Howard Jacobson: Hiss them one day and boo them the next

It used to take a while for a hero to become a villain or vice versa, now it happens overnight

Saturday 01 January 2011 01:00

Boo! Hiss! He's behind you! I haven't seen a pantomime this year.

Been confined to bed with the filth of an English winter in my lungs, taking antibiotics which make my teeth feel like that steel contraption sported by Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. But who needs to pay to see a panto. Culturally and politically we are living in a panto. Boo! Hiss! He's behind you!

Villains and heroes. Heroes and villains. The police? – villains. Students – heroes. Unless they turn out to be privileged in which case they're villains. Bankers? Boo! Politicians? Hiss! Unless they show up on Strictly Come Dancing, in which case they're heroes. Hurrah!

It used to take a while for a hero to become a villain or vice versa, now it happens overnight. We loved Clegg for the blink of an eye, mistaking that expression of little-boy-lost for independence of spirit, then he had to grow up and act the man, and that was that. Not his fault. Ours for being such bad judges of character and principle.

Brown the other way. Only months after kicking him unceremoniously out of office as the worst leader in living memory, we are back admiring his quiet dignity, the modesty with which he has returned to constituency duties, his financial acuity. His what? Yes, yes, make fun of that if you will, but financial acuity only ever means standing on the sidelines and abusing those managing affairs. "Economic vandalism," Brown has called the Coalition cuts – hardly a judgement that requires the penetration of an Adam Smith, but soon we'll be wishing he were Chancellor again.

Fickleness, however, is not the real problem. You could argue, after all, that a changeable people is a healthy people. What makes us an unhealthy people is not the changeableness of our tempers but our confusion. Take money. Where are we on money? Bankers – boo! The privileged – hiss! It isn't only to protest against rises in tuition fees that student leaders tell us they are taking to the streets. They are marching against the entire system: the banks that got us into this mess, the tax loopholes of which the rich avail themselves, the Coalition reducing benefits to the unemployed while those who are packed around with perks and bonuses go on tonguing oysters at the same rate they ever did. Were they to go easy on the violence and the cop-baiting the students would command considerable support. We all know something stinks. We all know this is austerity for the many, and soft times as usual for the few. Until, that is, we switch on our tellies and on the spot, without noticing the contradiction, become as junked up on monetary success as any broker gargling his Krug.

I ought, I acknowledge, to remember the point with which I began – we are living in a pantomime. Dragons' Den, The X Factor, The Apprentice – pantomimes all of them, with villains we love to hate, ugly sisters to hiss, and Cinderellas to cheer. Simon Cowell is not comprehensible out of a pantomime context. Similarly, though without the studio audience to boo him, Lord Sugar. But we cannot laugh ourselves out of deep moral inconsistency by calling it entertainment. The Romans found it entertaining to feed Christians to the lions. There are some who would find the same thing entertaining today. I assume, though, that most of us accept that what gives pleasure is not necessarily laudable.

Though they've toned it down a little, Dragons' Den still begins by hymning the fortunes amassed by those lovably irascible dragons. This strikes me as a grievous failure of tact. Now is not the time to be told how many yachts and helicopters our celebrity entrepreneurs own between them. It is not a question of begrudging them their wealth; one would expect that they too would rather not rub the fact of it in the faces of those who will never earn in their entire working lives what Peter and Theo bring home in a month. The poor, of course, don't have to watch. But there's the strange thing: they do.

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that after a hard day on the streets, trying to bring down the bastions of capitalism, the toughest of student leaders settle down to watch The Apprentice on the union telly.

Explain it to me. Explain why a nation exasperated into violence by the inequity of the system under which it labours will tolerate Lord Sugar (the title would seem to be de rigueur) bragging about the money he has made. Explain to me why a people kept poor in order that others should grow rich will similarly tolerate that other braggart of the commonplace, Simon Cowell, at whose say-so, and in the hope of hitching a brief ride on whose yacht and helicopter – Cowell's lifestyle is not incidental to the programme: it's what awaits the winner, it's what the X denotes – the saddest sacks of our society relinquish all self-respect and dignity. Reader, here is a person who has grown fat (figuratively speaking) fingering the musical taste of 13-year-old girls and will grow fatter ensuring that future generations of 13-year-old girls do not depart an iota from the formula. Ironically, viewers who had allowed their children to watch week upon week of this demeaning drivel – and don't tell me it's good television: the phrase begs every serious question – turned into moralists on the final night because a couple of pop stars rubbed up against each other. It would damage their children's minds, they said. As though, after half a year of ingesting The X Factor those children had anything resembling a mind left to damage.

Hiss! Boo! Is that really the harshest verdict we can summon? Is our social morality so shallow that our contempt for men who measure worth by wealth alone will melt into pantomime affection the moment they are given their own shows on telly?

And now, talk of the devil, enter Julian Assange – Man of the Year. That we will be booing him before another year ends, I don't have the slightest doubt. Like pantomime, the internet creates its monsters, only the internet is not so funny. See the film The Social Network, about the founding of that monumentally grubby fatuity Facebook, should you have any lingering doubts about the essential heartlessness of Computer Man. Of all promises of democracy, the internet's is the most alluring and the most false. And so the Left, ensorcelled by Assange, walks into another sucker-punch, while he smiles his Midwich Cuckoo's smile, blabs everybody's secrets, and keeps his own.

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