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

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