In an epic 10 minute interview on BBC’s Newsnight – Russell Brand calmly and meticulously addresses everything from income inequality to corruption to corporate interests to revolution while explaining how his opinions render it impossible for him to cast a ballot in good conscious.
The clip begins with reporter Jeremy Paxman condescendingly questioning Brand’s ability to [guest] edit a political magazine (Russell Brand on revolution: “We no longer have the luxury of tradition”) given that Brand has never voted. Brand’s subsequent takedown sets the tone for an interview where one party continues to ask fluff questions to another party who’s providing his thoughtful, respectful and passionately articulated thoughts on the world.
Nothing that Brand says is that original. What’s noteworthy – and in fact buzz worthy- is that his words are being spoken by someone with his level of influence on the BBC.
The revolution that he ultimately predicts is not his anymore than it’s Madonna’s or anyone else’s for that matter. He’s just able to talk about it and have millions hear what he’s saying.
Say what you will about celebrities getting political but I think those who are inclined to agree with Brand– to agree with the notion that the status quo is unsustainable and that there must be alternative means of getting things done that don’t result in an underclass, would be wise not to dismiss the performer outright. That said, it’s just as wise not to elevate him into something he’s not.
Natasha Lennard makes a similar point over at Salon when she says:
But the point of rethinking new political and social spaces together — as was felt profoundly by many of us engaged in Occupy’s headiest, fiercest days — was that we don’t need to align with, elevate, celebrate (nor indeed wholly reject or detest) any one person. Yes, we will continue struggle against vanguardism and sexism and so many co-constitutive problems within ourselves and each other. We will fail and fail better and fail. We will struggle to know and reconstitute what “we” even really means. And I take Russell Brand at his word that he wants to fight too. This is no referendum on the comedian or his intentions. But this is no time to forgo feminism in the celebration of that which we truly don’t need — another god, or another master.
I completely agree with her.
That said: Don’t shoot the messenger.
It’s a trap and it happens all the time.
Every time an artist or someone of influence embarks on the lonely endeavor of speaking truth to power we eviscerate them. There must be something wrong with them! Even when there isn’t, our society creates a reason to take them less seriously. Russell Brand has a funny accent. He’s a comedian. He’s said some problematic things in the past. I’m not electing him President, or marrying him, or even befriending him. I’m just saying that for ten straight minutes he said shit about shit- on the BBC no less!- and it was real and our collective first instinct- and if it wasn’t the first it would have been the second- is to talk about Russell Brand as opposed to what he said.
We do this all the time.
Bob Marley was a stoner. Tupac was a thug. Lauryn Hill was a racist. George Carlin was Anti-American. The Beatles were Anti-Religion. Bob Dylan sold his soul to the devil.
The list goes on and on and I could find more dismissive throwaways about contemporary artists/ celebrities who try to use some of their influence to say and do real shit, but there’s more important shit to do.
We focus on the “celebrity” – we focus on the controversies and the personal lives. The media perpetuates it, and you know what? – if we’re focusing on the superficial bullshit that the media perpetuates then we’re not listening to any of what’s actually being said.
Lauryn Hill once posited “music is supposed to inspire… how come we aint getting no higher.”
I think it’s because we’re so anchored to the illusion that in order to speak your mind you must be pure, you must embrace a pre-assigned label and be an activist or a revolutionary or something besides being an artist and a human being to justify your ability to say things that are real. Bob Dylan ran from the notion of being an activist or the voice of a generation because he’d already decided he was a songwriter. That’s what he was doing. The rush to turn him into something else, to make him explain himself, took the emphasis off the things he’d made which speak for themselves. What you gather from them is up to you- but I don’t think he owed anybody anything besides making those things.
Art is a means of speaking your mind– and yet now we’re so focused on the implications of what’s spoken and whether or not the person speaking is with us or against us or a sell out or all these other things that aren’t real that we keep running in circles. Music is supposed to inspire… but in mainstream culture it’s not about the music. It’s about the album artwork.
Beyond that it’s worth noting that every social hero that we idolize is a human being with their own set of vices and a million reasons to not elevate them as examples to be followed. In many painful cases, the messengers were actual shot.
If history teaches us anything- it’s that while you can kill a human, you can’t kill a vision.
That shared vision is very much at the heart of the defiance we feel when we hear someone say that things are wrong and we know that they’re right.
Things are wrong and they’ve been wrong and the way things work is fucked and in our hearts we know that not only can we make it better, but also it’s our responsibility to do so.
Historically, saying as much was enough to get you killed. Those messengers knew that their plight wasn’t about them and so they said things out loud anyways with the hope that some day their contributions would help lead us all to the promise land.
In today’s world we lament the lack of cultural icons and substantive artists in one breath and then in the next breath we chastise those who do try to do real shit for not being professional policy makers or theorists or philosophers or radicals or geniuses.
All the while we direct heat at them and if it’s not them it’s at each other. One group of people’s failings- historical or otherwise- results in reasons not to work with “those kind” of people. We’re defensive in all the ways that don’t matter and we’re the ones who suffer for it. Those who are profiting from the system’s failings don’t care if we scapegoat each other. It’s better for them if we do because then we’re not going after them. As Brand himself said during this interview;
The burden of proof is on the people with the power.
It’s not but it should be.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Russell Brand is not a political leader or a movement leader and he acknowledges as much. He’s an artist and comedy is his art form- words and wit are his weapons and they were on full display in this interview.
At one point during the exchange, he confronts Paxman saying “You’re having a go at me because I’m not poor anymore.” Paxman replies by insisting “I’m not having a go at you about that. I’m just asking why we should take you seriously when you’re so unspecific.” To which Brand replies:
You don’t have to take- firstly, I don’t mind if you take me seriously. 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 then I am and far better qualified more importantly then 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.
Doesn’t sound like he’s trying to lead the troops to me…
In truth, Russell Brand is as human as you and I. He’s operating from his experiences and leveraging his art, and his platform, to shed light on what he knows. If he says something problematic- there’s a chance he’s an asshole… but there’s also a chance that he just doesn’t know better; that he hasn’t come across better and that he doesn’t understand how something he says can be interpreted as hurtful and problematic. If that’s the case, then it’s worth giving him the benefit of the doubt. That goes for everybody. We all tiptoe around conversations of privilege and race and class and gender – we shouldn’t be terrified of saying the wrong things because our perspectives are shaped by a world that is wrong. I don’t think we’re at fault for our influences– nobody’s born bad but if you’ve grown up around bad then your perspectives will be shaped accordingly. There should be room for growth and redemption. In the meantime– the absolute focus on the messenger has to stop.
Russell Brand doesn’t matter. I don’t want to talk about the messenger. I want to talk about the message.
Below are some excerpts from the interview that stuck out to me. It’s worth listening to and thinking about and debating. What he says is right– things aren’t working, the planet is fucked and there’s an underclass that’s not being served by the systems that are currently in place. What we do about that is not Russell Brand’s decision. I was annoyed by how much the interviewer focused on having him offer up some 30 second plan to change the world.
That’s not how it works.
Changing the world– really truly radically making things better for a lot of people, will take a lot of people and a lot of time.
Most people don’t think there’s a better way. There’s so much hopelessness and despondence– articulating an alternative, even if it’s just in theory, is helpful.
The more messengers the better.
Don’t shoot, Russell Brand. If you disagree with him or have your own ideas- leverage your influence and platform regardless of the scale to say what you think. But Russell Brand being Russell Brand doesn’t make him wrong and just maybe he’ll leverage some of his influence to elevate those who have the answers- or at the very least ideas – into a position where they too can be heard by millions of people.
First you gotta give him a chance to get there.
While describing why he doesn’t vote:
It’s not that I’m voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion of the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generation’s now and which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system.
Exchange between Paxman and Brand:
“You don’t believe in democracy- you want a revolution, don’t you!”
“The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we are exploiting poor people all over the world and the genuine and legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class.”
“All of those things may be true…”
“They are true!”
Brand describing an alternative to the current system;
A socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment. I [think the] very concept of profit should be hugely reduced. David Cameron says that profit isn’t a dirty word, I say profit is a filthy word because wherever there is profit there is also deficit and this system currently doesn’t address these ideas and so why would anyone vote for it- why would anyone be interested in it.
When asked who would levy these taxes the following exchange takes place:
“Jeremy don’t ask me to sit here in an interview with you, in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system. I’m merely pointing out that- ”
“You’re calling for revolution.”
“Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m calling for change. I’m calling for genuine alternatives.”
Brand describes what those alternatives consist of and the following exchange takes place:
“Only systems that serve the planet and serve the population of the planet can be allowed to survive. Not ones that serve elites be they political or corporate elites and this is what’s currently happening.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
“I completely believe that.”
Brand questions the status quo and the following, and final, exchange takes place:
“Why pretend. Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion.”
“Because by the time somebody comes along you might think it worth voting for it may be too late.
“I don’t think so because the time is now. This movement is already occurring. It’s happening everywhere. We’re at a time when communication is instantaneous and there are communities all over the world. The Occupy Movement made a difference even if only in that it introduced to the popular public lexicon- the idea of the 1% VS the 99%. People for the first time in a generation are aware of massive corporate and economic exploitation. These things are not nonsense and these subjects are not being addressed. No one’s doing anything about tax havens- no one’s doing anything about their political affiliations and financial affiliations of the conservative party. So until people start addressing things that are actually real… why wouldn’t I be facetious, why would I take it seriously, why would I encourage a constituency of young people that are absolutely indifferent to vote? Why would we?! Aren’t you bored!? Aren’t you more bored than anyone?! You’ve been talking year after year listening to their lies and their nonsense- then it’s this one gets in, then it’s that one gets in but the problem continues. Why are we going to continue to contribute to this facade?”
“I’m surprised you can be facetious when you’re that angry about it.”
“Yeah, I am angry. I am angry. Because for me it’s real. For me it’s not some peripheral thing that I turn up once at a [church] for. For me this is what I come from. This is what I care about. ”
“Do you see any hope?”
“Yeah. Totally! There’s going to be a revolution, it’s totally going to happen. I ain’t got a flicker of doubt. This is the end. This is time to wake up. I remember I [saw] you in that program where you look at your ancestors and you saw that where your [Grandmother got] fucked over by the aristocrats you cried because you knew that it was unfair and unjust and what was that a century ago. That’s happening to people now. I just come from a woman who was treated like that- I just been talking to a woman today who’s being treated like that. So if we can engage that feeling instead of some moment of acrimonious sentimentality trotted out on the TV for people to pour over emotional porn- if we can engage that feeling and change things, why wouldn’t we? Why is that naive? Why is that not my right because I’m an actor. I mean- I’ve taken the right. I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’ve taken it.”