Howard Jacobson: 'Big Brother' encourages us to embrace a condition far more worrying than racism

The debate as to whether Jade and her super-dumb cohorts are racist is not worth having
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The Independent Online

After the Revolution, the Terror. This - the invariable consequence of filling the heads of the uneducated with grandiosity - is what we are seeing on Celebrity Big Brother. In the days when she sweetly knew herself to be pig ignorant, Jade Goody had neither the reason nor the confidence to launch the sort of terrifying tirades to which poor little rich girl Shilpa Shetty has been subjected - never mind with what provocation - this last week.

But then television made Jade a star. Television rewarded her with renown for all the things she didn't know. Television set her up as a sort of Ugly Betty of the reason and the intellect, an example and a promise to everyone who had hitherto felt damned in their own fatuity. You, too, said television, can be rich and famous for being an airhead. Indeed, if we have our way, you won't be rich and famous for being anything else. And now the airhead is a swollen head, and won't be spoken down to by a mistress of Indian subcontinent hauteur. Jade has rights now, whether or not she can spell them, and will shake the planet to its foundations before she forgoes a single one.

Well, and why should she be spoken down to? No reason. Hence the brute little corner of us that cheers her on, at once exhilarated and appalled by the tenacity of her sense of wrong. "Your mother would be proud of you," one of her chums in girly vacuity told her, without a trace of irony, after she had sworn the house down. No doubt about it. Pride has probably been beating in sullen hearts all over the country. The Terror, too, as the aristocrats went helter-skelter to the guillotine, made the children of the Revolution proud.

Channel 4, which has a big stake in cultural mischief, has fomented this unrest. It has been fomenting it ever since Big Brother started, learning as it goes that no one ever made a buck overestimating the sense or sensibility of the British public. But in Jade Goody it has found its Héroïne de la Revolution. How long it has been sitting on the idea of returning Jade to Big Brother as a celebrity - a perfected monster of televisual incestuousness, on telly for having been on telly - is anyone's guess. But this time it made its intentions apparent immediately. Jade and her family were to be royalty - Queen Carnival and her entourage for a day - and the rest of the house were to wait on her hand and foot.

In fact, Shilpa was among those who found exemption from this indignity, which must have been a disappointment to the programme makers, since here was the dream reversal of roles, the very reason, presumably, she had been imported to play opposite Jade in the first place. But the tone had been set. This was to be an incendiary Big Brother, pitting culture against culture, class against class, and in the process flattering its viewers with the Channel 4 philosophy, that what is low is high.

The debate as to whether Jade and her super-dumb cohorts are racist is not worth having, whatever the expressions of sanctimonious outrage on all sides. (The Carphone Warehouse taking the high moral ground and pulling out of sponsoring the programme - there's a laugh after the thousands of hours of mindlessness and bilge it has lent its name to without a qualm.)

Racism - the fear and dislike of people alien to you - is slumberingly integral to all ignorance, so we shouldn't be in the slightest surprised to find it among people who are witless enough to go on such a programme in the first place. Not all racists are stupid, but all stupid people are at some level racists, cowed into resentment and mistrust by the enormity of their incomprehension. In proportion as the world and its ideas are a mystery to you, so the world and its peoples are a threat.

Jade is goaded into wild abuse by the unfamiliar appearance and manners of a woman who's name she cannot get her tongue round, whose value system she cannot comprehend, and who makes her feel cheap. The footballer's bit of fluff - the one who dresses like a toddler and eats with her mouth open - looks blankly into all she doesn't know about the dining customs of people not from Liverpool, and worries where their hands have been.

To confuse this vegetative state with full-blown racism is to dignify it. More than that, it is to confuse a lesser crime with a greater. There are worse things than racism. There is the unapologetic inanity from which the ordinary, daily, unremarkable bigotries and prejudices of the public draw their strength.

We are too soft on stupidity. I am not talking about general knowledge or vocabulary failure. Jade doesn't recognise wedlock - the word, that is, not the state. This is not a sin in itself; words can pass you by. I can never get a purchase on ontological and have to look it up whenever I encounter it. Nor do I mean not having heard of famous people or places. The footballer's fluff thinks Winston Churchill was the first black President of America, having seen a black statue of him near where she lies her empty head. And Jade suspects Rio de Janeiro might be a person. So what? For all I know to the contrary Rio Ferdinand is a region of Ecuador.

They add up, though - the words you can't pronounce, the events you haven't heard of, the ideas with which you are not and do not wish to be acquainted. At some point the accumulation of missing information and curiosity amounts to your not being in the world at all. And it is this condition - a condition that can with far more justice be described as alienation than the ennui of the intellectual - that Big Brother and its host of satellite celebrity magazines have for years been encouraging us to embrace.

There is a vindictiveness in dumbing down. It aims to dethrone not only intelligence but the means by which we rate one thing above another. Dumbing down is an assault upon the very concept of value. Thus Jade, though she wouldn't know what I am talking about, is the child of that nihilism which gave us postmodernism and the Turner prize. A celebrity for being nobody, a belcher and a farter with her own perfume, she is an ironic reference to the unmeaningness of meaning.

Racism? We have far more to worry about than that.

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