Over the last few days, the following interview with comedian Russell Brand has been doing the rounds on Facebook. I’ve lost count of how how many people have posted and reposted it, mostly with the addition of a ‘Yeah, right on brother!’ sentiment. I recommend you watch it to get the flavour of what’s happening here, before I chuck in my two cents.
Before I start, I will first proffer a disclaimer: I didn’t really know much about Russell Brand until recently. My awareness of him was limited to that of seeing him do a few bit parts in films and as the voice of Dr Nefario in Despicable Me. But I do read the Guardian frequently, and New Statesman sometimes, and I started to see articles by him pop up now and then. He’s an excellent and intelligent writer, with a clearly better-than-average knowledge of politics and social economics. And yes, he’s pretty funny too. So I have a reasonable amount of respect for him, all things considered.
But the video above really annoyed me. Or, I guess what really annoyed me was the way it has been waved around on the internet as if this man is demonstrating some level of profundity in it.
Now I know some of the people who I’m criticizing for doing this might well be reading right now, so I just ask you to set aside your ire for a minute (because I know you are undoubtedly angry with me right now and champing to kick my bollocks in the comments) and hear me out.
Mr Brand is colourful and voluble in the interview with Jeremy Paxton, but if you actually take the time to think about what he’s saying, it’s actually nothing at all. Worse than that, he says things that are counter productive and possibly even stupid.
He is plainly unhappy with the way things are in politics and in our world. There’s really nothing to add to that sentiment: so am I. Brand gestures and shouts and pontificates with righteous indignation, but he actually says nothing more than ‘things are fucked and we should fix them‘. He stops short of suggestion a revolution (and Paxman prods him on it, because that’s what Paxman gets paid to do) but focally, offers not even the faintest whiff of any idea for a solution to this situation. Worse, when Paxman takes him up on this, he bails (in my view extraordinarily pathetically) by claiming that it’s not his job to offer solutions because he’s just an entertainer.(i) Just prior to this, he tells us that he doesn’t vote, and exhorts all those who are disenfranchised to do the same.
I can’t tell you how much this infuriates me. Anyone can say there’s a problem. This a NO BRAINER. Just as I pointed out on my piece on the Occupy Movement over a year back, a great many people (myself included) are unhappy that things are broken. But I said it then, and I say it again: spitting the dummy is not the way forward. Just as millions of people watched the Occupy [Wherever] demonstrations on tv and raised their fists in solidarity, a similar gesture here in support of Mr Brand is entirely without any utility at all. And just as the Occupy Movement has come to absolutely no productive outcome (as I predicted it would), so Russell Brand’s colourful invective-fuelled pantomime is sound and fury signifying nothing.
What takes me to a level of even greater frustration is that apparently if I voice any of the disagreements I just have, then I am somehow on the side of the status quo. In other words, because I say Russell Brand makes no sense in this particular instance,(ii) suddenly I am a right wing corporate arse-kisser. Or something. Why does there need to be this extreme polarisation? I’m a moderately smart person – shouldn’t I be able to offer a thoughtful analysis?
The very worst thing for me, though, is that the urging people not to vote thing is just profoundly wrong. If you have the right to vote, then you should use it. Not voting at all is plain stupidity.
I ran through this idea in that previously-mentioned article about #occupy, but I’ll paraphrase the pertinent points again:
1. If you think there should be a revolution, then you should also have the acumen to realise that you need to define the outcome of that revolution and how you are going to make that outcome work better than the current regime, otherwise you’re just looking at a great big clusterfuck in which the disenchanted plonk their arses neatly onto the warm seats of the recently beheaded (tell me that hasn’t happened in almost every angry revolution that’s ever been). So good luck with that – wrangling that problem has been grist for the social philosopher’s mill for the last four millennia at least. Brand has written elsewhere of what he thinks such a system should embody, but not how it could ever be achieved. Once again, his ideas are admirable (peace, love and everbody respect your neighbour), but it seriously does not take any skill to come up with admirable hopes.(iii)
2. Democracy is the best solution we humans have been able to come up with so far(iv) in several millennia and when it works, it creates the best possible outcome for the largest number of people. The problem with democracy is that it’s at its most effective if everyone involved is actually involved. And educated. As I’ve said many times before, a dumb democracy is only as effective as the smartest people on the highest part of the bell curve. If you have a badly educated democracy, then wily, smart, wealthy people will quickly find ways to control it, and that, my friends, is pretty much where we stand.
Russell Brand says that by voting, you are complicit in the system, and in the status quo. Well, of course you are. That’s what democracy is. By not voting, though you are simply copping out of the problem, unless you have some better idea – and let’s be clear here: a revolution is seriously not a better idea. What seems to me to be shockingly obvious here is that there IS a way to fix things, but few people want to acknowledge it: you vote out the status quo. If you’re unhappy, vote the fuckers out. You can do it – vote for anyone except the major entrenched parties. In pretty much all major democratic elections of the last half century, there has always been an option that presented a better and more people-centric outcome than the party that got elected – but not enough people voted for that party. Why? Because people are, by and large, fearful, narrow-minded, self-centred and venal. Brand seems to think there is something stopping such a democratic action from happening – he stops short of invoking a conspiracy, just – but really, it’s not like the elections in the UK, or the US or Australia are rigged or something (well, not to that degree, anyway). People vote these fuckers into power. YOU voted them into power unless your vote went to an independent or a competing small party. This need not happen.
To put it simply, things would change if the priorities of the democracy were values, human decency, fairness for all and generosity, indeed, all the things that Russell Brand espouses. But they plainly aren’t for the great majority of people, and we can’t simply blame ‘the Capitalist System’ for that, as Brand quite simplistically does.(v).
I believe that we could change things by using our vote if we had the will, and that changing them in such a way would be constructive and useful and far less damaging than some kind of ‘revolution’ with an unspecified aim except for general ‘niceness’. It seems to me, though, that not enough of us do actually have the will.
No-one has encapsulated this problem in fewer words than the great John Lennon:
War is over, if you want it.
We can have a good society. If we want it.
- Being an entertainer apparently doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on the problem and spout it for all and sundry – just that you can’t have any constructive ideas for progressing. [↩]
- Brand makes reasonable sense much of the time in his writing. He just turns into a clown in front of cameras, in my opinion. [↩]
- I do take great humbrage to him bundling ‘atheism’ in with ‘materiality’ as part of what’s wrong – why do religiously-inclined people always do this? I’m an atheist. I can understand how to be kind to, and tolerant of, my fellow human travellers. The two things are not mutually exclusive. The fact that Brand disses atheism in this way really grates on me. Talking about being all ‘spiritual’ about the solution is a flashback to the Age of Aquarius (which Brand says it’s not, but seriously…) – and that worked out great, didn’t it? [↩]
- Aside from benign dictatorship which is way preferable if you have an excellent leader, but any halfwit can see the problems inherent in that idea. [↩]
- Let me be quite clear: I’m no great fan of Capitalism. I think capitalistic endeavour has fucked much up, no question about it. But unlike Brand, I don’t plonk that blame into the laps of a wealthy few: I think it’s an endemic trait of humans to exploit one another. Dealing in the debunking of pseudoscience has taught me that this tendency is quite nicely vertically integrated, thank you very much [↩]