Greer may be nuts, but who cares?

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The Independent Online

You might be forgiven for thinking, after the amount of space that's been devoted to it, that the most important event of 2005 to date is Germaine Greer's decision to take part in, and then walk off, Celebrity Big Brother. Not the Blair-Brown feud or the announcement that the Americans have called off the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - as a result, I'm told, of an urgent instruction from the President to divert resources into proving the existence of the tooth fairy. No, as far as a whole series of famous women are concerned, none of this matters a jot compared with the behaviour of Greer, who has been accused of letting us all down either by agreeing to participate in Celebrity Big Brother or failing to stay the course.

You might be forgiven for thinking, after the amount of space that's been devoted to it, that the most important event of 2005 to date is Germaine Greer's decision to take part in, and then walk off, Celebrity Big Brother. Not the Blair-Brown feud or the announcement that the Americans have called off the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq - as a result, I'm told, of an urgent instruction from the President to divert resources into proving the existence of the tooth fairy. No, as far as a whole series of famous women are concerned, none of this matters a jot compared with the behaviour of Greer, who has been accused of letting us all down either by agreeing to participate in Celebrity Big Brother or failing to stay the course.

I have to make a confession here. Just before Christmas, after 10 years without one, I bought a TV. People who watch six hours a day may not believe this but I was blissfully happy without it until I discovered that TV sets now come with DVD slots, so I can watch old Fellini movies at home. It didn't take me long to realise, in between films, that most terrestrial programmes are even worse now than they were a decade ago. Some of them are merely witless, others nakedly appeal to greed and a third category, in which I place Big Brother and its offshoots, are tawdry spectacles that exploit vulnerability and encourage bullying.

This is more or less what Greer said when she stormed out. I don't know why she didn't realise this earlier but her analysis is much more convincing than that of my colleague Janet Street-Porter, whose lengthy rebuke to Greer in Thursday's Independent reeked of sophistry. Time and again, Street-Porter makes the mistake of believing that because TV is ubiquitous, it is important - a bit like believing wallpaper has a massive cultural impact. Her conclusion that Greer wasn't hard enough for Celebrity Big Brother - "I'm sorry she wasn't as tough as I thought" - is a not-very-admirable device used to counter complaints about bullying, transferring moral responsibility from the tormentor to the victim.

Personally, I think they were both nuts to take part in these unsavoury gladiatorial contests, but anyone can make a mistake and it doesn't invalidate everything they have previously said or written. What I really can't understand is why so many women (notably Julie Burchill, in a rancorous column in The Times) feel let down by Greer. She has a brilliant mind and her analyses are often illuminating, but her judgement has always been eccentric. She is the author of one hugely influential book, The Female Eunuch, and a touching volume about her father, but consistency has never been one of her virtues in either books or articles. (Nor Burchill's, come to that.)

At the same time, I see no evidence that she has ever tried to set herself up as a role model for other women, so when Burchill's vitriol dripped on to two pages, under the headline "My feminist hero has become a rancid bore", my first thought was: why should Greer care? Even her long-ago spat with Suzanne Moore does not excuse Burchill's viciousness, which resembled a particularly nasty bout of playground name-calling. It is hard not to discern a clash of egos in some of the attacks on Greer, driven by unacknowledged envy, while the solemnity of her other critics is hardly more appealing.

As long as they don't do anything criminal or immoral, public intellectuals are not under an obligation to avoid disappointing people who have read their books; if Greer or any other author wants to do something idiotic, as most people have at one time or another, they do not need to go round in sackcloth and ashes for weeks afterwards. For God's sake, all she's done is appear in a crap TV programme, not rob a bank or napalm children. Whatever happened to a sense of proportion? I wish all these people would get off their high horses and start talking about something that really matters, like Iraq.

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