In the controversy around Jeremy Clarkson’s despicable comments about the Duchess of Sussex, I am thinking about second chances. As a devoted fan of the old Top Gear who remembers and can quote many of their best clips from the first 18 seasions by heart - and as someone actively trying to work out how to separate a great end-product from its troublesome origins (see my previous post) - I’ve asked myself: what, if anything, could induce me to give Clarkson a second chance? Is his work ruined for me forever?

(warning: this may be a bit of a rambling post as I try to work out all the threads shooting off related to the subject)

Our society has a predictable response to people who are caught doing illegal, unethical, or immoral things. For the poor or powerless, one strike (or even the possibility) could be enough to ruin your future. The consequences far outweigh the severity of their act (the 8th amendment notwithstanding). Also, predictably, the consequences are proportionally unfair along existing racial, gender, and other inequalities. This system is by design, of course. It’s how institutions (and those who are in charge) wield authority over these people and “keep them in line”.

For the rich and powerful, different rules apply. The fact that Mel Gibson is doing movies again, that Adam Neumann got funded for a not-yet-started $1B venture, that a sexual predator made it to the Supreme Court, that Texas keeps re-electing a failed governor, a criminal AG and a bucket of slime, that the town of Uvalde voted for gun nuts just 6 months after the deadliest school shooting in the state, that insurrectionists are still holding political office… it just boggles the mind. Chris Brown is still making music, Martha Stewart is still making Doritos ads, Ellen and Louis CK and Dave Chappelle are back to making content (although I will forever be grateful for that show), JK Rowling is still writing books, the 2007 Wall Street traders are still making billions, orange julius wants to play President again, and somewhere in Preston Hollow, a war criminal is still making paintings.

It seems like the only time rich & powerful people are held accountable is when they piss off richer, more powerful people: just ask Bernie Madoff, Elizabeth Holmes, SBF (who comically thought he’s not gonna get arrested), or the current second-richest individual in the world.

Back to Clarkson though. How exactly did he return to the mainstream after his Top Gear fiasco? I mean, he’s got a long documented history of “being controversial” - a.k.a. of making racist, misogynist, homophibic statements - whether as “just a joke” on Top Gear, or more blatantly in his weekly syndicated articles. Getting fired from his best-known work should have been his Weinstein moment, the nail in his (TV career) coffin. How did he get a second chance? A brief timeline reminder (skip if you already know it):

  • Mar 4, 2015: JC physically assaults, and hurls racial insults, at a Top Gear producer during filming for Season 22.
  • Mar 10, 2015: Clarkson is suspended while the BBC launches an internal investigation.
  • Mar 11, 2015: Over 350,000 people sign an online petition to reinstate Clarkson
  • Mar 19, 2015: Co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May come out in support of Clarkson and refuse to continue filming the show without him. The remaining 3 episodes of Season 22 will never end up getting filmed.
  • Mar 20, 2015: Video emerges of Clarkson bad-mouthing his employer at a private event: “The BBC have f%^ked themselves. It was a great show and they f%^ked it up.”
  • Mar 25, 2015: BBC fires Clarkson after an internal investigation.
  • Mar 30, 2015: A leaked internal email from executive producer Andy Wilman titled “Au revoir” hints that Wilman, Hammond and May will quit in solidarity with Clarkson. Meanwhile reports emerge that Clarkson is already in talks with Netflix and ITV.
  • Jul 30, 2015: Amazon Prime signs Clarkson (and Hammond and May and Andy Wilman) for a new show for the price of $250 Million
  • Aug 2016: the BBC’s ex-chief says he regrets firing Clarkson: Mark Thompson called Clarkson a “deeply objectionable character” but went on to say that JC was a “talent they (the BBC) could ill afford to lose”.
  • Oct 6, 2016: The Grand Tour trailer airs.
  • Nov 18, 2016: The Grand Tour airs Season 1, Episode 1, titled “The Holy Trinity” on Prime.
  • Nov 19, 2016: James May defends JC on a talk show promoting TGT: “Jeremy’s not really always in trouble… he just says slightly naughty things occasionally. I think there are bigger problems in the world than Jeremy Clarkson. I don’t think we are very badly behaved.”

In an insightful 2018 article, Constance Grady points out 4 keys to how a pariah like Mel Gibson resurrected (no pun intended… actually, scratch that, full pun intended) his Hollywood career:

  1. Silence: Gibson does not apologize. He does not express good wishes for the people he’s hurt. He maintains that he is the one who was really hurt. But mostly, he doesn’t say anything at all.

  2. Get a little help from your friends: He leaves the talking to his friends and allies, of which he has many, both in Hollywood and in the press. This general narrative — Gibson didn’t do it, and if he did, it doesn’t count, and if you think about it, he’s the real victim, and he’s actually very sorry and I’ll tell you all about it but you’d never know otherwise because he’d never say so himself — is one that has been repeated again and again by Gibson’s allies.

  3. Time: Gibson kept his head down and worked quietly in small genre movies for a few years, so that when he made his big push back into the mainstream with Hacksaw Ridge in 2016, 10 years after his DUI and six years after the domestic violence accusations, he could argue that he’d been out of play for a decade and that it was enough time.

  4. Change of venue: He was able to successfully break back into the mainstream as a director, not an actor, which meant he could keep his face out of the public eye while people got used to the idea of him being back in Hollywood. It was only after Hacksaw Ridge’s success legitimized Mel Gibson the director again that Mel Gibson the actor was able to make his triumphant reappearance in polite society with Daddy’s Home 2.

Together, these four strategies create a kind of blurriness around exactly what Gibson did, and a mist of nebulous remorse around his subsequent behavior: Something happened, but it really wasn’t that big a deal, and now he feels bad, and anyway, it was all a long time ago.

Clarkson used similar tactics after his Top Gear firing. In his case the “time” element was unnecessary since he never really fell from public grace. His audience still adored him, his buddies Hammond and May and even (yuck) Piers Morgan stood by him, and within weeks he’d already lined up far more lucrative gigs. Many people (JC among them) blamed an uptight BBC for the incident, pointing out (with justification) that BBC had overlooked way worse transgressions in the past. Within 3 months, his next deal ($250M with Amazon) was finalized and he was off to the races.

The Season 1 premier of The Grand Tour is a masterpiece of nudging everyone to “move on” (let’s face it, JC is a talented TV producer):

The Grand Tour S1E1 prologue

The first 40 seconds re-enact Clarkson’s darkest hours after the TG firing. Set up against a cold, grey, rainy London sky and a cold, grey, prison-like office building (presumably BBC HQ). Clarkson looks alone, remorseful, vulnerable. On the cab ride to the airport he (and the audience) is forced to re-live his firing through the radio news. This is the lowest point. (Note: As Adam Grant writes in his excellent book Originals, “putting your worst foot forward”, i.e. being up front about the weaknesses or criticisms of your ideas, is a very effective way to disarm skeptical audiences.)

Over the next 30 seconds, the mood slowly improves. JC arrives to a beautiful southern Califoria dawn, the sunlight gently streaming and the beginnings of a hopeful tune in the air. He hops into his rental car - a $125,000 special edition Ford Mustang Galpin Rocket. Now, steadily building, comes in the beautiful hum of the 725bhp V8 engine and the Hothouse Flowers’ rendition of “I can see clearly now”. As he starts driving, the sunlight and the music take over, and we hear the lyrics that Johnny Nash might as well have written for this occasion:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind

It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I've been praying for

It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Look all around, there's nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there's nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I've been praying for

It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

He’s been all alone thus far; but at the 2-minute mark, best friends May and Hammond join him in their own race cars; and JC smiles his famous big goofy smile for the first time. Now the tempo really picks up; it’s all blue skies, open desert roads, and no speed limits from here on out. At the 3-minute mark they join a bunch of fellow car enthusiasts: we are treated to beautiful, strange, crazy cars all around against the stunning California desert. Jeremy looks around with a grin - this is his world. Awaiting them, at the end of the ride, is a crowd of adoring fans and a live band hitting their crescendo. Rock & roll, fireworks, bright colors, dancing girls, adoring crowds, and fighter jets(!) as Jeremy takes the stage.

Can you say “resurrection”? That 4 minute montage (worth $3M apparently) was apology, death, rebirth, catharsis and redemption all rolled into one; the ultimate wish fulfilment.

A week after it aired, my favorite pop culture website had this to say about the opening montage:

It was profoundly beautiful, utterly decadent and out of scope with its subject matter, and it reduced me to a blubbering, teary mess […] Let’s face it, there is no universe that makes sense in which Jeremy Clarkson is first in line for all the world’s blessings. I think he knows that as much as anyone. But there’s something about watching him come back to life and reunite with his team that inspires hope that maybe we can all come back to life, too. Maybe each of us also get a live rendition of the Hothouse Flowers cover of “I Can See Clearly Now (The Rain is Gone)” when we reach our tents in the desert. And like orangutans real and metaphorical, when we are endangered, let us survive, and let bright-eyed people pack their cars and drive hundreds of miles just to see us and love us.

As badly as that comment has aged, it’s still a sharp insight as to why so many people were willing to let these transgressions go for so long. Quoting an unknown Redditor’s comment on the topic of why Q-anon cultists love Trump:

That’s his selling point. That’s why they love him. He gets away with shit. And they wish they could, too. THEY want to be the cool kid who gets away with smoking in the bathroom, who tells the IRS to go fuck themselves, who assaults whatever woman he wants without getting tossed in jail, who lies and cheats and steals without repercussions, who incites violence and death against the cops and faces zero penalties. Fuck the Man. Fuck the police. Fuck all of you, I’m the only one who matters, rules don’t apply to me. They love him the way some people love and admire criminals and serial killers. “But the guy is a degenerate!” No, man. This guy has it figured out. This guy is living life the way I want to live it. I want to have massive cash and power, I want to have a centerfold, plastic model wife at home while I rape anybody I want in the rest of the city. I want to pay no taxes and skip my bills. I want to be able to lie to anyone I want and have no one care, I want a job where I don’t have to be competent and will still get paid. I want to live life on the golf course have a jillion followers on Twitter supporting my pithy insults and remarks, where my immature and dickish behavior is celebrated and repeated. I want that. I want to be that guy. I support that guy. That guy is my inner ego writ large. Damn, I love that guy. That guy gets me.

Maybe that’s why so many people loved Clarkson too. They wish they too could live his life: drive fast cars, be on TV, make juvenile jokes, hang out with celebrities, and get paid millions for it. Maybe say, out loud, some of the things they dare not say. Because this is what the real Jeremy Clarkson (not the goofy TV presenter) says in real life:

(About striking public workers) “Frankly, I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they have got these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed while the rest of us have to work for a living.“

You do not just avoid the Suzuki Wagon R. You avoid it like you would avoid unprotected sex with an Ethiopian transvestite.

Hollywood movies are designed for 15-year old youths from North Dakota, who intellectually speaking, are on equal terms with a British zoo animal.

The problem is that television executives have got it into their heads that if one presenter on a show is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed heterosexual boy, the other must be a black Muslim lesbian.

(Talking to Richard Hammond about the bridge they have just finished building over the River Kwai in Thailand): “That is a proud moment – but there’s a slope on it,“ just as a Thai man walked into the shot.

(2008, in The Times about Scottish people) “These days, every Scotchman rides into the room on a wave of bile and nationalism. They have become the new Australians, unable to get through any conversation without bringing up a litany of English failures and embarrassments,” he wrote. “Ask a barman up there for a glass of Scotch, and what you get instead is an essay on Culloden and Stirling and Bannockburn and Murrayfield back in March.” He went on: “The fact is that the Union has been a good thing. We are grateful to you for inventing penicillin and the telephone, and you should be grateful to us for introducing you to proper food and trousers.”

(2015, Top Gear firing) Jeremy Clarkson is reported to have called producer Oisin Tymon a “lazy Irish c***” before he threw a punch that split the producer’s lip and landed the Irishman in hospital. The incident occurred after Clarkson and his co-stars Hammond and May arrived by helicopter from their Dunsfold test track location to Yorkshire (a distance of around 225 miles) to continue with the shoot. They had been due to arrive at 8pm, but the flight was delayed by two hours because the trio (presumably lead by Clarkson and May) wanted to continue drinking. On their arrival, Clarkson is reported to have been enraged that hot food was not immediately available. It is also reported that Clarkson said that he’d see to it that Tymon would be losing his job. After a lengthy rant, Clarkson landed the blow that would not only draw blood, but that would also see the star suspended from the BBC and the future of Top Gear looking very bleak.

In another column for The Sun, Clarkson said that “serious people” talking about climate change, such as Markle and Greta Thunberg, have made matters “worse”. He said: “When Meghan Markle told me to leave the car at home, I wanted to shoot a polar bear in the middle of its face.“ (Coincidentally, speaking of Greta Thunberg, guess who spoke up in support of Clarkson after the backlash to his article? Andrew f’ing Tate, currently rotting in Romanian prison.)

Clarkson claimed that Markle is “much revered by the young and the stupid who believe that her brand of simpering victimhood will one day bring down the monarchy. It won’t.“ Clarkson continued his rant about Markle by explaining that the royal family has endured “beheadings, affairs, abdications”. “If the British monarchy can soldier on through that,” the presenter said, “I’m fairly sure it’ll be able to weather the banal musings of a silly little cable TV actress.”

(Dec 9, 2022) “I had a furious agreement with someone this week, and it got so out of hand, she crashed into a hedge. We both agreed that Meghan Markle is an unhinged monster, but we couldn’t agree on just how awful she is. We were dreaming up better and stronger insults, none of which can be published here, even though they’re all perfectly fair. Until eventually, my friend became so lost in the insult thesaurus, she lost concentration and hit the hedge.“

(Dec 16, 2022 - the article that ignited outrage) “We all know in our heart of hearts that Harold Markle [ed: Prince Harry] is a slightly dim but fun-loving chin who flew Apache helicopter gunships in Afghanistan and cavorted around Las Vegas hotel rooms with naked hookers. But then along came Meghan, who obviously used some vivid bedroom promises to turn him into a warrior of woke. And now it seems that she has her arm so far up his bottom, she can use her fingers to alter his facial expressions. I actually feel rather sorry for him because today he’s just a glove puppet with no more control over what he says or does than Basil Brush. Meghan, though, is a different story. I hate her. Not like I hate Nicola Sturgeon or Rose West. I hate her on a cellular level. At night, I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, “Shame!“ and throw lumps of excrement at her. Everyone who’s my age thinks the same way. But what makes me despair is that younger people, especially girls, think she’s pretty cool. They think she was a prisoner of Buckingham Palace, forced to talk about nothing but embroidery and kittens. That makes me even angrier. Can’t they see everything that’s happening is so very obviously pre-planned. Leave the UK. Blame the royals. Do an interview with Oprah. Get Basil Brush to write a book. Do a Netflix series — which should have been called A Woman, Talking Bollocks. I can see it clearly. The studied pauses. The mock incredulity. And the B-movie, soap-actress, quivery-voiced, more-in-sorrow-than-anger stories that are so obviously claptrap. Do you really think she would have entertained a move to New Zealand? That’s 13 hours away from everything.
SLAVES AND EUNUCHS: The spotlight of fame she craves so desperately would have been a 40-watt bulb, and no one would have seen it. Nah. She was always going to end up in California. And I can tell you, with absolute certainty, what’s coming next. Harold’s Spare book will be released. Then she’ll do one called I Think I May Be God. And then she’ll have exhausted the whole royal thing — so will be off. We will see Diana-style photographs of her, all on her own, outside the Taj Mahal. And then she will be pictured gazing into the middle distance, on the back of a playboy’s superyacht and will marry a tech billionaire and they’ll have a child called something vomitty like Peace. Or Truth. Or Love. Harold, meanwhile, will be stuck in California with no friends, either there or here, no family to support him and an army of young girls who’ll believe Meghan’s story that the marriage break-up was all his fault because he’s, like, you know, sooooo a man.
And the Royal Family? She’s going to damage them — be in no doubt about that. Because one day soon, my generation will all be dead, and we will be replaced by a new bunch who are growing up believing that Charles and William and Co are bullies who are waited on hand and foot by slaves, eunuchs and spin doctors. Unless, of course, when Meghan takes her hand out of the ginger glove puppet, he remembers who he is and gives us “the”? truth. Not hers.

(Dec 18, 2022 - 2 days after the furore) Following his controversial comments about Markle this December, Clarkson mentioned her in his final column of the year for The Times. He referred to the Christmas holidays and told readers: “I hope yours is happy too and that all of you (except Meghan Markle) have a great break. See you on the flip side.“

Not sure about you, but to me he seems like a hateful sod, who just toned it down a bit for TV. Read some of his articles for The Sun and you wouldn’t be able to differentiate them from any other ultra-right-wing neocon tirades for Fox News or OAN.

How did he flourish for so long?

Amena Chaudhry, in a brilliant set of posts on LinkedIn, called these “The Waters”. As in, what are the waters (social systems, beliefs, assumptions) that allow this iceberg (Clarkson’s article about the Duchess) to exist? Quoting:

When a Clarkson moment happens, it’s vital we name The Water. And name the ways we all swim in that water. Otherwise, we’re just relegating the problem to one bad person. Or to a few bad apples. Not addressing The Water is why racism is still alive and well in the US and Canada. If we want overt racism to end, we’re going to need to talk about the water, folks. We’re going to need to clean up that water. (pssst…WE are the water)

We are the water. We the audience were willing to let Clarkson off the hook for decades, because we weren’t his targeted victims, and we loved what he was producing. The BBC let him off the hook for major incidents for years, because Top Gear was such a cash volcano. And after his firing, other studios were willing to keep throwing opportunities at him, because they also wanted that money and knew the public didn’t care.

In doing so, we let Clarkson stay put in his stagnant bog of a mindset, cocooned from any consequences that might have brought about true remorse and change. His recent apology (such as it is) shows that he doesn’t fear any repercussions and assumes he’ll continue with his current gigs “in future”:

Jeremy Clarkson non-apology tweet

Consequences. We need real consequences for the powerful when they break the laws and norms of civil society. Something like a day fine but for social morés. And until their actions (not words - these people’s words never reflect their actions or intent) demonstrate true remorse, there shouldn’t be a second chance. Until then, movements like OWS, BLM or #MeToo will never result in the lasting change we’d like to see in our times.

We are the water.