Thursday, 30 October 2014

Russell Brand, a deepening threat to 'entitled' liberal voices

Newsnight presenter Evan Davis's interview with Russell Brand has elicited much denunciation from an indignant liberal commentariat.

Announcing her latest Sunday Times column, Camilla Long tweeted: "PLEASE can someone tell me what we did to deserve "prancing perm on a stick" Russell Brand as a "voice"?"  Why, laments Hadley Freeman at the Guardian, does this purveyor of "ecstatic hypomania", and chauffeur-driven celeb, have the right to pontificate about poverty, injustice and revolution? Over at the Observer, Nick Cohen sneers that Brand is nothing more than a "barmy Beverly Hills Buddhist" with a dearth of alternatives, and should be shunned by the 'gullible' left. 

As with past demonisations of Julian Assange, so much of this is written in smug-liberal 'house style', the sharply-honed barbs grasping for editorial approval.

But beneath all these caustic words, an even more venomous question lurks: why, they really crave to know, is Brand getting all this attention?

Might such animosity be less about his 'infantile' ideas than the discomfiture of Brand threatening to usurp their 'appointed' roles as 'entitled critics', 'public guardians' and 'political reformers'?     

Though we weren't supposed to notice, the Newsnight interview said as much about why people like Davis, rather than Brand, get to where they are; how their words, ideas and worldviews are so widely registered and safely internalised.

Throughout the interview, Davis spoke the lines of homo-economicus, immersed in the business mindset, at one stage flashing-up a cold graph of real post-war wages. His point? That, despite the 'current dip', capitalism has delivered, overall.

But where was the human context? There was no mention of the profound power capitalism has wielded over every aspect of daily life, no suggestion of the staggering inequalities, mental anguish, alienation, despair, greed, misery and murder of the market system. And certainly no admission of the considerable role a capitalist media has played in all of that.  

In a sense, Davis and Brand weren't even in the same studio. Davis, fixated with statistical 'realities', seemed to be 'hearing' Brand's concerns about corporate capitalism and its monolithic sovereignty - economic, political, social, ecological, cultural - as though it were some kind of unintelligible language.

While Davis may see many problems with capitalism, notably as technocratic issues of production, supply, demand, growth, and even the 'costs' of inequality, he still speaks as though it's the definitive order, the norm. Anyone trying to question that orthodoxy, particularly 'non-expert' voices like Brand, are treated as little more than comedian acts, albeit fascinating ones, to be chided and ridiculed. 

Besides boosting ratings and playing 'street populism', the Newsnight piece was an editorial ambush, picking-out and distorting a tiny line about 9/11 from Brand's book. No sooner was the interview aired than editor Ian Katz was tweeting implied slurs about Brand's 'receptiveness' to conspiracy theories. 

Davis also asked Brand why he doesn't stand for political office, an illustration, like the narrow view of capitalism, of the template liberal politics we're encouraged to accept, and why figures like Davis are trusted to be on Newsnight helping to keep it so.   

Any hostile chain reaction to Brand says as much about our routine exposure to Davis's 'sensible' establishment language as it does to Brand's seemingly 'madcap' declarations. In effect, Brand's views only 'stand out' as 'insane' because we're so relentlessly conditioned to see the standard line as sane.

From the smear-laden Independent to a spluttering Daily Mail, sniping dismissals of Brand's 'revolutionary utopianism' allow easy reduction of his arguments to that of showman fraudster. Yet, are we really to believe that Brand sat down with a devious glint and invented some radically-costumed identity in order to sell a tour, a book or other financially-rewarding prop?

Even if Brand is, or gets treated as, some kind of a passing fad, what he's saying about corporate power, consumer culture, media propaganda, environmental calamity and the wider deprivation of humanity deserves all the airing it can get right now.

If it's a choice between gloating, career journalists using large establishment-corporate media to take-down Brand, or small independent media like Brand's Trews helping to expose power-friendly celebs like Boris Johnson and the influence of that corporate media, I know which version I'm approving.

And if Brand one day does takes the full establishment shilling, or revokes all he's said, so what? If we don't have him already up there on the personal pedestal, never mind the 'Jesus altar', we're at least spared the task of those tortured liberal iconoclasts in having to bring him down.

There's no need to idealise and 'follow' Brand, or even expect that he lay out some kind of detailed manifesto. It's enough that he's helping to subvert authority, indict corporate life, expose his insecure media critics, and promote the need for a real humanitarian and, yes, revolutionary consciousness.


AllanLachlan said...

Have you seen this attack from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown?:
She might have a point about his encouraging people not to vote. But then in England you really don't have anyone to vote for that has a chance in their first past the post system and she's just raked about for something he's once said to attack him on. She's the same as the others. I wont read anything she's written again.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Allan, good points.

Like the liberal circle cited, she writes in similarly disparaging tones, as in talking of Brand's "Dave Spart-like Revolution", and that "Brand is charismatic, looks like Jesus, but, cannot deliver us from dejection, poverty, inequality, greed, corruption and hopelessness."

That, of course, is left to the 'real vanguards' like Toynbee and Alibhai-Brown. Thus, she warns:

"Politics needs to be cleaned up, not thrown into disarray by irresponsible populists or by cool, sexy, edgy dilettantes. While Brand’s acolytes await the revolution, the rest of us have work to do."

So forget Brand, and just be glad she's out there working so hard on our behalf!;)

Jo Slee said...

Hooray - insightful and very sharp, thank you - ie everything I've been thinking about the barrage of backbiting which constantly distracts attention from the issues RB makes. He has clearly stated since Paxman that his only problem with voting is that he feels no-one represents him in any democratic or meaningful way. A problem many if not all of us will face at the next election (Greens aside). Personally I'm thrilled that he's saying and doing what he's doing. Personally, I could care less about anything other than THANK GOD the cat is among the pigeons. Shared on FB. PS are you on FB please and if not why not?

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Jo.

Indeed, a useful reminder of why Brand is speaking about the issue of non-voting - the massive illusion that we live in a meaningful 'democracy'.

John Hilley said...

Yes, also on FB.

BeautifulSakura said...

Great Piece John. Thank you.

i loved Brand's dig at the bbc bias over oor indyreff

The Huffpost had a good article on this too -

"His second and recent Newsnight interview with Evan Davis has resulted in a similar furore, uniting voices of the left, right, and right-on in condemnation. No matter how you cut it this is a remarkable feat for one leather-trousered comedian and entertainer.

Indeed such is the level of anger and indignation levelled at Russell Brand for 'daring' to publicly articulate his disenchantment with the status quo, with the political and economic system, and worse daring to write a book with the provocative title Revolution, you would think he'd just committed some heinous crime. The criticism that has attached to him over his reinvention as a political activist, writer and campaigner says more about those throwing barbs than it does about him, however, echoing perhaps Oscar Wilde's assertion that, "Ridicule is the tribute paid to the genius by the mediocrities".

Unknown said...

Excellent assessment John.I think the point about them resenting him all the attention they should be getting is a good one.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it amazing how much the liberal left and the right are attacking Russell Brand. Could it be that he's upsetting there little cabal.

John Hilley said...

Thanks for your comments, BeautifulSakura, EF ans Anon.

John M said...

Hello John

I can't disagree too much, thank you for the posting. I am half-way through RB's book "Revolution". It's not so much a political polemic or revolutionary manifesto, but a rather touching personal history of the writer, at times very troubling, filtered through a refreshing and somewhat naive sensibility. Along the way, he uses these reminiscences to attach pertinent observations about society and the increasing problems of rampant consumerism and aggressive capitalism. So far at least, there's nothing remotely threatening to authority other than some truthful and heartfelt observations. But that is the threat, the only one that RB makes.

He is popular, for the moment, because he's actually pretty bright, and he has, for such a discursive mind at times, a great ability to puncture pretension or illogicality with a few well chosen words and by obeying and understanding some pretty good rhetorical and logical rules of argument. He remains popular and a thorn in the side of the establishment because a) he's right and b) a large enough section of the population can see he's right.

There is something rather boyish and natural about the man, childlike even. I liken him to the boy who said to the crowd "but the Emperor has no clothes". In the story, the lie falls from the crowd's eyes immediately, but in reality what is happening is that a lot of the crowd, and all the Emperor's retinue, resent being told by a jumped up street urchin what they should have known for themselves all along. How dare he?

John Hilley said...

Thanks, John. Really well stated.

'There is something rather boyish and natural about the man, childlike even.'

Yes, like seeing things through a child's eyes; a kind of natural perception and expression that so many posturing politicians and cynical critics just don't have.

Another good take on Brand's critics here from Mark Steel:

Anonymous said...

We the people of this world desperately need heros who speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable or contentious. Its bad enough we are force fed corporate bully boy rules but that we are surrounded by couch revolutionaries espousing change or semantic hypothesi to stroke their ego.
At least someone who perceives the truth as he sees it ( and I agree with him as do most of you in the dark depths where all your fears reside ) however in this mindgame of propoganda politics we should grasp our power and institute change through votes of NO CONFIDENCE and as Brand concludes open referendum to establish truth under penalty of purjury. This is not about his celeb appeal.

21st Century Peasant said...

They need not worry. Old Rustyrockets punk politics will drift with time and we will soon have Zoe Williams getting comfort from him that she is not out of step with reality, just as we had Johnny R comforting the Toynbee.

Cathy Teesdale said...

Well said Jo, this redirects attention smartly back to the issues Russell's raising & away from the (slightly hysterical) personal invective from all those establishment pundits who seem so utterly brainwashed into believing that the status quo, tweaked, is the only way to go.

I've been paying a lot of attention to Mr Brand lately, ever since he embarrassed Paxman on Newsnight, I've now met him, briefly, 3 times, & I've watched him in action too, & I'm happy to say I'm a huge fan. I think he's being utterly sincere right now, as well being as super-bright, super-awake, still human & flawed, & funny too - which is a blessed relief while facing up to so many grim realities.

So I'm also sharing this on Fb Jo & would be happy to Fb connect with you too - do check out my project's Facebook page here and let me know what you think? Cathy

flow said...

he get's the screen time because he is fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

The profits from his book are been given to help people with drug and alcohol addictions. There is a voice out there, it may not speak for all, but at least it is speaking and sparking debate, and raising awareness and awakenings of any kind to make people see how the system is working, so he is known as a comedian, does that make his opinion less valid? no.

Anonymous said...

their demographic is mot Brands, he's pitching at an audience that can make a difference, the young, non of whom will read the clapped out 'liberal' bullshit written in the Guardian et al. He's not talking to the middle aged, flabby press corps and the house owning armchair socialist, or the keyboard fascist, all parts of the problem not parts of the solution, obsolete, meaningless and powerless where it counts. Brand has an eye on that place where the politicians and the money men are afraid to look, the future.