In the tradition of great stand-ups such as Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks (those who have mastered the art of irony and laughter), comedian Stewart Lee addressed Clarkson's loutishness when two years earlier he performed a routine about Top Gear (watch video). In a diatribe about Clarkson's diminutive sidekick Richard "The Hampster" Hammond, he referred to the co-presenter's narrow escape from a filmed high speed car crash by saying, "I wish he had been decapitated and that his head had rolled off in front of his wife". Now the similarity between Lee's remark about Hammond and Clarkson's remark about the strikers will not be lost, indeed Lee's remark is perhaps more vitriolic, as he shared with his audience his dislike for Hammond when they attended the same school in Solihull. The brilliance of Lee's comedy is his multi-layered irony and delayed punch lines. Lee throws back on his audience the Top Gear presenters' own overused apology for their offensiveness. When he said that he wished Hammond had been decapitated, he added “like when they do their jokes on Top Gear, it was only a joke”; parodying their oafish behaviour the better to highlight it. But then adds, after a suitable pause, "coincidentally, as well as it being a joke, it's also what I wish had happened."
Freedom of Speech
Those leaping to Clarkson's defence are right to point out that context is important; citing among other things the principal of free speech, even bestowing on Clarkson the compliment polemicist. But with the role of the polemicist and right to free speech also comes the risks which that responsibility bestows. Eating your own words at the first sign that things might get uncomfortable is not polemicism; it's, as Stewart Lee reminds us, "cowardice".
The Greek term parrhesia, referring to freedom or boldness of speech, represents everything that Clarkson is not. As Michel Foucault said in his final series of lectures, to qualify as parrhesia, the parrhesiast “is always less powerful than the one with whom he speaks.” The best known anecdote of a parrhesiastic exchange involves Alexander (the Great) and Diogenes the Cynic. When Alexander came upon Diogenes sunning himself in a public park in Corinth, he asked the Cynic what wish he could grant him, and Diogenes replied, 'Stand out of my light'. It is having the courage to say something that endangers the speaker that defines the parrhesiast. The speaker's truth is spoken out of compulsion. No matter how unpalatable, it is regarded as the parrhesiast's duty to speak out in this way. An example of a modern parrhesiast is the stand up comedian Lenny Bruce who was imprisoned and died for his right to speak out. His long battle against censorship was a personal crusade for his right to speak the truth during a very repressive period in American history, ultimately winning the right for his parrhesiastic legatees—Joan Rivers, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks and Stewart Lee —to push the boundaries of public taste even further. Like them or loathe them, what defines these particular comedians is that they completely own their invective diatribes against everything that sucks about humanity; even when threatened with impoverishment—and in the case of Bruce, imprisonment. They have all also uniquely developed the use of laughter and self-ridicule as a personal strategy for survival. One has to consider just in what way does Clarkson put himself at any risk when excercising his right to free speech. As Stewart Lee reminds us, it is we, the hapless TV license payers, who are not only responsible for endorsing his stupidity, but also paying for his millions and his big boy's cars.