Today, while waiting to have my hair cut, I happened to come across a Howard Jacobson article in the weekly Independent about Germaine Greer. This wasn’t an unexpected or a guilty pleasure. I rarely find reading Jacobson a pleasure at all, and I don’t really care too much to hear about what he thinks about anything. For one thing I don’t find him nearly as funny or as witty or incisive as he seems to regard himself, and he also exudes a certain supercilious sense of his own cleverness that is characteristic of too many contemporary British writers.
The article did nothing to make me change my mind. Jacobson’s 1,000 words were at first sight a Brendan O’Neill-ish ‘defend the right to be offended’ take on Greer’s transphobic comments, which then segued into a defense of Martin Amis’s much-noted comments regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed educational shortcomings.
For those who have forgotten or who never knew, Amis described Corbyn as a ‘fluky beneficiary of a drastic elevation’ whose two E-grade A-levels confirmed that he was ‘undereducated’ and ‘humourless’, and whose ‘ intellectual CV gives an impression of slow-minded rigidity; and he seems essentially incurious about anything beyond his immediate sphere.’
Like most of Amis’s media interventions, these comments were based on prejudice rather than judicious analysis, and seemed essentially intended to draw attention to Amis himself. But the fact that he chose to make these observations in Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times suggests that his puerile snobbery also had a more calculated political purpose.
None of this matters to Jacobson however, for whom Amis’s comments belong to a tradition of ‘snobbish derision…of noble ancestry, going back to Hamlet twitting Polonius, Pope, Swift, Wilde, Waugh: a line of scurrilous mirth whose slithering ambiguities make a Charlie of whoever can’t keep up.’
So that was what was coming out of Amis’s mouth: slithering ambiguities and scurrilous mirth. Had these comments come from Austin Mitchell say, I would have thought that I was dealing with yet another sour British prig gazing downwards at yet another unwashed plebeian pretender. But now, thanks to Jacobson, I understand the deep moral purpose behind Amis’s less-than-forensic dissection of Corbyn’s limitations:
‘It is a strange, cabbalistic world out there in the celibate darkness of digital resentment forums, where people for good reason denied a platform of their own cling to the coat-tails of those published in the daylight, froth in envious rage, share one another’s small and bitter diatribes and as a matter of principle find nothing funny, not even when it patently is – as for example, Amis’s really rather fond description of “weedy, nervy, thrifty” Corbynites each “with a little folded purse full of humid coins”. It’s that word “humid” that does the trick and marks the writer his detractors will never be.’
My goodness there are some clever words in this bundle readers, or words that sound clever anyway, which for Jacobson – and Amis – is the same thing. Cabbalistic. Celibate darkness…this is a writer talking. Of course some of you out there frothing with envious rage in your digital resentment forums might be thinking that Amis is merely the pompous, bitter pseud that many of his detractors would never want to be, but that’s only because you are jealous that you’re not a writer.
This ‘envy’ charge is often aimed at people who think that Amis is an overrated jerk. But as my lubricious fingers uncurdle across the humid keyboard in the comfort of my celibate darkness, I can’t help wondering whether Jacobson’s attempt to transform Amis’s dank snobbery into a vital expression of ‘liberty’ reflects something more unpleasant than a playful desire to invigorate British society with infectious scurrilous mirth.
Jacobson despises Corbyn, as he has already made clear. But his defense of Amis isn’t just about Amis himself – it’s all a defense of elitism and the right to be elitist. After all, this is a man who recently argued that men who read books at Cambridge were incapable of raping ‘totty’ because of the imaginative empathy produced by prolonged exposure to the literary canon.
That is a stunningly dumb observation in itself, but he isn’t the only to believe that a certain kind of elite education creates morally and intellectually superior people, and that those who aren’t exposed to such an education are likely to be morally and intellectually inferior or defective.
There was a similar assumption behind Tristram Hunt’s speech to the Cambridge University Labour Club today, in which the former shadow education secretary told his audience’ You are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.’
Leaving aside Hunt’s analysis of the Labour Party, what is striking about this statement is a) the notion that Cambridge University students belong to the top one percent and that b) their membership makes them more suited to lead the Labour Party than those who don’t belong to it..
Personally, I’ve got nothing against Oxbridge students per se. Inverted snobbery is no more socially valuable than the top-down version. I have known lots of intelligent, talented and sensitive people who have gone to Oxford and Cambridge, but having lived in both cities I can also testify to the fact that both universities also have their fair share of out and out tools, who are no smarter or more sensitive than anyone else, yet nevertheless take it for granted that they have the right to rule and the right to dominate society.
At present we are ruled by men who seem to have nurtured that sense of entitlement for a long time, who appear to have spent much of their time at Oxford attending drunken parties in which they cursed the poor, competed to out-vomit each other, destroyed pubs and restaurants, and engaged in weird initiation rites in which they had sex with pigs heads.
No one can be too surprised to find such men upholding the interests of their class against the interests of everyone else, but their existence is further proof that the mere fact of attending Oxbridge does not confer some unique ability to represent steelworkers losing their jobs, or understand the lives of men and women who go to foodbanks, or get their benefits cut. Nor does it entitle you to lead the Labour Party.
It might seem kind of obvious to point out that just because you have been educated at an elite university does not mean that you are intelligent, anymore than the fact that you haven’t attended one means that you are stupid.
And it should also be obvious that people like Amis, who argue otherwise, are elitist snobs, who belong to the category that the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson once called ‘educated fools’.
And contrary to what Jacobson and others may think, such snobbery has no redeeming social value whatsoever.