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A Python gets serious

Terry Jones on war on terror, Chaucer

By Todd Leopold

Terry Jones
Saddam Hussein

(CNN) -- Terry Jones was in the United States to promote two of his books, "Terry Jones's War on the War on Terror" and "Who Murdered Chaucer?"

And yes, he says, it does seem odd for a Oxford-graduated medieval literature scholar and Monty Python alum to be talking about the fighting of a 21st-century war.

But, he adds, there are some striking similarities. And no, he isn't joking.

It's just that history can be absurd as well as tragic (or comic), and particularly absurd when it begins to repeat itself in unlikely ways, he says.

"I find that looking at history that people don't change," says Jones in a phone interview from New York. "They're just as bright and just as devious as they are now."

Take, for example, that 14th-century history in "Who Murdered Chaucer?" (St. Martin's Press).

Geoffrey Chaucer, famed author of the "Canterbury Tales," was a popular member of the court of King Richard II.

In 1399, Richard was deposed and murdered (he's considered the first casualty of the Wars of the Roses by some), and a nobleman named Thomas Arundel -- who had been exiled under Richard but was a favorite of the new king, Henry IV -- returned to England as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Arundel, threatened by church reformers such as John Wyclif, started a "war against heresy," in Jones' words. Books were burned; accused heretics were as well.

"He basically said, 'You're either with us or against us,' " Jones says. "So he defined heresy as he liked and used it to pick off his enemies."

Which is the kind of dark comparison Jones makes in "Terry Jones's War on the War on Terror" (Nation Books), a collection of his opinion pieces for the British newspapers the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent.

Challenging 'abstract nouns'

In the book, Jones criticizes the use of language to describe the conflict in Iraq, the coverage by the news media and the influence neoconservatives such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz have exercised in U.S. policy.

"First the [initial] bombing was called a war, but I thought a war had to have two sides," he says. "Then it became a war because people fought back, but now it's an 'insurgency.' "

For that matter, in the book he takes on the phrase "war on terrorism" with a Python's sense of the absurd: "But how is 'terrorism' going to surrender?" he writes. "It's well known, in philological circles, that it's very hard for abstract nouns to do anything at all of their own volition."

He blames the major news organizations for not questioning the use of these terms and phrases.

"The problem with the media is [news organizations] are primarily owned by corporations, and corporations are pro-establishment," he says. "Newspapers and television start using the vocabulary of politicians, and that's the way bias creeps in."

Terry Jones specialized in English literature at Oxford University, and has a fascination with the medieval.

He also criticizes the media for their lack of curiosity about the neoconservatives.

The thinking of the neoconservatives, including raising defense spending and stepping up a Mideast presence, was all right there on the Web site of Project for the New American Century in a 2000 report called "Rebuilding America's Defenses," Jones says.

(The PNAC is "a nonprofit, educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership," according to its Web siteexternal link.)

The report states, "While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."

Elsewhere, the authors write, "the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor." (The complete report; PDFexternal link)

Jones reads these words darkly. "They were totally up front about it," he says. "This is what [the neocons] wanted to do, to invade Iraq."

PNAC Executive Director Gary Schmitt agrees that the PNAC was up front about the removal of Saddam Hussein -- but that Saddam's removal was U.S. policy predating George W. Bush's administration. "This isn't an obscure policy agenda. This was the policy of the United States," he says.

He adds that Jones' comments are nothing new. "He didn't do any original research," he says. "These are quotes the left has put out for several years. ... I see it all the time."

'I can do things that don't make money'

Jones is in a position to work on Chaucer books and write opinion pieces because Monty Python has been very good to him. The members of Python own their TV programs and movies, which provide a regular source of royalties.

"That income means I can do things that don't make money," Jones says.

It's gotten a boost lately with the opening of "Spamalot," the Eric Idle-penned Broadway musical based on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Jones, who was in New York for the premiere, describes the stage work as "good fun," though he adds that "it's very much Eric's show."

He noted that the whole band, which reunited at the "Spamalot" opening, hadn't all been together since the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998.

He sees Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam frequently -- indeed, Palin lives nearby -- but "John [Cleese] and Eric live on the West Coast."

He's still not entirely sure that Chaucer met a terrible end; what is known is that the author died in 1400 and that a number of mysteries surround his death, not least that little attention was paid to it at the time.

But Jones doesn't shy away from disagreeing with the current Washington wisdom being bruited about: that, with the end of Saddam's regime, the Iraqi elections, and recent demonstrations in Lebanon, going to war in Iraq was the right decision.

The status of democracy in Iraq is still tenuous, he says, and regardless, the end can't justify the means.

"Is it worth all the destruction of the infrastructure? Worth all the deaths? It's a question you can't answer," he says.

Python, on the other hand, leaves a more positive legacy, he says. He tells a story about an inner-city schoolteacher who noticed that Python skits had a softening effect on his rough students' behavior.

"Instead of the kids being bullies, they would go around being silly," he says.

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