Friday 19 December 2014
Russell Brand and the spoiled paella
Late last year I blogged about Russell Brand and his unlikely rise from comedian to campaigner, and noted how many leftish media types were tripping over themselves to dismiss him as a court jester out of his depth in the grown up world of real political debate. At the same time actual activists were generally pleased that someone with such a high profile, especially among young people, was using the platform provided by his celebrity status to steer people into a real engagement with political issues like poverty, inequality and the environment.
Much of the liberal press, and particularly the Independent (who seem to have their own private agenda) are obsessed with proving how politically bankrupt Brand is. Meanwhile Twitter occasionally flickers with a round of Brand-bashing from largely middle-class liberal types seemingly in despair that he hasn’t yet given up trampling on their territory and gone back to the day job.
You’d think after all this time people would have said all they had to say. But not a bit of it.
For me this hit its apex this week as a right-wing blogger wrote an open letter to Brand about how he spoiled his lunch one day. Of course there was more to it than that. In between repeated tedious references to his lunch (paella, since you ask) he made the legitimate complaint that Brand was engaging in stunts that do very little to change the status quo.
But what really set my head spinning in disbelief was the number from the liberal left that linked to the piece and commented favourably upon it. They did this with such glee that many of them only noticed a little while later that the writer was actually a little bit misogynistic in the piece. The Independent, it goes without saying, quoted the whole piece with relish, describing it in a series of tweets as “glorious”, “hilarious” and the “best thing you’ll read today”. Believe me it was none of the above.
My view is that his role is essentially positive. All political activists I know are glad Brand is channelling people into left-wing ideas in spite of his own confusions, his lack of a complete solution or a clearly defined political programme. I wouldn’t necessarily want him in any organisation I might be part of—he’s far too much of a loose canon—but his ability to gain a platform for people fighting injustice is a powerful part of the bigger fight.
But what it all seems to show above all else is how the left is so often it’s own worst enemy: as soon as an ally emerges, from whatever direction, they get put down for not having all the solutions or for being in some way impure.
Of course he isn’t pure—who is?
He retains a streak of sexism: it is betrayed from time to time throughout his book Revolution. But that is something he is aware of and, as he commented on a recent edition of Question Time, he is “working on it”. But to condemn his entire oeuvre for that reason alone is surely self-defeating. Otherwise you are left holding the view that changing one’s personality is impossible: once a sexist always a sexist. In which case why bother fighting against misogyny? You will, if that were the case, remain preaching to the converted and forever suffering the attacks of your enemies.
Anyone who reads Revolution will be introduced to the work of the likes of Thomas Piketty, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein amongst many others. If Brand’s antics act as a conduit to people discovering their writings then it’s achieved something positive. If his stunts in front of a camera crew result in millions getting the message and changing their own behaviour whilst a few people are temporarily inconvenienced over their lunch hour it will have been worth it.
Brand can be an important means by which people can come into contact with the ideas of the left in numbers and enthusiasm undreamed of by generations of old-timers like me. We don’t have to like him, or feel the need to defend everything he’s ever said or done—indeed we should be honest and positively critical where he oversteps the mark with a casual sexist remark—but we should be making the most of the truly transformative ideas he is raising and popularising.
And if that all happens at the expense of one man’s spoiled paella then that is easily a price worth paying.