of your own essays, where, with a very straight face, you consider how if Britain had decided to adopt the same policy with the supporters of IRA terrorists, you would have had to bomb the U.S., since so much of the IRA's funds came from here.

There's more logic in that than there is in bombing Iraq because of al-Qaida. Iraq has no connections with al-Qaida at all. I'm sure Osama bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein, with his worldly, nonreligious government. Al-Qaida would be dead against that sort of thing. What they should have done was get al-Qaida to attack Saddam Hussein.

In fact, back at the beginning of the first Gulf War, Osama, who labors under the delusion that he and his mujahedin almost single-handedly forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan, tried to persuade the Saudi royal family to let him expel Saddam from Kuwait. He didn't want the American infidels to be called into the Holy Land, but the Saudis said, "Even with God on your side, no way are you and a couple thousand guys with guns going to beat Saddam's army and his tanks in the open desert."

I didn't know that. But it's not surprising because Saddam Hussein represented everything that bin Laden hates as a Wahhabi. Only you're not supposed to call them Wahhabis now. I went to a Web site where they were very vehement that you're supposed to call them something else, only I can't remember what.

Do you think that some political regimes lend themselves better to satire? Monty Python was on the air before the Thatcher years, of course, but it's hard to think of great political humor that came out of her time.

Yes, we did Python in the late '60s, early '70s, and at that time it really did seem like the world was going to change. The establishment was on the back foot. The old establishment was sort of tottering. But what happened was not some new wonderful thing rising up but this awful hybrid.

At least the old establishment [adopts an old-fashioned British ruling class accent] had some decency. They may have been really wealthy and everything, but at least they had a few decent values. They were replaced by people who had no values at all apart from making money. Thatcher's credo was "Does it make money?" There was nothing about human happiness. The old establishment might have been mistaken about what makes for human happiness or have only seen it from their own point of view, but at least they were talking about it. Thatcher was just about money, and how much of it you could get. She vitiated our society by making it answerable only to accountants.

It must be hard to make fun of someone whose ruthlessness is so naked because they make no pretenses, and so they're not especially hypocritical.

I suppose you're right; she wasn't particularly hypocritical. She just doesn't have a clue about decency or human suffering or life. I was asked once if I wanted to give a present to anyone for Christmas, and I said I'd like to give Margaret Thatcher a present: a heart.

How did the recent American elections look from England?

You always knew Bush would get back in, in the end.

Did you really? Because a lot of people here really believed he could be beaten.

We missed that over here. Maybe the race would have seemed closer if I'd been there. I didn't think the people around him could possibly allow him to lose. Of course, there were those untraceable voting machines. You press a button and they say, "Oh yes, we've caught your vote. That's fine." It seems so transparent! They know you can fix those things. I just don't understand it. Of course, we've learned that the religious vote was mobilized, and when I heard that, I thought, well, that's it.

It's the kind of irony I'm sure you'll appreciate that a whole segment of working- and lower-class Americans decided to protect their children from the perils of gay marriage and abortion by voting for a government that will ruin the economy, trap them in low-wage jobs and gut the Social Security system. Now, one aspect of society Monty Python did go after was the media, which you mercilessly satirized. Are there more alternative voices in the British press now? It has the reputation for being more diverse.

It is, but it's very watered down from what it used to be. You used to have maybe 70 percent Conservative and 30 percent Labor. Now you really haven't got anybody who's Labor because there isn't a Labor Party anymore. Tony Blair's Labor Party is more right-wing than Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party. I don't know where to start, really. I suppose the Guardian and the Independent are pretty good and include a lot of alternative voices. But they still echo the vocabulary that the politicians lay down.

One thing that the BBC does that makes a good example of that is that whenever they were talking about the unions and the bosses and there was a possibility of a strike, the unions would always "threaten to strike." The bosses would then "warn of the consequences." It was never that the bosses would threaten to make all these cutbacks and the unions would then warn that the consequences would be a strike. The unions were always the aggressors and the bosses were responding. It's the same with Israel and the Palestinians. One is always depicted as the aggressor and the other is always defending itself.

Do you get most of your news from the papers?

Mostly from the Web in the last four of five years, actually, though I do read the Guardian and Robert Fisk in the Independent. There's one site called the New Standard which is very good. They had an American journalist, from Alaska, actually, who's not embedded and he's in Fallujah trying to see what's going on. Some other Web sites I like are ZNet, Le Monde Diplomatique and Tom Paine.

You've given up on television?

Yes. I just get so angry when I watch the television news. They just reiterate the government line all the time, or at least the vocabulary that the government wants them to use. It's so difficult to see what the reality is if you look at television.

And now for something completely different, if I can borrow a phrase, there's your new book on Chaucer, "Was Chaucer Murdered?" But it's really not that different, in a way, because you depict Chaucer as a writer working in a fairly open society under Richard II. Then, when a new regime comes in, under the usurper Henry IV, it shuts down considerably. Eventually this great poet simply vanishes from the historical record.

That's it, actually. My work on Chaucer and the 14th century made me more politically aware about what's happening now. I was always very unpolitical when I was growing up, in my 20s. Reading about the 14th century, I was seeing the same things going on. The people who wanted to change the world and make it better for more people had different issues, but you still see it. And the people who want power and money are unfortunately more adept at wielding power than the people who want to make things better.

In Chaucer's day it was expressed in religious terms. That's where the power was. By the late 14th century, the church had become completely commercialized and was a huge money-making thing. You had some people in the church who were just using it for that and as a power base. Those people tending to wind up running the church. Then there were people within the church who didn't like this and wanted to take it back to its earlier simplicity and more of a religious footing. It took the church establishment quite a while to realize the threat in that. One of Richard's problems was that he didn't take that seriously or support the church establishment enough and in the end it was the church establishment who took him out of power and put Henry IV in.

It was the Archbishop of Arundel who was the real mastermind behind this, the Henry Kissinger of his day. He did exactly what is happening now. He put this illegitimate, illegal regime in power and he lied and cheated to get power himself. Then he neutralized the opposition by declaring a war on heresy. A war on heresy suited his purposes because it was open-ended, he could define heresy how he liked. And he defined it as "you're either with us or you're a heretic." If you criticized the church, you were criticizing the king. It was all the same thing. You saw people using the same mechanisms and tools of power in the 14th century that are used in the war on terror today.

Do you believe that Chaucer was murdered?

I think it's perfectly possible, but we don't really know at all. By asking the question we force people to look at the political reality, which has never been mentioned. I can't believe it. People just go along with the propaganda of Henry IV. Henry IV, because he was an illegitimate ruler, was widely despised during his own reign, even though previously he'd been a popular figure, a champion of chivalry. But once he betrayed his liege lord [Richard II] and usurped the throne he was widely despised. So he rolled in a propaganda machine to rewrite the record and erase any evidence of Richard's popularity and artistic achievements. It's the propaganda that people believe.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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