Russell Brand, charismatic comedian and regular controversialist, isn’t new to causing a stir or to dividing opinion, as his recent appearance on BBC2’s Newsnight has managed to do.
However, he isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before nor is he saying anything that a very large number of people don’t also think or feel. The difference is that most people with those views will rarely if ever be afforded a mainstream platform like the BBC or Newsnight from which to air their views, and so it can be argued that it falls to ‘celebrities’ or artists like Russell Brand to use their positions to represent those views on behalf of those who aren’t afforded that kind of voice.
And this is something that has been missing in our culture for seemingly a long time. It can’t have escaped people’s attention that the era of social or political activism or protest from credible artists, actors, musicians, etc, seems to be a thing largely from the past, with almost all popular figures now content merely to protect their careers and refrain from saying anything meaningful. Whereas the Bob Dylans, John Lydons, Joe Strummers of the world, or groups like Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine, once fulfilled that sort of loose role, we live in an increasingly vacuous culture in which so-called celebrities, and even proper artists, hesitate to speak on pertinent matters; either through fear of being ridiculed, fear of causing ‘controversy’ and losing their support or their platform, or through genuine lack of either knowledge or interest. That’s why when someone like Brand does use his platform to actually say something, we should applaud him for it, whether we agree with every specific point he’s making or not.
This culture seems presently devoid of such figures in popular culture; even comedians, whose job it typically is to rally against the establishment, tend only to do so for the purposes of comedy and never to cross the line into anything that could be considered more serious (Bill Hicks and George Carlin being rare exceptions of fairly high-profile comedians who were willing to address serious political or social issues beyond the mere purposes of comedy).
But the remarkable thing about the Newsnight interview is that Russell isn’t speaking against merely the presiding political party or about any specific party, but about the entire system and his utter indifference towards it; which, to some, is taken as a revolutionary position – but really it isn’t.
I mean, if anyone genuinely didn’t understand beforehand that a vast amount of the population is entirely indifferent to our politicians and our political system, then god-only-knows where their attention has been for the passed several years. Seriously, if politicians, MPs or political commentators were unaware of the incredible level of disaffection and indifference in this society, then they really are, as Brand attests, utterly detached and themselves indifferent to the society they supposedly are in office to serve.
Granted, a lot of what Brand says sometimes comes across like a Byron-esque character playing a part; but that’s just Russell Brand’s persona. What I don’t get is why some people are heavily critical of his sentiment or of the position he’s representing, given that it’s entirely valid and could even be said to have its finger on the pulse of a large section of the population. You get the sense that these detractors are more focused on his reputation or on his persona and style and not on what’s he’s saying (which I could sort of understand, given that Russell Brand’s heavy persona can be very distracting, possibly making it a little counterproductive to him trying to make a serious point); but even a cursory glance at what he’s talking about when he mentions “hierarchical systems” of power defending bankers and corporations and being apathetic to the people and to the “underclass”, and corporate exploitation and “economic disparity”, surely even people disapproving of the ‘Russell Brand’ celebrity can unfold their arms for a second and actually listen to the point.
The fact that it’s a controversial, “edgy” comedian making the point makes it much easier for those who he’s attacking to dismiss or ridicule it away – yet a more ‘respectable’ commentator wearing a suit-and-tie would rarely be on a news show like Newsnight making the same point, for fear or ridicule: which is exactly why we need people like Russell Brand making the point instead.
All of this is hardly rocket-science; but the point is that something like the BBC or Newsnight is never going to give a platform to, say, David Icke or to anyone else who may have been speaking about such things for years; Russell Brand gets that platform because he’s a popular figure who’s TV appearance will make for entertaining viewing. That’s fine; but then it’s also fine that Brand should use that platform to genuinely speak his mind. That’s the whole point of someone like Brand being given that platform – he isn’t a bullshitting politician with a party line to tow or a corporate marionette terrified of what speaking honestly might do to his bank account. Russell Brand isn’t saying anything revelatory as far as opinion goes; it’s revelatory, however, as far as a prime-time BBC news programme goes, and actually it’s about time someone was allowed to say what he did on a major news platform.
Mainstream news, we have to bear in mind, has hardly ever given much coverage to, for example, the Occupy movement, despite how widespread, how momentous, and how significant it is; it did at the beginning, but only for a limited time – and the coverage it did offer was almost invariably negative, its choice of commentators invariably slanted towards ridiculing a non-violent, cross-cultural, multi-national, grass-roots movement that should have been celebrated.
It’s still fascinating how little coverage Occupy (the movement responsible for bringing the concept of “the 1 percent” into popular awareness and media parlance, let’s remember) is getting (the passed two days and the ‘million mask march‘ notwithstanding).
He isn’t talking about apathy towards voting and our political parties, but utter indifference – as he states clearly. “Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?” he says when asked by Jeremy Paxman why he’s never voted. The point is that voting makes no real difference to the life-quality of the poor or to the ‘underclass’ that feels alienated and unrepresented by the system. The same points were made much more expansively by the legendary comedian George Carlin, who referred to the ‘right to vote’ in the US as “a meaningless choice”. Or to quote another comic phrase in America, “it doesn’t matter who you vote for – the government will always get in”.
While, without doubt, there are a great many people who simply don’t vote out of laziness or a lack of understanding, there is a growing section of society that simply cannot be bothered anymore with what Carlin called the “meaningless choice” or Brand calls this “ridiculous illusion” of smokescreen democracy, while most policy and change is dictated by influences that the people have absolutely no control over or often even any awareness of. Everyone knows about what corporations and bankers get away with, everyone knows that our elected politicians are their permanent bedfellows, and yet everyone also knows there’s nothing that can be done about it – that real change cannot come from voting in elections. I know people – friends of mine – who are very, very intelligent people, but who don’t vote; not because they’re lazy or somehow less clever than those who do vote, but because they don’t see any point.
Of course there won’t be any ‘revolution’, as Paxman suggested (just to be controversial, you’d suspect); we’re all too lazy for revolution. We’ve been neutered and tamed, most of us too comfortable in our respective prisons. Perhaps ‘utter indifference’ is the only form of self-expression left, ironically, since protesting doesn’t seem to accomplish very much either.
But another generation of growing indifference (or the belief that we’re all in effect powerless) will be dangerous for society as a whole; movements like Occupy and Anonymous might be essentially peaceful at this stage, but another ten or twenty years without change and it might become a different story…