Howard Jacobson: What makes everyone believe that they have an inalienable right to be 'worth it'?

It's possible that I feel squeamish about talent contests because I never won one
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The Independent Online

Life's a talent contest. Darwin told us that, though I suspect we knew it well enough already. "In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment."

What Darwin himself would not have known was that our environment would shrink to the dimensions of a box in the corner of our living rooms. We demonstrate our fitness now, not in the swamps and marshes that challenged our tadpole ancestors, but in the glare and indeed by the measure of public approval. We strut and fret our hour upon this little stage, perform our brief routine – our tale told by an idiot – and then are heard no more, unless of course we happen to get enough telephone votes. And then we are heard too often. Thus, in these weightless times, has even the struggle for survival become the province of light entertainment.

It's possible I feel squeamish about talent contests because I never won one. My childhood, as I would rather not recall, was one unending hell of talent oriented humiliation, as first my mother and father, then my grandmother, then my teachers, then my so-called friends, pushed me on to platforms in order to sing, dance, tell jokes, do tricks, recite poetry, or just stand there trying to look like someone I was not.

The last of these – forgive me if I've already in my shame recounted it – was a Just William competition at a Holiday Camp in Morecambe for which my parents scruffied up my appearance, rubbing dirt into my cheeks, rolling down my socks, unknotting my tie, twisting my school cap, and shoving me out before an audience of bored and hungry campers with instructions that I act the tomboy.

Anyone less a tomboy than I was, reader, you cannot conceive. Even at seven I prided myself on my reserved demeanour and understated elegance of dressing. For me to appear in public with my face unwashed, let alone my tie askew, was a disgrace not to be borne. Imagine Jane Eyre being forced to do a stint lap-dancing at Stringfellows and you will have some idea of the moral revulsion I experienced. Only I was primmer than Jane Eyre.

Not that any of this ever stopped me enjoying – ironically, it goes without saying – such parades of self-deluded amateurishness as Opportunity Knocks. And there remain television talent contests, or variations of talent contest such as Big Brother and Celebrity Come Dancing and countless other dance and cook-offs, which I watch, not exactly with enthusiasm, but with a sour, grudging curiosity. From these I except The Apprentice, on too many grounds to mention here – the column isn't long enough that could encompass the horrors of The Apprentice – but let the fatuous, vainglorious boasting of its ego-gorged host, and the mirthless sycophancy of his would-be vainglorious apprentices ("Yes, Sir Alan." 'No, Sir Alan") suffice to give a flavour of my objections.

Certainly Britain's Got Talent went a long way to demonstrating that we don't have an iota of it, but at least a breakdancing accordionist on a trapeze will of necessity have put in hours of practice, whereas imagining you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur – that most inglorious of all non-callings, anyway – is the work of mere idle-fancy and vacancy. Every John-a-dreams is a tycoon or a second-hand diva today, but the diva does have this to be said for her – she needs to have learnt the words of a song. And whatever else "Yes, Sir Alan, no, Sir Alan" is, it ain't a song.

And yes, Sir Alan, I know The Apprentice is a species of post-modernist joke, a talent contest to find no talent, in which every spontaneity is in fact a line of script, and we, in the same spirit of arch falsity, pretend to care about what we don't. But if the letter killeth, it's the script that does the anaesthetising. The X-Factor has become all but unwatchable on account of the stage-managed shenanigans of the judges, the utter predictability of their aesthetic, and the robotic confessionals of the contestants, all of whom have a single mother they hope to lift out of penury, and have been "dreaming" of fame since they first drew breath. Myself, I'd give the prize to any singer who doesn't once use the word "dream". Or "fame", come to that. Or "fortune".

"I do this out of a disinterested love of excellence, Dermot. I do it for the satisfaction to be derived from the doing, to the best of my ability, of the thing itself" – how long must I wait until I hear someone say that?

In the meantime, for all the artificiality and scriptedness, all the contemptuous phone-in scams, all the talentlessness of the self-supposed talented, we go on watching. Why? What is the enduring appeal? The cynical would say it is to see people make fools of themselves and come a cropper. The more cynical still would say it is to fill our otherwise defeated lives with vicarious success. But I wonder if it isn't a hankering for judgement in a world which, on egalitarian principle, pretends to determined non-judgementalism.

"Because you're worth it," the ad says. It doesn't say what we've done to make us worth it or how our worth's been gauged. Just worth it. Every one of us. Worth being a God-given gift even to the monumentally ungifted. Every child deserves to pass, every student must have a first, every woman is an unparalleled beauty, every man a Sir Alan-in-waiting. I wouldn't be surprised to discover it inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – "Whereas it is the inalienable right of every person to be Worth It..."

Darwinianly, though, that is to say in the bones of our struggle to raise ourselves from the primeval swamp, we remember that contest is of our essence and the universality of worth a lie. However cruel the consequences, we know that we advance not a jot without the assertion of value – good, better, best – our fitness for whatever purpose being the deciding factor in whether we survive or fail.

And so, against the prevailing ideology of equality of worth, we celebrate the act of judgement, whether by sitting idly on our couches and entering into an unanswered argument with those who judge for a living, or by picking up the telephone and trying to make our own judgements count. Life's a talent contest. The sad part is that if we're at home watching it on telly we've already lost.

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