Howard Jacobson: John Sergeant, like Thatcher, is fully aware of the public's fickle nature

The judges have come to a conclusion which cynics and nihilists reached years ago
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The Independent Online

What are we going to do about democracy? Let me rejig the emphasis to give the question urgency: What are we going to do about democracy? A great sigh of relief went around the liberal world when the American people got it right and voted for Obama – that's if it turns out they really did get it right by voting for Obama – but we wouldn't have been so relieved had we been confident that democracy would choose wisely. Half my friends went to bed in a state of nervous collapse the night of the election, unable to sleep, unable to watch, dreading, expecting, and maybe in some Cassandra-like, America-hating corner of themselves, even wanting the wrong result. "See! Did I not warn you of this? Woe, woe, woe I scent the trail of blood." Which might sound more like Frankie Howerd than Cassandra, but then America's most virulent critics usually do.

Not that McCain was the worst option that's ever been put before the American public. But Sarah Palin was. And still 46 out of every 100 Americans voted for a ticket with her on it. "A disgrace to democracy," Christopher Hitchens called her in a television interview last week. Too moderate, as always. Sarah Palin is more than a disgrace to democracy, she is – or would have been (which is an uncomfortably close cousin to could have been) – a calamity for democracy. For this much we know in our Cassandra-souls: that the people are at all times just a whisper away from voting in a dictator, a tyrant, a popinjay, or a hockey mum.

If you don't think a near miss with Sarah Palin amounts to a crisis, then consider what is going on in The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing where the judges have come to a conclusion which all right-minded cynics and nihilists reached years ago, namely that the public is an ass. Oh yes, we know what's important in this country. American presidents may come and American presidents may go, but a schoolyard prank in a radio studio, or a row about a celebrity would-be dancer who can't dance, has us by the throat. Should the screamer Laura White have been ejected from The X Factor when there are other screamers and dreamers who, in the opinion of the judges, ought to have been ejected first? And even more pressing to the national conscience, should John Sergeant still be pushing his partner like a wheelbarrow around the Strictly Come Dancing studio while real dancers face expulsion?

Each of these, of course, is a staged falling-out – a further trespass on the credibility of the public – calculated to make us believe that there are some real issues of valuation in the balance and some genuine aggro (as when professional wrestlers affect to lose their tempers) on the table. The X Factor is now so fabricated, with its pretend tensions behind the scenes and every contestant whipped up into agonies of expectation and disappointment, not to say bereavement, it has become unwatchable, and don't tell me, by way of contradiction, that 12 million people watch it. A thing is ideally unwatchable no matter how many viewers it attracts, just as some books are unreadable no matter how many people turn their pages. You cannot dispassionately discuss democracy and assume that wherever there are numbers there is truth.

It is also hard to care who does and doesn't make it through to be the next Leona Lewis a) because one is enough, b) because she had a purer voice before they messed with it, and c) because the show's dominant personality, Simon Cowell, is not himself a judge of quality, starts from originality as from the plague, and offers merely to second guess popular taste, in which case there can be no true conflict between what the public wants and what the public ought to want. As a sniffer out of what resembles the already successful, Cowell is the public's lackey and would do well to remember it.

Strictly Come Dancing is a different kettle of fish, not least as the contestants already enjoy the renown (or some measure of it) for which The X Factor hopefuls are prepared to plead, sob and otherwise allow themselves to be demeaned. John Sergeant's little ones won't starve if he doesn't make it through to the next round, nor will the world of ballroom dancing be significantly compromised if he does. That none of it matters in the slightest is part of the show's charm. It perfectly answers the brief of light entertainment – to remove us utterly from all concerns, all significance, and all meaning. This is the way the world will end – not with a bang or a whimper, but in a swirl of taffeta.

I see that if dance is your life – as we must assume it is for the judges – you will view the matter differently. It's fun but it's also serious. Dancing has laws it must obey, and an aesthetic to which it's answerable. So it will pain you when the public gives a fig for neither, preferring a good laugh to a good routine, and personality to accomplishment. That it thereby sticks two fingers up to you is an insult you just have to swallow, the price you pay for taking your begging bowl to the court of popular opinion yourself. It goes with fame: they will hate you after they have loved you, indeed their love for you is already three-quarters hate, that being the only condition on which they can tolerate their ambition taking second place to yours. What is it you expect: that the public should be pleased for you and your success? You'll be lucky to get that from your friends.

By this logic the Demos will round on Sergeant soon. Enough already. For God's sake, go! He looks to me as though he knows that. He observed Mrs Thatcher at close quarters and followed with professional interest the souring of the nation's love affair with her.

So who haven't we tired of? And if we are fickle, what does that say about our capacity to make sound judgements in the first place? Maggie up today, Maggie down tomorrow. Tony up today, Tony down tomorrow. Obama – well, we shall see. As for John Sergeant, he contributes to the nation's stock of harmless pleasures. Good for the public for being bolshie. But we should take note of what the bolshiness comprises – mischief yes, truculence yes, but also an ingrained mistrust for critical expertise. How dare anyone tell us what to think? An expression of confidence in our own judgement to which history tells us we have long foregone the right.