- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

Just over 60 years ago, a Hungarian emigre by the name of George Mikes published a slim volume, entitled “How To Be An Alien,” soon hailed as a model of British satire. Devoted to such intricate subjects as drinking tea, discussing the weather and queuing for buses, the book delivered a tongue-in-cheek survey of England and its foibles.

Older readers may well be familiar with its most famous epigram, which now nestles in the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: “Continental people have sex life [sic]; the English have hot-water bottles.”

In the chapter entitled “How to Be Rude,” Mikes makes this observation: “It is easy to be rude on the Continent. You just shout and call people names of a zoological character …

“In England rudeness has quite a different technique. If someone tells you an obviously untrue story on the Continent you would remark ‘You are a liar, Sir, and a rather dirty one at that.’ In England you just say ‘Oh, is that so?’ Or ‘That’s rather an unusual story, isn’t it?’

“When some years ago, knowing ten words of English and using them all wrong, I applied for a translator’s job, my would-be employer (or would-be-not employer) softly remarked: ‘I am afraid your English is somewhat unorthodox.’ This translated into any continental language would mean: EMPLOYER (to the commissionaire): ‘Jean, kick this gentleman down the steps.’”

Mikes died in 1987, which is probably just as well, since the advent of the reality TV show “Big Brother” would have forced him to embark on a rewrite of virtually every page of his book. In place of the reticent, emotionally inert Briton of his era, television now celebrates loud-mouthed individuals who make the cast of the average “The Jerry Springer Show” seem positively soft-spoken.

Condemned as prime-time voyeurism, the program — originally imported from Holland — has become one of the most discussed series on British television, spawning endless tabloid newspaper profiles and turning some of its contestants — most of whom have no talent beyond a gift for self-publicity — into miniature Paris Hiltons. Exactly the kind of mindless fare, in other words, that Neil Postman described so vividly in his classic study, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

This year, however, the entertainment — in which contestants spend weeks sharing a custom-built house under constant surveillance by cameras and microphones — turned very sour indeed.

After launching the latest celebrity version of the program (I use “celebrity” in its broadest possible sense; although Michael Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, needed no introduction, I am still not entirely sure who one or two of the latest contestants actually are) the program makers found themselves at the center of a surreal dispute that threatened to undermine relations between India and Britain and prompted one of the most impassioned public debates about racism in the last couple of decades. More by bad luck than judgment, bubblegum TV turned into an impromptu lesson in civics.

Aware, perhaps, that the format was beginning to lose its luster, the producers had made the fateful decision to bring back to the house a notorious former contestant, a modern Everywoman called Jade Goody.

During her previous stint under the all-seeing eyes of the Big Brother cameras, some five years ago, Miss Goody, the ill-educated product of a hugely dysfunctional family, had appalled and fascinated viewers with a combination of boorish manners and astounding ignorance.

Castigated by the tabloid press (for whom “Big Brother” offers the opportunity for an extended feeding frenzy) Miss Goody managed to turn her notoriety to her own advantage, amassing millions in endorsements. Duly elevated to the ranks of a D-list VIP, she returned to the latest show as a late addition to the cast, along with her equally unalluring mother.

It was not long before the pair came into conflict with one of the other inmates, the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, a demure, articulate and somewhat pampered thirtysomething who appeared to have spent much of her life in the Indian equivalent of a Beverly Hills bubble.

A conflict of egos ensued, Miss Shetty enduring one outburst after another from the resentful Miss Goody, who was aided and abetted by two other contestants, a faded pop singer and a model whose main claim to fame appeared to be that she was the girlfriend of an aging but well-liked soccer player.

Before long, an element of racial antagonism had been added to the bullying, with Shetty at one being advised to “[expletive] off back home.” As the atmosphere in the house grew more and more oppressive, and as tens of thousands of viewers rang in with complaints, the issue was raised in the House of Commons. As luck would have it, Tony Blair’s putative successor, Gordon Brown, was visiting India as the affair reached its climax: Effigies of TV producers were burned in the streets; Indian commentators spoke of their shock at seeing Shilpa treated with casual racial slurs.

Was it all a media non-story? Yes and no. There’s no question that the “Big Brother” phenomenon is profoundly trivial in lots of ways, most of all in the insidious assumption — taken to heart by all too many younger fans — that fame is a thousand times more important than talent.

What is more, the relentless news coverage of the debacle provided yet another example of the media’s inability to separate real life from drama. When newspapers talked of Miss Shetty “confiding” her distress to other house-guests, they seemed to forget that the entire episode was being acted out in public and that every word was being “confided” to millions of viewers.

For all that, we learned some important lessons. For all its earnest grittiness, television drama has rarely broached the theme of racism in such a uncompromising manner. (To the best of my knowledge, no one in supposedly hyper-realistic soap opera, East Enders ever uses language as crude as Miss Goody’s.)

There’s no question that the incident reflected the latent racism of many white Britons, most of whom seldom come into contact with black or brown people. (Being mixed-race, I had heard just about every insult in the book by the time I was 16.) Above all, the show has held up a mirror to the coarsening of British life. When Jade Goody indulged in another of her four-letter word screaming fits, or her girlfriends staged a belching competition, they were reminding us how utterly our education system has failed a generation.

And yet, there were reasons to be encouraged, too. For one thing, the public overwhelmingly favored the Indian actress, sensing that she had been treated unjustly. When viewers finally had the chance to “evict” her or Miss Goody from the house, they chose to dump the latter by a thumping margin. And judging by her contrite air since she reentered real life Miss Goody appears to have learned a valuable lesson. Ten or 20 years ago, the kind of throwaway remarks that she made might have passed unnoticed. Now, a new etiquette has emerged.

I just hope that Miss Goody is not punished too harshly. (A number of companies have already dropped lucrative endorsement deals.) Turning her into some sort of poster-child for the far-Right British National Party would do no one any favors.

And, who knows, we may be able to move on to a more candid discussion about the prejudices held by other groups. There is no love lost, for instance, between many Asians and Africans, Somalis and Afro-Caribbeans, and so on. Britain has absorbed so many immigrants in recent years — many of them from Eastern Europe — that the time has come to work out a new etiquette of race. The old one, based on memories of the colonial era seems less and less relevant in age of globalization.

Multiculturalism has fallen out of fashion, partly because no one can agree what the term means. We are groping, successfully for the most part, towards a new way of being British. It is just a pity that George Mikes is not around to help us.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times. He keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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