When blinkers are worn with pride

Sadism is now part of our daily diet, so Sugar will soon be sneering his way into the nation's heart
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The Independent Online

Of all the words in the lexicon of abuse, the term "scum" is one of the more revealing. It is a favourite of the nastier kind of football fan, of the more obsessive animal rights campaigner, of the editor trying to whip up a profitable storm of disgust among readers. Invariably, the deployment of that tired, bovver-booted term of insult reveals more about the person who has used it than the object of his knuckle-headed abuse.

Of all the words in the lexicon of abuse, the term "scum" is one of the more revealing. It is a favourite of the nastier kind of football fan, of the more obsessive animal rights campaigner, of the editor trying to whip up a profitable storm of disgust among readers. Invariably, the deployment of that tired, bovver-booted term of insult reveals more about the person who has used it than the object of his knuckle-headed abuse.

It is so universal that, when bandied about by a life peer in a Sunday broadsheet as part of a publicity drive for a new TV series, one is tempted to shrug and move on. On the other hand, The Apprentice, as the series is called, has been commissioned by the BBC and is said to have serious intentions. A reality show in which 14 ambitious business types are tested, humiliated and, in all but the case of the winner, sacked in front of the cameras, it will have as its boss and resident ogre, the Amstrad millionaire Sir Alan Sugar. No doubt, because sadism is now part of our daily cultural diet, this man will soon be lashing and sneering his way into the heart of the nation.

"Scum" appears to be Sugar's favourite term of abuse. A journalist who had recently interviewed him was scum - "If I see him, I'll smash him in the teeth," he told another journalist. As for footballers - Sugar was once a rather unsuccessful chairman of Tottenham Hotspur - they are also "scum, total scum. They're bigger scum than journalists ... They're the biggest scum that walk on this planet and, if they weren't footballers, most of them would be in prison, it's as simple as that."

There is a word for this kind of rant, and that word is "stupid". Wild, aggressive generalisations about members of pretty much any profession are the verbal equivalent of a threatened head-butt. There are probably quite a few of people who think (if that is not too strong a word) along these lines and, when encountering them, most of us avoid tangling with them.

For them, discussion is something dodgy, wimpish, metropolitan. Their blinkers are worn with pride. When a journalist asked a perfectly reasonable question about national productivity, his interviewee accused him of talking "mumbo-jumbo bollocks". It was all too complicated for Al. "I'm from Hackney," he explained.

What is interesting about this kind of alpha-male posturing is that clearly, having made himself £700m from a standing start, Sugar is not stupid. Somewhere along the line, he has discovered that bullying plays well in business and in dealing with the media. It denotes strength, the no-nonsense persona of a man who has attended the University of Life and now belongs to the real world.

We have been here before. A whole decade in the late 20th century was dominated by people whose capacity for making themselves money was deemed to give them social and political authority. Their dynamism made them the antithesis of moaning minnies, members of the chattering classes. While others whinged and waffled, they got the job done.

Fiscal brutality went out of fashion. Later, even when New Labour started sucking up to big business, the new favourites belonged to a more evolved, Bransonesque school of entrepreneur. They were caring millionaires, people who wanted to give back, to share their good fortune with ordinary folk.

Alan Sugar, having jumped ship from the Tory party, contributed to Labour and copped a knighthood, has now rather shrewdly noticed that his way of doing things is coming back into fashion.

Reality TV has sharpened the public taste for humiliation. TV bullies - Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay and the rest - have proved to be a huge ratings success. Producers have discovered that viewers are rather interested by business but that presenters like Gerry Robinson, who temper their entrepreneurial nous with a wider sense of moral responsibility, are less televisually sexy than boardroom skinheads. Hooked on pain, viewers want to see blood on the carpet. Soon we shall all be shuddering with pleasure as Sugar growls "You're fired!" at one of his victims.

Perhaps none of it matters. The humiliation is largely self-inflicted. The apprentices chosen for the programme are doubtless irritating or cocky enough to deserve what they get.

All the same, there is something distasteful about the way television gives respectability and cachet to those who use their power and to sneer at and trash those they regard as scum. In real life, we are supposed to disapprove of anti-social behaviour. When a stubble-chinned brute goes around saying that, if he sees a person who has displeased him, he will smash his teeth in, he tends to be regarded as a boorish prat.

In this case, such attitudes are little more than mumbo-jumbo bollocks. Already the beneficiary of a peerage, Sir Alan Sugar has been working with Gordon Brown, and is now about to be a TV star.

All the same, when public figures can behave like bullying oiks and then be lionised by the culture, there can be little surprise that, out there in the real world, others who are less privileged are apt to behave similarly.

Terblacker@aol.com

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