Hate Russell Brand? – You’re helping the Elites

Russell Brand. It’s just a universal fact he never says anything of value, so they say. But rather than critique the man, I’m examining his critics. They are educated, ruthlessly scathing and yet the criticisms they make are ill-informed, woolly, and often inaccurate. People’s revulsion has made the criticism of Russell Brand damaging to society, and that threatens to undo the good he has done.

The Criticisms

We’re going to dismantle the arguments I’ve heard for dismissing Russell Brand. Now let’s ask what they are. 3 main genres are apparent:

  • He’s not got a solution genre

(Subtitle: Nothing good ever came from hippies asking questions)

  • The certified hypocrite genre

(Subtitle: champagne socialism is worse than literally apartheid)

  • The confused pseudo-intellectual genre

(Subtitle:Only an idiot would tell people there’s no point in voting)

Genre One – He’s not got a solution

Have you ever stood on a street corner and called for a revolution? Me neither, and for good reason. You would be right up there with the doomsayers and that Kony guy who went mad and decided to have a wank in public. Brand’s critics look at him and suppose that he is another hippie on the fringe, with nothing meaningful to say.

“Brand seems to think of himself…as some kind of all-shagging, hippy neo-Futurist,” the Spectator cheerfully announces in the hope of characterising him as an ignorant loon[1]. He cannot give a straight answer to the question, “What is the alternative[2]?” The picture of Brand they want to paint is one of ignorant, annoying leftie.

Nail Collectors – Only people with severe social anxiety will be allowed to vote if the Spectator gets its way.

But criticism like this rests on shaky ground. They’re suggesting you should not point out where our society needs to improve unless you have 500-page thesis for change conveniently located in your back pocket. If that was the case, then maybe we should take away the democratic right every washed-up alcoholic, unemployed bum and eccied-up student in the country to wield political power. But that would go against the fabric of our society.

During elections and referenda we trust them enough to make a gut decision about what they want. If you accept democracy through an electoral process, you must also accept this: if Brand represents a significant body of opinion he deserves to be listened to, even if his flamboyant oratory style make the intellectual snobs want to perform self-lobotomies.

More generally, it is not harmful to point out things about society that suck. It gives us the chance to improve, and is a sign of a healthy democracy. Crucially, Brand is relevant because people feel politics is broken. Even Jeremy Paxman agrees.[3]

Brand plays the legitimate role of amplifying this idea and making politicians respond to it. Brand’s prominence, therefore, should be enough to get proper thinkers to notice something is wrong, regardless of your evaluation of Brand as an insightful political writer. An even healthier reaction would be to suggest solutions for political reform.

Genre Two – How can you support the poor when you’re rich?

Is there any reason a multi-millionaire might want greater wealth redistribution? If you answered No, then I am afraid this section is directed at you. You might be like the reporter who thought it was relevant how much Russell Brand’s flat cost when he was petitioning for the New Era Estate, whose tenants were facing eviction.[4]

You might be like Paxman, who thought it was “rich” coming from a man like Brand. Apparently, you have to be poor to want rich people to be taxed. Most of these arguments have already been dealt with in a very witty article written by Mark Steel, but I want to focus on the idea of ‘champagne socialism.’

Brand answered this criticism by way of a picture on his Facebook page [see below], and I find it hard to argue with the logic. Ad hominem attacks are slated for a reason – they have no place in serious interviews. Journalists know a cause is not less legitimate because a rich man supports it, and that support for a cause is not made any less genuine by how rich you are.

If I suddenly become a millionaire, I am not going to immediately set my religion on Facebook to free-market capitalist and get down to RBS to give everyone a high-five.  My opinions are unlikely to be changed by wealth (although I might have been indirectly influenced if I was raised on champagne instead of breast milk.) In fact, I would probably do what Brand himself has done, and use my celebrity profile to lend legitimacy to good causes.[5]

And on this point, I would much rather that rich people were more like Brand and spent their time campaigning for people threatened by homelessness. Our society is not made better by wealthy people thinking “Wow, I would love to help those poor people but that would make me a bit of a hypocrite so I best do nothing.” When rich famous people stand up, people listen, and those charities might even become more successful. Do we think for a moment that the New Era Campaign would have received half the media attention it did if Brand had not become poster boy for it?

Genre Three – Who the fuck tells people not to bother voting?

Brand most frequent rebuke is over his rejection of the vote. To many, it is the death knell for his credibility. In the infamous Newsnight Interview, Paxman asks Brand, “If you can’t be arsed to vote, why should we be arsed to listen to your political point of view?” [6] The suggestion is that you cannot have valid opinions unless you vote. But this is a nonsense, and to use this argument is intellectual snobbery.

Points of political value often come from people outside the mainstream. I am not interested in hearing David Cameron defend his government and it was boring to hear Alasdair Darling defend the Union. My most exciting political experiences have been from listening to Marine Le Pen at the Cambridge Union and from wondering whether I really believe Alex Salmond’s arguments for independence. Nothing is more mainstream than voting.

People say that Russell Brand told people not to vote.  But this is just factually incorrect; he made no such blanket statement. Russell’s contention was that the vote is powerless, and therefore why he sees no point in using it. It’s simply untrue that his lack of voting stems from apathy or ignorance, as his critics wish to suggest. It stems from informed disillusionment. That makes him an ideal figure to talk about the inadequacies of the political system.

Complaining – the most radical act?

But let’s be fair to Paxman. He might have been wondering whether Russell Brand had thought through his decision properly. But the case for voting is the weakest it has ever been. The major parties are seen to be elitist and out-of-touch, “with more in common with each other than the general public.[7]” The most popular reason for Scots voting for independence was disillusionment with Westminster politics.  There is no major ideological difference between the two main parties. Unless you live in a marginal seat and/or are a swing voter, your vote is unlikely to matter.

I do not think this means you should not vote. It means you have to go beyond the ballot box to truly engage. Russell’s interventions through question time, campaigning and interviews have had a far greater impact than his vote would have. But there is clearly a debate to be had between Paxman’s idea that the best way to change things is through the vote, and Russell’s that we become complicit in an unfair system when we vote.

The Danger

My concern is that calling Russell Brand a moron is going to make criticising inequality look moronic. Some might blame Brand for doing exactly that; some already have. But I think that the sloppy criticism of Brand risks taking social commentary off the agenda. People who say things like “Brand hasn’t got an alternative” don’t say it because they’re genuinely interested in alternatives. They would not be interested even if he did. They say it to shut him up, and shut down the dangerous conversation that changing the status quo might be a good thing.

I could have talked about Brand impenetrable writing style. His pretentious use of long words. His straightened chest hair. But who stands to benefit from focusing on those issues, instead of what Brand is actually saying? It is those who are supported by a lack of social mobility. It is the rich who have no desire for financial restraint. It is the politicians who benefit from not enough people minding about their extravagant expenses and backroom lobbying meetings. It is the establishment whom benefit from no serious reforms or alternatives being suggested.

The Take-Home Message

Russell Brand, unintelligible despot though he may be, has engaged a different demographic in politics. They are the disenfranchised youth who have no other party to represent them. The ones whose votes statistically do not matter. They also have the most to gain from engaging in politics. So although I do not agree with Brand on many issues, criticising him on a personal level is not going to help those people. Yes, I think he lacks the intellectual capacity to suggest solutions. But I think it is time the problems he has raised should be taken seriously by more knowledgeable men.

[1] http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/10/russell-brand-an-adolescent-extremist-whose-hatred-of-politics-is-matched-by-his-ignorance/

[2] http://liberalconspiracy.org/2014/10/24/the-problem-i-have-with-russell-brand/

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/05/paxman-politics-russell-brand-voting

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmlZWYvXMUo

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/russell-brand-suggests-new-era-estates-victory-is-the-start-of-revolution-theres-a-little-of-this-spirit-in-all-of-us-and-its-beginning-to-awaken-9941766.html

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHvE8-_6BMA

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