If we call Clarkson racist, what word do we use for Boko Haram?

If Jeremy Clarkson is to be condemned for anything, it should be his foolish obsession with cars

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The Independent Online

Of the wars we only pretend to fight, the phoniest is the one against celebrities caught off-guard evincing racism. That’s if they really are caught, and if they really are off-guard, and if they really are celebrities.

Between those appalled by the latest of Jeremy Clarkson’s affronts to people of another colour, gender or persuasion, and those who find his slips and sniggers endearing, silly, just Jeremy being Jeremy, or even Jeremy being invigoratingly if bumblingly transgressive – which is clearly how he would like to see himself: a sort of cross between Mel Gibson, Roy “Chubby” Brown and Don Quixote – lies a yawning chasm of indifference. Do I mean by that that I would wish there to be a yawning chasm of indifference, or do I know of its existence, and even its dimensions, for a fact? Reader, I leave that to you to decide. But I was brought up to believe that if you wished hard enough for something, you would get it.

It is plainly the case, anyway, that even those who are routinely voluble on either side of Clarkson are growing bored. This could be because there have been too many instances of the just Jeremys of the world being just Jeremy, or it could be because there have been too many instances of offended of Primrose Hill being offended of Primrose Hill. Call it mutual fatigue.

But there is a third possibility and that is that we are simply not convinced in our hearts that racially dubious language is sufficient in itself to make the speaker of it a racist. In matters such as this we can use up our vocabulary of disapprobation too quickly. If we are going to call Clarkson a racist, what word does that leave to describe, say, the ideology of Boko Haram? Clarkson appears to want to play around at the edges of offence – baiting the sanctimonious for the fun of it – but if such play amounts to the committing of a hate crime, what do you call the Nairobi mall massacre of infidels?

There is, I know, the continuum theory to contend with. We start by sneaking back an odious designation here, a needling joke there, and soon we are shooting our way through shopping malls. This is the argument of the eternally vigilant, and their wakefulness is to be applauded. But the continuum theory works against them as well. First of all they outlaw words that bear a history of ugly association, and further down the line they are sending round the thought police.

So what are the gradations of racism? Are we racists by virtue of having occasional malodorous thoughts about foreigners? If that’s the case, then who shall ’scape whipping? It is fair to say that we should do with such thoughts what we do with comparable invasions from the blackest parts of our souls, and suppress them. But are we not then hypocrites if we accuse others of feeling what we have sometimes felt ourselves? Or does the racism lie not in the thought but the speaking it, or not even then, but in putting the utterance into action? It would take the wisdom of Solomon to decide at which point in that slow sequence – a sequence that might see as much turning back as going forward – the thing we call racism enters.

Should we not do with racism, then, what the wisest of us do with jealousy, envy, pertinacious desire and the like, and accept we are not above any of it, however much we’d wish to be? Not acquiesce in its consequences, but not go hunting it down in others as evidence of their inextinguishable nastiness. Thus, we could say to the latest verbal offender, it is not because we’ve glimpsed the hem of your bigotries that we are incensed by you – indeed we possess identical undergarments – but because you think we love it when you tease us with the prospect of your showing more. It’s not that you’re a bit of a racist so much as that you’re a bit of a whore.

As for Clarkson, it has always seemed to me that his real crime is to be interested in cars. Not just interested in cars in the way he is, as though they are a definitive badge of masculinity, as though the idea of a man unexcited by cars is inconceivable, as though the din and roar of them must be of universal male appeal, as though driving a car up a slope – sorry, up a hill – represents the ne plus ultra of human achievement, but just interested in cars full stop.

This might come as a surprise to cyclists who can’t understand why I don’t want to be mown down by them at traffic lights, but I detest the car as much as they do. It’s just that I detest the bicycle as well. Not the object in itself, which is neutral, but the uses to which it’s put. As a general rule, I hold the world to be an even more dangerous and fatuous place than it needs to be so long as there are people in it who idealise a means of transport.

Just get on it and go where you’re going. Don’t dress for it. Don’t smooch with it. Don’t see it as an extension of you, or you as an extension of it. A man who doesn’t know where he ends and his machine begins is by definition a fool. And a fool on a main road is a menace. As witness what cyclists do when they see a red light – but there I go again.

And a motorist is a cyclist but more so. I say “motorist” as opposed to driver. A driver employs his vehicle functionally. A motorist has an ideological relationship with his car. In a sane society you’d get eight years for that. But then in a sane society we’d have sent Max Clifford down for lowering the national tone long before we knew what other sins he was committing. And by the same logic, if you must get Clarkson, get him for Top Gear.