Howard Jacobson: Imagine what Charles Dickens would have done with a character like Jade Goody

While he saw qualities in the downtrodden, he did not confuse misfortune with virtue
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And then the silent shame of the conspirators. That was always going to be the way of it after Jade Goody's eviction from the nation's favour, however faint that favour was. As with Aufidius after overseeing the slaughter of Coriolanus - a scene I seem to need to allude to often in this column - "Our rage is gone, / And we are struck with sorrow."

The aftermath has witnessed much soul-searching about our soul-searching. In our relentless hunting down of racism have we not displayed the equally odious intolerance which is snobbism? Is there not hypocrisy in our loading all the sins of prejudice on to the underprivileged working classes? Do you solve the problem of scapegoating by making a scapegoat of the scapegoater? It is as though we have created conscience's equivalent to perpetual motion - no sooner impelled to condemn an outrage than embarked upon a fresh outrage of our own, whereupon others are impelled to voice outrage at our outrage... We could be here for ever.

And in all probability will. Nothing we can do about it: hypocrisy waits upon every accusation of racism because there is a secret part of us - too integral to our psychology ever to be educated away - that finds a little discreet racism stimulating. This can partly be attributed to the relief of saying, or having someone else say, the unsayable. And the more watchful of its language and attitudes the society we live in, the greater this relief. It is also to be explained, anthropologically, by the way we come to know and value our own clan. We are who we are by virtue of our feeling different from those we are not. What we call racism is sometimes no more than the expression of that difference.

Shilpa Poppadom? What is that if not Jade Steak and Kidney Pudding asserting her identity?

But in the end there is no point smoothing what is crooked. We are not built on one level. There is a basement to our natures, and no good has ever come from pretending that there isn't. Society cannot function unless we keep that basement closed, but people cannot function unless access to it is periodically permitted. And one way we get access is by laughing at comedians and clowns who raid the basement for us. On these figures we load everything that is demoniacal in us, our frenzies, our prejudices, our longings for sexual licence, our madness. Thus, with our connivance, did Barrymore crawl licentiously over old ladies in a way that would not be tolerated in the family, or even in old persons' homes where the rules, I'm told, are laxer. We laughed at those indignities to our mothers because it was a psychological imperative that we laughed.

Edna Everage performed the same act of beneficence, allowing us to revel in a spectacle of universal humiliation where nothing was sacred and no one was revered, and when she did her dance of lewd derision we knew it was the dance of life.

Ancient societies have their Kokopellis and trickster gods who release them from the intolerable burden - call it the necessary dishonesty - of good behaviour. Alf Garnett served this function for years, sometimes winning an adherence to his views which shocked even his creator. Myself, I thought it was disingenuous to be appalled when viewers took the politics of Till Death Us Do Part at their word. The programme spoke from and to the louche and cruel vitality of the basement. You cannot then disown what's down there.

What makes Catherine Tate a superlative comedian is precisely this acknowledgement of the irrefutable power of unruliness. Her loathsome, foul-mouthed old woman is like some goblin from the netherworld. But in fact we know precisely where she resides and the doors to which chamber she throws open. Ditto, in recent episodes, the girl who can't be bovvered. From a joke about schoolyard parlance she has spiralled into a manic life force, cleverer than anyone supposes, refusing the social niceties not out of mere adolescent sullenness but in a spirit of immovable existential obduracy.

Dickensian, I'd call that. My highest praise. And I can't help wondering what Dickens would have made of Jade. That he would have felt the pathos of her, I don't doubt. For at the heart of her tumult there is clearly damage. Damage of a personal but also of a social nature. And Dickens was unforgiving of that species of self-righteousness that makes a "good" person unable to recognise kinship with a "bad". No point setting out your stall as a novelist if you don't know that it is our hankering for destructive mischief, every bit as much as our power to reason, that makes us human.

But while he saw qualities invisible to others in the downtrodden, Dickens did not confuse misfortune with virtue. Which seems to be the error we have been sliding into since having second thoughts about Jade. Suddenly, from berating the not very well-educated or brought-up for speaking ill of foreigners, we are berating ourselves for speaking ill of the not very well-educated or brought-up. Why? That people are the victims of their circumstances it would be heartless to deny, but if there is a culture of wilfully embracing ignorance I see no reason to respect it.

You don't have to read Jordan's autobiography or take The Sun. You don't have to refuse to let your child eat polenta for school dinners and go on stuffing him with meat pie. You don't have to fart louder than the other girls. You don't have to stagger legless through Prague the night before your wedding. Footballers are not an obligation, pop music is not a birthright, knowing nothing is not your heritage.

I am prepared to accept that these are not the defining characteristics of working-class culture, but it would make life sweeter if the working classes agreed with me. Say no to that prescription, say I. Working class doesn't any longer describe a stratum of society anyway. It is a cultural commodity, dreamed up by glossy magazines and Channel 4 and whoever else has a material stake in kitschifying crassness. It is an option you may refuse.

We should welcome the rudery from the basement when it's real. We die when we admit only the sweetness and light of the upstairs rooms.

But those are not basement noises proper we're hearing from the Big Brother house. Those are the sounds of disinheritance. And it isn't snobbish to wish that the disinherited were not so. On the contrary, the true offence is to flatter them into believing they are fine as they are, because there is nothing upstairs worth having.