Reading over the debate about Russell Brand’s political philosophy in the last couple of weeks has been entertaining, if also frustrating. It’s a paradigmatic exercise in why celebrity and politics don’t mix all that well, because primarily the debate has been framed thusly: is Russell Brand good, or bad? At least in the past, most have said bad, because they associate Russell Brand with sex jokes and Katy Perry. And that, my friends, is a boring discussion, and the wrong one to be having.
In case you have not been following, the crux of it is an argument about whether or not one should vote — or else embrace bloody, if also bloodily vague, revolution. Russell Brand thinks:
I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box. Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot. Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?
And because obviously one celebrity’s opinion can only be answered by that of another, this moved the Peep Show guy, Robert Webb, to floridly observe:
What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? That we don’t die aged 27 because we can’t eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small. Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start. And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.
Both Brand and Webb bang on at greater length than this, as Men Talking of Important Subjects will do. In fact, momentary digression: the whole thing has reminded me of the sort of guy you knew in college who thought a single political science class enabled him to avoid all cliché, self-aggrandizement, and rank stupidity in his thinking about Great Questions. You know, the kind who, when you talk to them at a party, inspire in you deep thoughts like, “Hey, where’s my beer?” And the discussion has now escalated to the place it would be if we were all there together at such a party, and two men like this found each other, and began fighting so loudly everyone was forced to ignore their lukewarm beers and look. Per Brand, today:
Maybe it’s okay for Robert Webb; no one is going to take his kids away, but I’ve heard some examples. I don’t claim to be a politician, like all things I’m sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn’t have an education like Robert Webb had. But there are people from Leicester in Guantanamo Bay, people from Leicester in Guantanamo Bay. If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They’re not coming for you if you’re from Oxbridge.
But if we cut through their mutual inability to shut up, the truth is that the empty, meaningless clichés pile up a little faster on the Webb side of the fence. This has been true throughout the argument over Brand. I’ve been marveling over all the hand-wringing over what he’s said for days now. Brand’s argument was pretty obvious stuff, and if it was expressed in terms that bring on eye rolls — utopia, really? — he’s not wrong that (a) politicians don’t care about the poor; (b) the poor not caring about politicians is simply a rational choice in that context; (c) there is a startling dearth of talent in the creaky workings of Western democracies these days; and (d) something’s gotta change. Worse, all the worries about what Brand’s doing to The Children with his non-voting ways and references to “brothers and sisters” are, if anything, as vague and nonsensical as Brand’s ramblings on revolution. So if we have to choose, I’m choosing Brand.
But of course, we actually don’t have to choose either one of these people, because the people should not be the issue. The idea that these are the only two options available is a function of the celebrity-industrial complex itself. In past eras, if you disagreed with, say, Bertrand Russell’s polemics, or Thomas Paine’s, you were not required to either endorse or repudiate their entire personal lives as well. Nor were you required to reply to their ideas simply because they had platforms big enough to express them. But in the modern world, we’re always stuck at the party with the loud celebrities — they’re everywhere you look.
To Brand’s credit, again, he seems to be aware of that. A good proportion of his rambling New Statesman essay is about the excesses of celebrity life, and how it might make him a hypocrite. And in the Paxman interview, he actually states his ambitions quite humbly:
I’m here just to draw attention to a few ideas. I just want to have a little bit of a laugh. I’m saying there are people with alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am and far better qualified, more importantly, than the people that are currently doing that job, because they’re not attempting to solve these problems. They’re not. They’re attempting to placate the population.
Brand, in other words, does not think he is either savior or antichrist. Perhaps we shouldn’t make him into either one ourselves.