Forty years ago, the iconic British comedy group Monty Python released their third feature film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The movie follows a young Jewish man who happens to be born on the same day as, and next door to, Jesus Christ and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah. Now a classic, the film initially proved highly controversial due to its perceived blasphemy.
The film also pokes fun at political correctness, satirizing attitudes that would today be described as woke. It features skits about the left eating itself, a perennial trope. In light of the current state of political discourse, this particular combination of religious and political themes seems almost prophetic.
It’s telling that the Pythons satirize religion and what we today call wokeness in the same film. There is, after all, a religious component to woke culture. There are dogmas, myths, taboos and a tendency to moralize. And dissenters are denounced, or called out, with a fervour reminiscent of the persecution of witches and heretics in centuries past.
Woke thinking is often characterized by a belief in something akin to original sin (white guilt). It promises a path to virtue and redemption and has all the characteristics of a cult. This cult revolves around the sacred values of diversity, inclusion and equity, particularly in relation to race, gender and sexuality (identity politics). Defined in opposition to white patriarchy (good vs. evil), these totemic values are safeguarded by a high priesthood in academia and the media.
There is also an underlying belief that everything is political, which may explain the desire to implement political correctness in every area of life. This dissolves the distinction between the political and the personal, the public and the private. In other words, wokeness is not secular, because, like other totalitarian ideologies, it seeks to establish an all-pervading orthodoxy.
Woke people seem to be especially concerned about politically incorrect language. The idea that language shapes our perception of reality, which has some merit, has morphed into a pervasive superstition—that some words are so powerful and offensive as to be dangerous, regardless of context or intention. For example, it has become completely unacceptable for a white person to use the so-called N-word, even in a metalinguistic context. Netflix executive Jonathan Friedland’s ouster after using the word in a staff meeting about offensive words is a case in point. Even the word niggardly, which is etymologically unrelated to the N-word, has got people into hot water.
The stoning scene in Life of Brian brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of stringent language taboos. An elderly man faces execution for using the taboo word Jehovah. When he defends himself by saying, “Look, I had a lovely supper, and all I said to my wife was, ‘That piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah,’” the cleric reading out the verdict shouts, “Blasphemy! He’s said it again!” A member of the crowd throws a stone at the convict’s head, for which she is reprimanded—the stoning hasn’t officially started yet. After a number of incidents of this sort, the cleric, now visibly furious, makes an announcement: “No one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle! Do you understand? Even—and I want this to be absolutely clear—even if they do say ‘Jehovah.’” For which the crowd promptly stones him to death. This brings to mind Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: “Spirits I have cited, my commands ignore”—a perfect metaphor for woke mob dynamics.
Monty Python star Terry Jones is probably right to say that Life of Brian “couldn’t be made today,” partly because some of the scenes make light of transgenderism. Leaving aside the fact that Brian’s mother is played by Jones, a man, part of the humour in the stoning scene, for example, comes from the fact that the stone-throwing crowd is made up of women disguised as men, since only men are allowed to participate in stonings. However, being women (biologically female), they have a hard time maintaining their cover.
Offensive as it may be to woke audiences, this particular scene was almost certainly not intended as a commentary on transgenderism. There is one scene, however, that explicitly addresses it. At an informal meeting of the radical People’s Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judean People’s Front or the Judean Popular People’s Front), one of the characters, Stan, keeps interrupting his comrades, insisting that they use gender-inclusive language. A discussion ensues:
—Why are you always on about women, Stan?
—I want to be one.
—I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta.
—It’s my right as a man.
—Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
—I want to have babies.
—You want to have babies?
—It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
—But you can’t have babies.
—Don’t you oppress me!
—I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb. Where is the foetus going to gestate? You’re going to keep it in a box?
A member of the group has an idea:
—Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.
—What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?
—It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
—Symbolic of his struggle against reality.
What was clearly satire in 1979 has become a reality in recent years. Take the famous case of Jessica Yaniv, the trans woman who, according to journalist Meghan Murphy, “filed 13 Human Rights complaints against female aestheticians in the Vancouver area” for refusing to wax Yaniv’s penis and testicles. This demonstrates the conflict between radical feminism and transgenderism. According to intersectional theory, however, there is no conflict. It’s all part of the same struggle against oppression.
Reality does not conform to woke theories. Indeed, such theories often seem to reflect a “struggle against reality,” such as the reality of biological sex differences. However, as the woke ideologues’ postmodern intellectual heritage has taught them, reality is a function of power, and to challenge a person’s subjective concept of reality is, therefore, an act of oppression. Not only is there no evidence for this seemingly progressive claim, but it also undermines the possibility of open inquiry and objective reasoning, thus impeding progress.
The People’s Front of Judea is, in many ways, a fictional precursor of the modern woke left. Take the 2019 National Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America. In a viral video, we see a young delegate raise a “point of privilege” regarding the noise level in the auditorium. “Guys,” he says, “can we please keep the chatter to a minimum. I’m one of the people who are very, very prone to sensory overload.” A moment later, he is admonished by another delegate to “stop using gendered language to address everyone.”
What is also striking about the footage is how much time is spent discussing procedural formalities. After all, the DSA’s ambitious goal is, according to one speaker, “to defeat capitalism.” This combination of idealism and pedantry brings to mind another scene from Life of Brian. At a meeting of the People’s Front of Judea:
—Right. Now item four: attainment of world supremacy within the next five years.
—Uh, Francis, you’ve been doing some work on this?
—Yeah. Thank you, Reg. Well, quite frankly, siblings, I think five years is optimistic—unless we can smash the Roman Empire within the next twelve months.
—Twelve months, yeah?
—Twelve months. And let’s face it, as empires go, this is the big one, so we gotta get up off our asses and stop just talking about it.
—It’s action that counts, not words.
—And we need action now!
—Hear! Hear! You’re right. We could sit around here all day, talking, passing resolutions, making clever speeches.
But even when Brian gets arrested for being a member of the group, they fail to take action to liberate him. Instead, they pass a new resolution. On the occasion of their comrade’s subsequent crucifixion, they issue a formal statement on behalf of “Jews of both sexes and hermaphrodites” before voting to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” in honour of Brian’s martyrdom.
The crucifixion scene once again highlights the parallels between religion and ideology. Not only is Brian mistaken for the Messiah by a group of religious fanatics, but he also becomes a martyr for the anti-imperialist revolution.
“Revealing and dismantling colonialist power in all its forms” (decolonization according to postcolonial theory) is part of woke ideology. Monty Python’s “What have the Romans ever done for us?” skit satirizes the anti-imperialist left, as represented by the People’s Front of Judea. After a brief discussion, the question is rephrased: “Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Also relevant today is another theme of the film—the perennial idea that the left has a tendency to eat its own. Accusations of bigotry, from racism to transphobia, are tossed around recklessly today, and disagreement is often seen as a threat. By impeding the possibility of good-faith rational discourse, this has led to schisms within the left. As a member of the People’s Front of Judea puts it, “The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.”
The scene in which PFJ activists break into Pontius Pilate’s palace to kidnap his wife epitomizes the phenomenon of left-wing cannibalism. In the palace, they run into another anti-imperialist commando group, Campaign for Free Galilee. The two groups discover that they have exactly the same plan of action. Rather than band together, however, they start arguing about who came up with the idea first. Brian intervenes: “Brothers, we should be struggling together! We mustn’t fight each other! Surely, we should be united against the common enemy.” But to no avail. The two groups kill each other.
Watching Life of Brian today, forty years after it was made, is still an eye-opening experience. Juxtaposing progressive pretension with Judeo-Christian dogma, the film brilliantly reveals the parallels between religious and political orthodoxy. Monty Python understood that what we today call wokeness—excessive political correctness at the expense of reason, open inquiry and free speech—is incompatible with an enlightened society.
Yet wokeness has become pervasive. In the words of Douglas Murray, “A new dogma has turned beliefs that once seemed common sense into hate crimes.” Unsurprisingly, the Pythons have found themselves on the receiving end of this phenomenon. But they have never admitted to any wrongdoing. Having learned from their experience with religious censors, they know better than anyone that, as Eric Kaufmann notes, “Norms are strengthened when the accused plead guilty of their ‘crimes’”—a lesson we should all take to heart.