Pop culture personalities and their associated memes are generally pretty banal and fleeting, but the latest Russell Brand polemic deserves a mention, if not for its ludicrousness, then Brand’s accidental position as the obtuse canary in the coal mine of modern politics.
Recently, in a rambling 4,700 word essay for the New Statesman, the British stand-up comic and actor conjured up his own notion of what is wrong with the world and launched a fervent plea filled with platitudes, vague esoteric meanderings and loads of hubris, for a Spiritual Revolution (his capitals). So far the article has generated 57,000 likes, 8000 tweets and attracted more than 750 comments. Obviously la revolución de Russell has stirred some interest in cyberspace. His branding of politicians as “frauds and liars” has already sparked the ire of one Tory MP, who called Brand a twat for using too many big words and saying very little.
I have to admit that I was an early supporter of Brand’s humour – his sexually ambiguous stage persona and irreverent, acerbic social wit together with a refreshingly extended vocabulary (for a British comedian), reminded me of a taller, swarthier Eddie Izzard. His energetic prancing across the stage during his one man shows, while holding forth on a plethora of subjects in an articulate manner, was engaging and at times very funny. Unfortunately, as so often happens in entertainment these days, Brand became a brand – books, radio shows, movies – suddenly he was everywhere, and his previously entertaining style of self-referential humour, started coming across as tedious and overly self obsessed.
Where Brand fails to emulate Izzard and does not convince sentient creatures with mental faculties more advanced than those of an African, jungle dwelling bonobo, of the weight of his opinion, is when he tries to participate in conversation outside the parameters of one of his shows. This was all too apparent in his recent BBC interview with veteran journalist, Jeremy Paxman.
Paxman struggled to corner Brand into giving a straight answer to the question of how he aims to fix the admittedly parlous state of British, and indeed, the world’s political systems. Brand may or may not have an inkling about how to fix it; it is just very difficult to make out what his intentions are underneath the layers of sophomoric vagueness, and evasive indignation at being put on the spot. Russell loves his soap box, preferably in maximum public limelight, but he does not abide anyone pointing out his intellectual laziness and lack of technical/academic insight.
As avid consumers of digital effluent we have all come to expect most performers to be insufferable, self centred prats in real life, which is why sane people prefer them safely encapsulated within a script or screenplay. Keep it fictitious as they say. So when an entertainer suddenly wants to weigh in on the battle for social justice they have to understand that the rules of engagement apply just as much to them as anyone else.
That means: be able to back up, clarify and substantiate what you are saying. Acting like an indignant child and obfuscating when you are put on the spot with regards to gaping holes in your manifesto/hypothesis/argument is puerile and exposes the hubris fueled genesis of your sojourn into the real world.
Meanwhile the BBC video has gone viral with hipster muppets from Islington in London to Observatory in Cape Town proclaiming Brand the new messiah for their generation. Well, actually the once comic thespian has already proclaimed himself thus, branding his current world tour, Messiah Complex. No surprises there.
It is telling that many of the social media mentions of Brand’s new found revolutionary fervour refer to his interview with Paxman and contain very little reference to the original article in the New Statesman, the basis for the interview. That is ominous in itself, because it means that the social media sturmabteilung invariably hurtles down the (media) path of least resistance.
“Hey, have you read Russell Brand’s 4,700 word essay?”
“C’mon, man, just watch his interview with Paxman, it’s rad.”
I actually suspect that by now most followers of the cult of Russell have neither read the article nor watched the video interview, in stead relying on feedback from their peers and sound bites strewn across Twitter and Facebook. Brave new world? Fuck that, it is a social new world.
Admittedly, I have read a few of Brand’s previous essays in The Guardian (UK edition), and often came away pleasantly surprised by his apparent sincerity and at times sensitive observations on life. There is the lingering suspicion that when it comes to the serious stuff, Brand the bard is sometimes more convincing than the puerile, egotistical showman on screen. This time however, he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Politics, global economics and social engineering are convoluted subjects and he is clearly out of his depth.
Brand will never be a hero to the truly disenfranchised. He does not, nor has he ever inhabited their world in a physical or emotional way. They don’t watch his shows or relate to him in any case. He is more likely to be clobbered by the British working class for being a lippy ponce, than revered for his social activism. Neither does he have the intellectual gravitas and academic insight to be a true champion of structural change. Nebulous repetitions of existing social disaffection do not equate to freshly unwrapped nuggets of wisdom.
However that does not mean that the shaggy maned lothario does not have a role to play as an indirect spokesperson for the marginalised twenty- and thirty-somethings who are increasingly frustrated with a lack of proper jobs and diminished access to quality education, as well as furious with a socio-political system that has enriched and protected its insiders with arrogant impunity, and at great cost to the rest of society.
More tellingly, the manic messiah is a handy front man for the middle of the road, semi-literate, chattering classes. You know, those who scan the papers and skip the long form in-depth articles, think that J.K. Rowling’s foray into adult literature was a literary event, and profess to have read Camus and Hesse, which they have not. They tweet or facebook about restaurants, pubs, holiday resorts and what they think are pithy quotes of the day, but rarely take the time out to educate themselves in depth about a particular topic. Brand’s true constituency are those who get breathless over every second hubris filled piece of twattery that comes their way, be it in the form of the latest generic slice of life article in Cosmopolitan or a facile anecdote from the Voice.
They are not bad people, just a bit stupid, self entitled and lost. Yeah, lost, because they can’t face the ugly reality that they are partially to blame for the parlous state of modern democracy. Their apathy, intellectual laziness and indiscriminate consumerism are the sick elephants in democracy’s waiting room. In a sense Brand is nothing more or less than a metaphor for our pass the buck culture – we just don’t want to face the fact that we are just as guilty as the politicians and captains of industry we claim to despise.
Brand made one very important point in his essay and his interview with Paxman (albeit unintentionally), and it is a penny that needs to drop across the board if we are to rejuvenate modern democracy. The old concept of democracy only exercised as a physical vote at a polling station is outdated in a rapidly integrated global society where we vote with every click, tweet, like or share. Every time you read a mongrelized, dumbed down article on Buzzfeed, like the new iPad mini on Facebook or retweet a photo of Rihanna’s latest tattoo, you are voting. You are screwing freedom of speech and voting for media monopolies every time you watch a Naspers or News Corp owned satellite service. Your branded clothes, fancy footwear, package holiday, yuppie car, hipster gadgets and snobby coffee beans are all votes. Consumerocracy has usurped democracy in such an all pervasive and insidious manner that it is no wonder that the true tenets of an open and truly free society have fallen by the wayside. It is time we wake up from the somnambulist farce that we are free citizens. Otherwise our era will be defined by a manifesto titled ‘Mein shopping kampf’ or something equally ridiculous.
It is a bit hypocritical of assorted bonobos, including Brand, to pontificate about their disillusionment with politics as a reason for not voting, when they are in fact voting on a daily basis and on a massive scale. In many cases voting for the exact companies they accuse of colluding with the governments as part of the political-industrial complex.
[Ah, political-industrial complex, the concept takes me back to the halcyon days of my inebriated first year at varsity, hunched around a sticky pub table with fellow revolutionaries, discussing how we are going to sort out all the nefarious regimes and corporations of the world.]
But I digress, back to Brand and his brands …
As spokesperson for Hewlett-Packard, our Russell is quite happy to endorse big money (HP is the world’s leading PC manufacturer), while championing the rights of the little man. Admittedly Hewlett-Packard is consistently highly rated with regards to its corporate social responsibility, but has also been embroiled in a few high profile controversies, including a spying and an accounting scandal. The salient point being that revolutionary Russell is quite happy to suckle at the corporate teat.
Do our political systems need a revolutionary overhaul? Absolutely, in Chinua Achebe‘s immortal words, “things fall apart and the centre can not hold.” Is our man Russell the man for the job? The Oracle from Essex if you will? I seriously doubt that. Esoteric hee-hawing has never been a substitute for taking constructive action, and almost always just serves as a panacea for the guilty conscience of the haves with regards to the have-nots. A cursory glance at the contradictions and inconsistencies in Brand’s rhetoric is enough to take his diatribe with a healthy pinch of salt.
My favourite quotes from his overly long, hubris filled piñata in New Statesman:
“… I feel a dull thud in my stomach and my eyes involuntarily glaze. Like when I’m conversing and the subject changes from me and moves on to another topic.”
Yes, Russell, we get that you are a master of self satire, but when it is this obvious you hover dangerously close to just being a prat. In my world, a dull thud in the stomach and glazed over eyes usually signify an event of less political significance but infinitely more relevant in the biological release department.
“Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot.” … “most people do not give a fuck about politics.”
Then put it there, Russell darling, the democratic process is about more than that little X on the ballot. Blaming the existing political parties for the absence of your apathetic constituency is a bit rich. Interestingly enough about 65% of your compatriots feel differently, they all voted in the 2010 general election which is almost 4% higher than the previous election turnout, which in turn is higher than the 2001 general election. Funny thing about blanket statements, those damn facts always bugger up a good story.
“Is utopian revolution possible?”
Now Russy, old Russ, we did stop all that drug fiend bother didn’t we? Utopia has not been trending since Thomas De Quincey wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Dystopian futurology is where it is at, since… well, since Vincent Cassell spray painted that billboard in La Haine.
Seriously, Russo, get with the pop culture references, and read your J.G Ballard and Michel Houellebecq, it would make the clumsy name dropping in your scribblings so much more relevant.
“I like a bit of chaos however it’s delivered. The disruption of normalcy a vital step in any revolution.”
Seriously? Does that include the Charles Taylor, Liberian style of chaos: rape, mutilation and genocide? Or is chaos your comparison of a late nineties Reclaim the Streets march to a riot? Callous or stupid comment, your choice.
“Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.”
No problem, as long as you don’t include dumbing issues down (read: lying) as prerequisite for having a laugh. How does the old saying go? Never let the facts stand between you and a bit of the ole razzmatazz, eh Russell.
“a golden cauldron of soup made from white rhino cum”
Enough with the unimaginative, pubescent hyperbole – white rhino cum, for fuck’s sake mate, that’s just sad. If you are not creative enough a writer, rather just use literal statements.
“These problems that threaten to bring on global destruction are the result of legitimate human instincts gone awry,”
As opposed to illegitimate human instincts? I’m not even going to embroider on the ridiculousness of that statement, life is too short.
Note to reader: the editor of this hagiography deleted all other extracts showcasing Russell Brand’s mercurial linguistic and exotic reasoning abilities. Suffice to say, the intent is to avoid reader fatigue.
Since this writer is a forgiving and engaging individual, he has penned the below correspondence and offered to assist Mr Brand in his quest for a better understanding of social justice.
What you should be worried about:
When society has reached the point where crap like Idols and X-factor garner more votes than the democratic process, then it is at a potentially apocalyptic crossroads. To the right is dictatorship as a result of the mass abdication of democratic rights due to apathy, consumerism and distraction (the old panem et circenses slight of hand), to the left is idiocracy underpinned by populism, false promises, public corruption and disinformation, straight ahead is your clumsily set out revolution, a bitter never-never land populated by the survivors of mindless anarchy, shuffling along against a not-so-artistic backdrop of Dadaesque proportions.
Here’s the thing Russell old chap. I do not doubt your sincerity when you hold forth on the woes of the world and that change is needed and is imminently eminent. I do however doubt your combat readiness for the tribulations ahead on your messianic journey.
Your description of a heroic visit to Kenya where you visited a Nairobi slum and rubbish dump combo, the sight of which you compared to Armageddon, really touched me. I was outraged though when I read about your forced visit to a Givenchy fashion show in Paris a few weeks later. No-one frogmarches my man, Russell, to a shallow, elitist event against his will!
It is time to stop with the tragi-comic attempts to be an urbane revolutionary and try something authentic that WILL change your consciousness. If I may put it in a more rustic patois: :”Man up Russell, man the fuck up.”
So here’s the challenge. You, me, 10,000 kilometres (a vocal proponent of individual freedom such as yourself would appreciate my reluctance to use imperial measurements, even to accommodate a visionary luminary such as yourself).
You may ask what I mean by 10,000 kilometres. Well, Russell, as an incipient revolutionary it may be time for you to take a short holiday from the rarefied atmosphere of green rooms, celebrity interviews and photo shoots. You see Russell, when men travel together into the remote interior of Africa, getting some honest travel dirt into the old pores, they gain insight into the human condition; just ask Joseph Conrad’s ghost, or Comic Relief and Live Aid.
Not that I necessarily agree with the whole heart of darkness thing, being an African myself. What I envisage for us is just two long haired fellows bundu bashing along the back roads of Africa, trying to thrash out the challenges confronting modern society, whilst engaging with nature and gaining perspective from cultures other than their own. Pretty profound suggestion, n’est-ce pas? Just imagine the promo pics. Russell with the Himba people in Kaokoland, Russell white water rafting on the Zambezi, Russell trying to not get his face smashed in after an impromptu, not very well received performance of his new show, DEMOCRACY NOW!, in downtown Luanda, Angola. Comic Relief, Africa style, without the paternalism and neo-imperialism.
Somehow I doubt that the above scenario would ever come to fruition for you Russell, with or without my sage like presence. And that is sad, because I do believe that intrinsically sensitive observers like yourself are crucial to a healthy society and could benefit from exposure to a more, shall we say ‘gritty’ environment.
By the way, good luck with your latest world tour. I’m sure every single venue will be packed to the rafters after all the free publicity generated by your revolutionary statements and the inane commentary, including this one, that ensued.
(just another trivial cog in the revolutionary machine)
P.S. I have included a picture of yours truly in revolutionary stance wearing a beret hand knitted by Tibetan monks from very rare dwarf yak wool. Please do not confuse my headgear with the cheap Chinese polyester product worn by our local circus clown union, the EFF. I ‘ave me standards, aw ‘ight?
Read Russell Brand’s essay in the New Statesman:
Russell Brand on revolution: “We no longer have the luxury of tradition”
Watch a 7 minute clip of Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Russell Brand on BBC:
Russell Brand BBC interview
(Cover image: drawing by Valerie Kotliar)