Howard Jacobson: Foolish vanity of a public intellectual

Starkey’s arrogance was his undoing. He began to bluster, and the more he blustered, the more ruthless his baby adversary became

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Those who live by television shall die by television. So that's arrive-derci, David Starkey. I suspect – and hope – that news of his demise is premature. At a time when it's unpardonable to sound elitist or discriminative, we can't afford to lose people who go against the grain. Yes, the Starkey shtick has fallen victim to its own cuteness: all that campery and snootery and retro-tailoring, the rudest man on television blah blah. And cuteness is a fatal flaw in an intellectual. It marks the moment intellect gives way to "personality". But then it's for his "personality" that telly wants him. God forbid we should have to watch someone distinguished for intellect alone.

His performances on Question Time and Newsnight are now pure panto. He mouths off and we boo. Which means that we too have grown predictable. But even panto can have a point. Behind Starkey's mock hauteur needling of those whose every opinion is received, is a passion to say the unsayable, not just for perversity's sake, but because when conventional minds rule, the unsayable has to be said. The trouble is that in hamming up himself, he hams up the unsayable as well.

He botched an important argument again on Newsnight the other evening when he read out a looter's incoherent gangsta justification for her actions and wondered whether some of the troubles on the streets of our cities couldn't be ascribed, in part, to such patois with its brutality, misogyny, and utterly self-defeating illiteracy. He is by no means the only person to be asking that question. Many in the black communities have been asking it for years. Though of course they don't ask it quite as provocatively as Starkey does.

That there are white kids who want to sound like an inauthentic version of black kids is not a new observation. Ali G made his name being a white boy from Staines trying to pass himself off as a black boy from the inner city. Most people thought it funny.

Starkey was identifying the same phenomenon but without Ali G's flair, good humouredness, and even affection for the patois. This didn't make Starkey a racist, but it exposed him to the imputation of racism. The joke of his being – in his person, in his accent, in the cast of his mind – as far removed from gangsta culture as it is possible to be, was lost in its untimeliness. This was not the hour for trying the gag of being a toff among savages. When the invitation from Newsnight came, he should have declined it. Knowing when and when not to have one's say is also part of being a public intellectual.

The Newsnight formula is to have guests quickly go for one another's throats. I make no complaint about that. Newsnight does it well. But it doesn't suit the tempo of everybody's thinking, and it certainly doesn't suit Starkey's. His modus operandi is to be shocking and then to show us that what's shocking happens to be true. For which he needs Newsnight to be twice as long and he to be the only guest. He also needs a script. When the nation's blood is up, you can't just turn up on telly and hope to wing it. I know whereof I speak.

The other reason to eschew these brief gladiatorial encounters is that they do scant justice to any argument that departs from the politically acceptable. Take an intellectual risk and the other guests, if they are sanctimonious – and there is always someone who is there to be sanctimonious – will have you on toast.

Before Starkey had the chance to wind around to what he was getting at, a self-delighting, baby-faced class warrior and Chavologist called Owen Jones produced the racist card he'd been keeping in his pocket for just such a moment. In spirit it was a mugging which resembled the very looting the guests were assembled to discuss. Starkey opened his mouth and Jones, unable to believe his good fortune – a patrician, I've bagged me a patrician! – put his fist in it.

It was here that Starkey's arrogance was his undoing. Assuming Jones would be no match for him – why, he was barely out of university and wasn't even wearing a suit! – he began to bluster. And the more he blustered the more ruthless and baying his baby adversary became. Denying that he had said all black men sounded like gangstas – which he hadn't – Starkey found himself citing David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, as an "an archetypal successful black man", who didn't sound remotely like a gangsta, indeed who, if you turned the screen off, "you would think was white". Clumsy, but not remotely racist. Not an ascription of white virtues to a black man. Simply a refutation of what he'd been accused of – ie saying that all black men spoke like thugs.

But his assassin did not, would not, and no doubt could not, listen. The next day Jones was pronouncing Starkey's career over (by implication claiming the corpse) and the usual suspects, seeing Starkey down, were lining up to loot his rucksack. Even Piers Morgan was seen to tweet – and is there any man to whom the word tweet is more suited? – that Starkey was "a racist idiot".

Thus do the deaf speak violence to the deaf. Starkey, it has to be said – if he will stay away from encounters too crudely populist for him to win – can look after himself. But as far as the wider debate about what has been happening on our streets is concerned, an argument about education, language and disinheritance – I will say no more than that – has been ruled out. And who gains by that? Everything must be on the table now. Nothing is too delicate to discuss. And the policemen of the language who would have it otherwise, Master Jones, are the bigots and the fools, enemies of understanding and of change.

The lesson for those of us who would scale the barricades erected by the self-righteous, is to resist both the blandishments of the media and the whisperings of vanity. On a huge hill, cragged and steep, John Donne wrote, truth stands, and five minutes on telly is not the way to reach it.



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