Howard Jacobson: Winners and losers in the game of stupidity

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Now that the World Cup is over, here's a little quiz to keep your competitive juices flowing until the next test or tournament comes along. Based on what they've just said in public, which of the following persons strikes you as the most stupid?

A: Zenna Atkins, retiring chair of the Office for Standards in Education. Take "standards" with a pinch of salt.

B: Justice George Bathurst-Norman, presiding at a trial at Hove Crown Court. Take "justice" with a pinch of salt.

C: Octavia Nasr, CNN reporter and ill-advised tweeter, with whom we will bracket, since in their folly they have bracketed themselves, Frances Guy, ambassador to the Republic of Lebanon and ill-advised blogger. Fools tweet and blog where angels fear to speak.

So first, Zenna Atkins. It is she who has argued for the retention of at least one "shit" teacher on the grounds that schools should represent the world as it is and every school kid should learn how to deal with the "shit" they'll find in it. "Shit" is her word, by the way, not ours. Though we could certainly, in this context, find a use for it.

That this is an argument for schools employing at least one paedophile, one member of the National Front, one wife-beater, one terrorist, one innumerate and illiterate member of the Flat Earth Society, and any other sociopathic bigot you care to name, hardly needs pointing out. But behind the folly of Zenna Atkins's words lies our old friend egalitarianism. Let the kids decide what's best for them. Let the kids learn, in more Zenna Atkins-speak, "how to play it". By this model, education is the means whereby the young get canny. Argue for education being more than that and you're in elitistland. Why give the kids a good book when there are so many shit ones out there. The world's inane so let the school mirror its inanity.

We should be sorry, by that reasoning, that Zenna Atkins is standing down as chair of Ofsted. For shouldn't Ofsted, too, if it's to reflect our society, have at least one shit thinker in it?

Judge George Bathurst-Norman, on the other hand, is a man who weighs what he says carefully. "Why is it the modern idiom believes in downgrading marriage in referring to wives and husbands as partners?" he inelegantly mused at Chelmsford Crown Court last year. "It's not only insulting, it's inaccurate. Why cannot wives be called wives?"

A judge, in short, who knows what the big issues are. No fashionable lickspittle, Bathurst-Norman is a protector of language itself, and he who is precise with words is surely well placed to know the difference between right and wrong. How odd, then, that in acquitting a group of activists who'd broken into an arms factory in Brighton, causing about a quarter of a million pounds' worth of damage to equipment they believed was bound for Israel, he should have discounted the charge of criminal damage – though it patently was criminal damage – because he happened to share the political sympathies of those who did it. A wife is a wife and not a partner, but smashing up a factory is not smashing up a factory if you don't like what it manufactures.

So does a wife cease to be a wife the minute you stop liking her, your Honour?

That a crime ceases to be a crime if the victim offends against the judge's Weltanschauung should make our hair stand on end, whatever side of whatever conflict we are on. Arbitrary justice is in no one's interest. You who are jubilant that the verdict goes your way today will be sorry when you come up against a judge who gets his opinions from a different newspaper tomorrow.

Judge Bathurst-Norman seized the opportunity at Hove to relieve his hand-me-down feelings about Gaza, a place it would not be an "understatement", he pronounced, to call "a hell on earth". We don't doubt it. All war zones are hell. Seventy years ago the cities of Germany were hell. So what would his honour's judgment have been had the accused broken into an allied factory manufacturing bombs to drop on Berlin or Dresden? Would he have recommended medals for the right-thinking on that occasion, too?

We are at a pretty pass, wherever we stand politically, when a judge can interpret the law according to his private view of the victim's character. God help you, in that case, if you find yourself before Judge Bathurst-Norman as a victim of sexual violence and he happens not to like the inviting way you comb your hair.

Frances Guy, on the other hand, got herself into big blog trouble precisely for not remembering her politics – the "respect" she expressed for the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah being rather more personal than her ambassadorial position permitted, given Fadlallah's connections to Hizbollah. She liked the man, she confided. Whether Octavia Nasr also liked the man personally I am unable to say, though the two women expressed remarkably similar feelings about him. Both reported a sadness at his death. Nasr, too, used the word "respect". "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hizbollah's giants I respect a lot." Leaving one to wonder how many more of Hizbollah's giants Octavia Nasr respects a lot. But then that's the wonder of Twitter. So little to say, and so little space to say it in.

It's hard, reading Frances Guy and Octavia Nasr, not to be reminded of the Mitford sisters getting hot under their blouses in the charming company of Adolf Hitler. The respect Nasri feels is her business, but not, since she is a journalist, her ignorance of all there was about Fadlallah not to respect. I cite his blessing of suicide bombers as just one small instance, and his Holocaust denial as another. Frances Guy also eulogises with one eye closed, gushing over Fadlallah's decency, his "willingness to reach out across faiths", his spirituality. There's a golden rule when it comes to praising any man's spirituality: don't. It almost invariably turns out to be vanity or violence under another guise.

Here's an example of Fadlallah's spirituality – "Zionism has inflated the number of victims in the Holocaust beyond imagination." And here's an example of his reaching out across faiths – "There are no innocent Jews in Palestine." (Compare that, Judge Bathurst-Norman, with the obloquy heaped on Israel for having, as it is said, meted out a "collective punishment" on Gaza. "There are no innocent Palestinians." Sounds different, doesn't it.)

So who's your pick? Mine's Bathurst-Norman. Since all the above are fools in that they fail of judgement, the Judge who fails of judgement must be the winner.

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