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John Cleese cancels at Cambridge U over a debate about Hitler impersonation

(JTA) — An impression of Adolf Hitler at Cambridge University has touched off a fight over the limits of free speech and has drawn Monty Python comedian John Cleese into the fray. The impersonation was delivered at a debate last week on whether there’s such a thing as “good taste.” Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art historian, impersonated Hitler as an example of bad taste, in order to argue that good and bad taste do exist.

At the time, Keir Bradwell, the president of the Cambridge Union, a debating society, jokingly thanked Graham-Dixon for the impersonation. Since then, Bradwell has reversed course and published an apology for not cutting Graham-Dixon off. 

That condemnation has led Cleese, a champion of free speech, to cancel his attendance at an upcoming event at the Cambridge Union. He said he made the decision in protest of the university’s treatment of Graham-Dixon. Cleese was scheduled to appear in Cambridge as a guest of the debating society as part of his new documentary series, “Cancel Me,” in which Cleese interviews people who are perceived to have been penalized or silenced for making offensive statements.

In the debate, Graham-Dixon spoke as Hitler, putting on a German accent while making a Nazi salute. “Culture struggle through taste, my struggle, my struggle, Adolf Hitler’s struggle, I was a watercolor painter, I was rejected, my German art, my purity, it was rejected,” Graham-Dixon said in a German accent before about 400 listeners. “The romantic tradition of German art was rejected by this modern art, this modern, horrible art that was promoted by the Jews.” 

The audience of 400 people voted in favor of Graham-Dixon in the debate. At the event, Bradwell commended Graham-Dixon for “perhaps the longest Hitler impression this chamber has ever received, a remarkable accomplishment for tonight.” But days later, Bradwell apologized for not interrupting Graham-Dixon.

“I would like to offer my unreserved apology for the comments made by a speaker in our debate on Thursday night,” he wrote in a statement posted to Twitter. “Neither I nor the society condones the thoughtless and grotesque language used by the individual in question, and I am sorry for my failure to intervene at the time.” 

Main Photo: John Cleese poses for a picture during a book signing in London, Sept. 10, 2020. (Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

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