Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Russell Reflex

"The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall" - Che Guevara

The reactions to Russell Brand's passionate exchange with Jeremy Paxman have been tellingly predictable throughout the establishment media. Most of the smug complacency and dismissive derision on offer can be found distilled into this feature in the corporate-owned Independent. It started badly with the patronizing, trivializing headline: 'Would you join Russell's revolution'? We were then offered an attempt at balance with a for/against format. The 'for' section, however, consisted of praise only for his comic delivery; his 'swagger' and 'charm'. With that out of the way, we then came to what the Independent (via assistant editor Memphis Barker) actually wanted to get out of its system:

From the article:

Case against: Trivial

Yesterday evening, if you were fortunate enough to tune into Newsnight, you would have been privy to the ultimate expression of Slackerism, a political theory with roots in teenage angst, mild rebelliousness, and a pie-in-the-sky leftism that wants to pull down the walls of the politics then sit around smoking pot in the ruins. Russell Brand was being interviewed by Paxman. It was a car crash.

Britain’s most charming man – that’s Russell – sounded all too much like an undergraduate who hadn’t done their homework, grabbing wildly at big terms (“prescriptive parameter” this, “paradigm” that) and regurgitating some vague sense of global injustice (“this system just doesn’t address these ideas”). In the Brandian mode of Slackerism “profit” is, of course, a “filthy word” – because bankers are bad. That capitalism has also lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty is purely by-the-by. The sad thing is, he’s right about a lot of things too. Yet the way Brand went at it last night instantly discredited everything that came out of his mouth.

Apathetic cynicism about the political class is all the rage. But, much like Will Self on Question Time not long ago, these armchair idealists ignore the fact that democracy is a difficult process that involves compromise, and that the vast majority of politicians are simply the only people dull enough and public-spirited enough to stick around in politics.

If Brand had his way, and was king of the UK anarchists, he’d creep off to L.A. the moment he heard a good ashram was opening. At least with ‘boring snoring’ Rachel Reeves, you know she’s here for the long run. Brand is a searingly eloquent and brilliant commentator when on song. Yesterday night was a low point. To borrow Paxman’s put-down, what we saw was not a leader of the “despondent underclass”, but Britain’s most trivial revolutionary at work.

Here we have it all. Ad hominem attacks, smears, misrepresentation, and a patronizing tone suggesting that Mr Brand - who has on numerous occasions demonstrated his impressive intelligence and awareness - is an embarrassment for using 'big terms'. We are also informed that there is a 'vague sense' of global injustice, implying that we are mistaken about the millions of furious people in Spain, Italy, Greece and multiple other nations around the world and that in fact they just like joining protests for a laugh. We learn that capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty; sadly with no mention of the billions now suffering inequality, poverty and exploitation in almost every corner of the globe while a tiny group of already insanely wealthy people take almost all the pie. We discover that it is 'sad' that Russell is 'right about a lot of things too' because of the 'way' he 'went at it', meaning presumably that citizens who make jokes and have unruly hair really don't have any business demanding change to how their society is run.

The former Guardian journalist Jonathon Cook provides the perfect riposte on his excellent blog:

What indicates to me that Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Russell Brand, whatever their personal or political differences, are part of an important social and ethical trend is the huge irritation they cause to the media class who have spent decades making very good livings being paid by the media corporations to limit our intellectual horizons.

Brand and co are an enormous threat to the cosy political-security-media elite that for years colonised our minds as effectively as – maybe more effectively than – Pravda once did in the Soviet Union.

The first responses of a few of Britain’s elite journalists in Twitterland this morning after the Brand interview aired on Newsnight last night illustrated the general rancour they feel towards those who threaten to expose them as the charlatans they are.

Twitter is useful in this regard because its short form forces these journalists’ prejudices out into the open, depriving them of the cover provided by their usual-length columns.


For these power-friendly journalists, just as for Paxman, no one should possibly be taken seriously unless they participate in the political system designed to keep us oppressed, or consume the liberal media designed to persuade us that our vote counts.

The interview itself was genuinely gripping and contains many gems. One reason Brand touched a nerve with so many people is the human ability we all have to recognize honest passion when we see it, and here it was on display with abundance. Brand was genuinely angry with Paxman's establishment-friendly, world-weary, condescending, fatherly tone - not to mention his inability to comprehend what was actually being said - and this led to a memorable and revealing exchange after Brand admitted he had never voted in his life:

Paxman: If you can't be arsed to vote, why should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?

Brand: It's not that I'm not voting out of apathy; I'm not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch where we have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit complicité.

Paxman: Why don't you try to change it then?

Brand: I'm trying to.

Paxman: Well why don't you start by voting?

Face hits palm.

Here Paxman acts as a perfect defender of the establishment. Firstly, he offensively suggests that a person choosing not to vote abrogates their right to demand change in their society, ignoring the reality that there might actually be another entirely logical reason not to vote. Secondly he ignores Brand's own undeniably true words: that the 'underclass' Brand speaks of is indeed disenfranchised in that all members of it know they have no true representative in the existing major political parties. Paxman reinforces the false conventional wisdom that voting actually changes the system in any meaningful way and ignores what is blatantly obvious to everyone: that the differences between the major parties are cosmetic, with policies decided not for socially beneficial reasons, but chosen instead for maximization of votes and approval rating gains based on up-to-date data on social attitudes, not to mention for the benefit of their corporate donors. In other words, if the Bedroom Tax is unpopular enough under the Tories, you can be certain that the Labour Party will pledge to end it. Do such actions solve the underlying problems in society? They do not. Brand merely points out what is obvious to all existing outside establishment dogma.

However, it fell to Nick Cohen writing in the Observer to really allow us a rich insight into the mentality of establishment journalism and how it deals with outsider threats.

Excerpts from the article:

Wild emotions are all very well, Russell Brand, but then what?

We begin with misrepresentation in the headline. Russell Brand said very clearly in the interview that he is using his platform as a popular celebrity merely to bring attention to the issue of radical social change. He stated emphatically that he is not intending to lead any kind of revolution and that he himself will not propose any detailed societal system, pointing out that there are people far more qualified to do so. By asking this question, Cohen implies to the reader that Brand went on TV and demanded change as a revolution organizer or leader but was stumped when asked for specifics, thus implying that he is some kind of attention-seeking buffoon.

Here are two quotes. The first is from the Fascist Decalogue, written by Benito Mussolini in 1938. The second is from an article,"We no longer have the luxury of tradition", written by Russell Brand in 2013.

"Service can be rendered at all times, in all places, and by every means. It can be paid with toil and also with blood," said the one.

"Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster," said the other.

Only the contemporary references to suicidal murderers and rioting Londoners reveal that the second call to violence came from the comedian/actor and the first from the dictator.

Misrepresentation: Brand did not call for violence. He merely suggested spontaneity, certainty, willingness to die, or twinkling mischief. All of these things are possible without actual violence.

It is too easy to dismiss the enormous audience for Brand by saying: "They're just enjoying the show." True, artists have always made a show of being drawn towards fanaticism. Extremism is more exciting and dramatic, more artistic perhaps, than the shabby compromises and small changes of democratic societies. You suspect that half the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s supported fascism or communism just for the thrill of it.

Today, the need to strike a pose is all the greater. Television controllers manufacture celebrities like Volkswagen manufactures cars, and insert them into every niche in their schedules. When I have complained that the actor fronting a documentary knows nothing about African poverty, say, or the comedian on the political panel knows nothing about politics, they reply that the viewers want celebs. If they don't put them in front of a camera, the viewers won't watch. In a saturated media market the ambitious celebrity has to go further than the competition to stand out from the crowd.


Political comedy has followed the same path. Ben Elton's attacks on the Conservatives of the 1980s seemed daring at the time. But in truth he was just a mainstream Labour supporter who wanted Britain to be a slightly better place. No one would be excited by that modest statement of intent now. So Brand escalates: "Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites."

Translation: Brand is an ambitious, attention-seeking celebrity, trying to stand out from the vacuous showbiz crowd by...erm...pointing out obvious truths about our vicious, corrupted society and calling for radical social change and revolution. That Brand already stands out by being one of the most famous and recognizable celebrities in the world (7.1 million Twitter followers) on actual wit and talent and has all the money and fame he could ever need is inconvenient for Cohen's twisted version of reality.

The democratic left is no better than the democratic right. Ed Miliband is as great a menace as David Cameron. Obama is the same as the Tea Party.Instead of corrupt democratic leaders, Brand wants a "total revolution of consciousness and [of] our entire social, political and economic system" to stop the despoliation of the planet and allow the redistribution of wealth.

When Jeremy Paxman on the BBC tried to tell him that it would take a government to redistribute wealth and protect the environment, Brand could not say what type of government he wanted. How could he? If it were democratic it would be filled with his "frauds and liars". And if it weren't democratic, it would be a dictatorship.

First, as Brand never claimed to be the architect of the revolution, merely someone trying to point out the need for one, why would he be expected to answer such a question? Second, these comments by Cohen display an embarrassing level of ignorance from someone claiming to be a journalist. In fact, there are viable alternatives to representative democracy that do not require dictatorship.

From a recent article on this blog:

Possibilities include relatively new concepts such as collaborative e-democracy and delegative ('liquid') democracy, forms of direct democracy that are now possible due to the deep reach of the internet into almost every home. [Note: for a simple and short video explanation of liquid democracy, go here.]

I don't doubt that Russell Brand is as sincere as Miley Cyrus. I don't doubt either that to call his thought "adolescent" is to insult teenagers everywhere. He writes as if he is a precocious prepubescent rather than an adolescent: a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of "consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system" – and does not want to know either.

Cohen has been nice (by his standards) so far, but his contempt burns through the veneer at last as the gloves come off with childish smears and name calling. How does Cohen know that Russell Brand is unaware of the evils of the 20th century? Did he ask him? This also slips in the suggestion that Brand's call for revolution will in fact lead to the worst kind of control, while anyone honest is fully aware that Brand is not only demanding the precise opposite, but is perfectly well aware of the dangers Cohen cites.

Which is not to say that Brand is just a fool or that people who watch him in their millions are just enjoying a celebrity tantrum. Now, as in the 1920s and 1930s, many inhabitants of most European countries agree with Brand's slogans that all politicians are crooks and democracy is a sham. Today's crisis has left Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation. Or, if that is going too far, you can at least say that Europe looks ready for radical political change. Unfortunately for Brand, who sees himself a radical leftist of some sort, apparently, the greatest beneficiary of the nihilism he promotes is the radical right.

Misrepresentation. The assertion that 'politicians are crooks and democracy is a sham' is not a slogan; it is a demonstrable fact and everyone knows it. New outrages committed by public and corporate officials hit our newspapers literally daily. And how is demanding social change 'nihilism'? Were all revolutionaries throughout history nihilists? Or were some of them people who saw that the system was bad and wanted better?

Today Marine le Pen can say that the Front National has downplayed its racism and homophobia, is the enemy of unregulated markets and a supporter of state intervention to protect French interests. As important as its cross-class appeal is that the far right has a programme. It may be a wicked and illusory programme but proposals to stop immigration and tackle the disastrous euro experiment make sense too in hard times. The far left, by contrast, has nothing. It cannot say what alternative it has to mainstream social democracy – as Brand's slack-jawed inability to answer simple questions showed.

Outrageous misrepresentation. Linking Brand to extremism for simply demanding change to a system that is already one of corporate and commercial extremism is ludicrous. Did Cohen ask Brand if he has an extremist political ideology? Asking for equality and justice is something only the 'hard left' do? Further, it is an outright lie, as stated earlier, that there are no alternatives to what Cohen calls 'mainstream social democracy' (actually global corporate oligarchy).

In any case, the similarities between far left and far right are more striking than their differences. Brand made this point for me too when he held up the death cults of ultra-reactionary religious fundamentalists as examples to emulate rather than the enemies to fight.

Cohen clearly felt this was an effective method to smear Brand, as linking him to suicide bombers could be found twice in this single piece.

Cohen encapsulates the reflexive defense mechanisms of the establishment with this irresponsible and dishonest cascade of smears, ad hominem attacks and name calling. Anyone who suggests any kind of alternative is an 'upstart', 'juvenile', 'adolescent' and 'attention seeking'. That Brand is a comedian makes it all the easier to bring out the classics from the propaganda playbook: focus on personality and delivery and thereby distract from the very real and true substance of what Brand was saying.

[Aside: It also raises the question of the credibility of the Observer itself, allowing a journalist who cheered on the greatest war crime of this century and still believes it was 'valid' to write regularly within its pages (along in the Guardian with an instigator of that very war crime, Tony Blair, shockingly permitted to lecture us last week on the issue of making peace).]

Russell Brand gave voice in his interview to millions of the disenfranchised people he cited. He made an impression because while there was no virtually no hope for them before, there is now someone with a massive global following fighting their corner. We can therefore expect more smears and ridicule of Brand, but the good news is that he is not the kind of person to let it stop him. With Brand's high-profile aid, the question of revolution in the UK has now become a mainstream topic of discussion, and with the social and economic situation in freefall, there really can only be one way this eventually turns out.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Malala Syndrome

"She is an extraordinary case. She is a very courageous young woman. I am proud of the fact that we have been able to treat her in Britain. It shows how serious we are about our supporting education for young people, Malala's presence in the UK is a demonstration of that." - David Cameron on Malala Yousafzai

'Malala' - the easiest element of her full name for Western ears and tongues - is now a household name around the world. The horrific experience she suffered and subsequent recovery is perhaps what she is most famous for, but she must be praised and admired not only for her remarkable fortitude and poise after such a traumatic event, but also the deep wisdom she has displayed. This is how she responded to Jon Stewart of the Daily Show when he asked her how she felt when she discovered she was a Taliban target:

"I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, 'If he comes, what would you do Malala?' then I would reply to myself, 'Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.' But then I said, 'If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.' Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that 'I even want education for your children as well.' And I will tell him, 'That's what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'"

With these words and despite her few years she transcends the levels of enlightenment reached by most humans in their entire lifetimes, demonstrating her deep (and correct) conviction that violence begets violence - that it is never the right answer - and also that it is pointless to focus on negatives: that one should eschew hatred and blame, focusing instead on positive solutions that include even the welfare of your 'enemy'.

However, Malala's grace, positivity and enthusiasm mask the bottomless cynicism of the corporate-owned media, which - with its heavy coverage of her - has very clearly demonstrated its true objectives: 'Brand Malala'.

By treating a Muslim girl with such reverence, the media can more plausibly deny claims of prejudice against Muslims, while - simultaneously - Western objectives in the phony 'War on Terror' can be met with ease simply by painting any target group (read: justification for other attacks that aid the true objectives of the West - resources and control) as similarly evil and barbaric as the Taliban. Western public opinion, unanimously in favor of Malala, will be far easier to sway with such a powerful weapon.

This well-meaning person is being (and will continue to be) mercilessly used as a means of enabling and advancing Western hypocrisy over atrocities and war crimes.

Ask yourself if you have heard the name of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, a 14-year-old Iraqi girl who was gang-raped and murdered by US marines after her family (34-year-old mother Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin, 45-year-old father Qasim Hamza Raheem, and six-year-old sister Hadeel Qasim Hamza) were killed.

[Note: The Washington Post link incorrectly states she was 15 years old when she died. Wikipedia link here.]

How about Safa Younis Salim, a 13-year old girl who amazingly survived the Haditha Massacre, in which 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed including seven children, a 1-year-old girl staying with the family and a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair?

How did she survive?

"I pretended that I was dead when my brother's body fell on me and he was bleeding like a faucet."

A six-year US military prosecution ended with none of the eight Marines sentenced to jail, despite one of the men - Sgt. Sanick De La Cruz - testifying (in return for immunity) that he had urinated on the skull of one of the dead Iraqis. This outcome outraged the Iraqi people (as the attack on Malala outraged the West) but the name of Safa Younis Salim remains practically unknown...

...because this young girl (an unlikely survivor like Malala) was a victim of Western (US) crimes, while Malala was attacked by a current official enemy of the West: the Taliban.

Peruse this list of children killed in drone attacks personally authorized by Nobel Peace laureate Barack Obama (or one of his top officials) - recently described by Noam Chomsky as 'the biggest terrorist campaign in the world' - and see if you recognize any of them:

Noor Aziz | 8 | male

Abdul Wasit | 17 | male

Noor Syed | 8 | male

Wajid Noor | 9 | male

Syed Wali Shah | 7 | male

Ayeesha | 3 | female

Qari Alamzeb | 14| male

Shoaib | 8 | male

Hayatullah KhaMohammad | 16 | male

Tariq Aziz | 16 | male

Sanaullah Jan | 17 | male

Maezol Khan | 8 | female

Nasir Khan | male

Naeem Khan | male

Naeemullah | male

Mohammad Tahir | 16 | male

Azizul Wahab | 15 | male

Fazal Wahab | 16 | male

Ziauddin | 16 | male

Mohammad Yunus | 16 | male

Fazal Hakim | 19 | male

Ilyas | 13 | male

Sohail | 7 | male

Asadullah | 9 | male

Khalilullah | 9 | male

Noor Mohammad | 8 | male

And many, many more.

The name Tariq Aziz at least is known to me as I have written about him on this blog before, conveying the words of Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the charity Reprieve:

During the day I shook the hand of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike, and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. At the Reprieve charity, we have a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part, but I thought him too young.

Then, three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated "four militants". In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt's house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other "militants" – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.

When a current official enemy of the West commits an atrocity, it is relentlessly covered by our media, but Western atrocities with far more victims and scope are ignored. This is nothing new: in an obvious example, the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia - a Western ally - in 1975 was ignored while at exactly the same time, atrocities on a comparable scale carried out by the communist Khmer Rouge - an official enemy of the West - in Cambodia received massive attention throughout all media.

Every time Malala's name comes up, the message to Western readers is clear: she was shot by the Taliban, who are therefore very bad boys indeed, and she was nursed back to health in the UK, meaning the West is very good. Her recovery in the UK is an enormous bonus because it adds to the already powerful impression of readers that because the Taliban is bad, and because the West is an enemy of the Taliban, the West must therefore be good.

No one is arguing that the Taliban is not bad - they are obviously an extremely nasty, murderous and evil group of men, brainwashed as they are by vicious religious dogma (familiar?), and clearly using this dogma (in part) as an excuse to control women - as men have done everywhere since time immemorial. The problem is that Western crimes go practically unreported - and even when they are, use of the terms 'militants' or 'insurgents' mitigates the pressure for honest moral appraisal, thereby soothing the practically nonexistent scraps of guilty conscience remaining in the average Western news consumer.

And there is another, more insidious, strategy in play: the media has long known that focusing heavily on extremely unlikely outcomes is far more engaging for the average news consumer than reporting humdrum reality. The Malala story is an example of this: relentless coverage of a girl who amazingly survived a gunshot wound while the thousands of gunshot victims who are not so lucky are mentioned almost as an afterthought (unless, of course, there is a racial issue involved).

This phenomenon is common because not only does it provide readers already inured to massive violence and death with a new and interesting angle on well-worn topics, it drives sales and clicks - and therefore advertising - for the 'WTF' value and also gives the media an opportunity to focus on the 'human side' of the story, with interviews, close-ups, high emotion and the obligatory tears.

Watch ABC News demonstrate this with its coverage of the Copiapó mining accident in Chile in 2010, when 33 men were trapped underground in a 121-year-old copper mine for 69 days. All other major Cable news channels and newspapers were equally guilty. Meanwhile, ignored against this incredible tale of human endurance and rescue was the reality of life for Chile's mines and miners, as pointed out by John Pilger:

The accident that trapped the miners is not unusual in Chile, but the inevitable consequence of a ruthless economic system that has barely changed since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Copper is Chile's gold, and the frequency of mining disasters keeps pace with prices and profits. There are, on average, 39 fatal accidents every year in Chile's privatised mines. The San José mine, where the men work, became so unsafe in 2007 that it had to be closed - but not for long. On 30 July last, a labour department report warned again of "serious safety deficiencies", but no action was taken. Six days later, the men were entombed.

For all the media circus at the rescue site, contemporary Chile is a country of the unspoken. At Villa Grimaldi, in the suburbs of the capital, Santiago, a sign says: "The forgotten past is full of memory." This was the torture centre where hundreds of people were murdered and disappeared for opposing the fascism that Pinochet and his business allies brought to Chile. Its ghostly presence is overseen by the beautiful Andes, and the man who unlocks the gate used to live nearby and remembers the screams.

Remember 'miracle baby' Azra, who survived for two days under rubble after a 2010 earthquake in Turkey? While it was obviously fantastic news that she survived, the massive focus on her rescue served to play down the reality that almost everyone else under there - including other babies - was killed.

This focus on amazing escapes and extremely unlikely stories paints a false picture of reality, creating a fantasy world where such positive things happen with regularity, when in fact the outcome is almost always random and negative. This perspective, reflected widely also in Hollywood movies - where maverick, rule-breaking heroes defy incredible odds to win the day - presents a skewed reality that is far more dramatic and marketable.

Judge for yourself: which story will garner the most attention? The dramatic rescue of a baby who survives alone for two days after an earthquake and reunion with the obviously emotional mother, or the simple, neutral reporting of the number of deaths and injuries?

Until the profit motive is removed - until the news is no longer treated as a glossily-packaged product - this 'Malala Syndrome', along with the myriad other ills in our media that arise from the same poisoned spring, will continue to confuse and mislead viewers/readers, making it more likely that they will come to false conclusions about the world, thereby greatly harming democracy, which depends on a well-informed populace for its survival.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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