If people felt they could be as opinionated as Russell Brand and Robert Webb then we could have a political system that was more likely to benefit us.
So, can you imagine what it would be like, if, as a society, we were all as politically engaged and openly opinionated as Russell Brand and Robert Webb have been recently?
I, for one, cannot, and that’s a problem. Our society has become so emasculated, so sheep like, that I can’t envision what it would be like. Twitter on crack cocaine during a 9/11-esque event? Would the en-masse reaction (on twitter, of course) to Justin Bieber committing suicide, using Vine, be an accurate model? Probably not.
There’s a maxim, though these days I consider it a truism, that ‘the medium is the message’. It’s been fascinating to see the various reactions to what Russell Brand said recently in his interview with Jeremy Paxman. Simply put, his ideas and suggestions aren’t new, as Brand would surely tell you himself.
First off, credit to Brand in that interview. It’s good to see someone who can articulate themselves and speak concisely and passionately on any issue, but especially those that matter the most. There are too few who are prepared to do this.
It has crossed my mind that inducing any reaction, be it positive or negative, was Brand’s primary aim, as something is better than nothing. While Brand spoke with focus of an underclass being underserved and isolated by the current political system, in doing so he also made me think of one of the reasons why such an underclass exists. Many of those on the educated spectrum of our society, who make up most of the voting population, have capitulated to their comfort zone, and in turn fomented the insidiously self-effacing attitude that pervades our culture. Often this discourages those within it from attempting to publicise or elevate their opinion, and that any attempt to do so is often viewed as a conceit.
So to break through this hegemony of intellectualised propriety, to get people’s attention, to get them to think, such views must come from a ‘provocative’ source.
Enter Russell Brand, who probably felt vindicated that such an approach is needed when Jeremy Paxman said that Brand was a ‘trivial man’ after Brand made a quip about Paxman’s beard, which the Daily Mail apparently hates, among many things. I felt Paxman’s reaction towards Brand, at that moment, mirrored perfectly the state we’re in as a collective. We’re a society mired in a form of discomfited scepticism that’s inculcated by apathy, and everything is viewed through this prism. This includes politics and that the views of quite a number of people on political issues, particularly if they are attempting to subvert a convention of any kind, are, in a lot of cases, immediately discarded as unworthy. Paxman represented this attitude in the interview, responding to Brand’s admission that he’d never voted – ‘if you can’t be arsed to vote why should we listen to your political point of view?’ As Brand pointed out Paxman has been exposed to the existing political system and cultural expectation of systematic conformity for so long that it’s possible that he’s become too jaded and cynical, so perhaps he isn’t the best example to augment my point.
Which brings us to Robert Webb, and his letter in response to Brand’s call for a revolution and for people not to bother voting. I applaud it in the sense that a publicised dialogue and a counterpointing view is preferable to silence. Webb made several good points, one of which I agreed with strongly – that people should vote, regardless of whether they believe the system is flawed or broken.
Brand claims the system is broken, and unsalvageable, but I think that’s a cop out. It’s our fault, we’ve allowed it to break our resolve, and as such we’ve allowed its precipitous decline. Now we’re searching for meagre compromises as a way of eliding our altruistic responsibilities because any proposed change presents an unknown and unproven outcome, and is therefore seen as unnecessarily risky. We don’t want to lose what we have, and most of us have quite a lot. This debacle reminds me of a lyric from First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen – ‘They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within.’
Webb believes there are alternatives within the current political landscape. But in Webb’s argument is an admission that Capitalism doesn’t represent the people as it could, or it should. So the question then becomes can Capitalism be saved from Capitalists? Webb seems to think so:
This is exactly what the present coalition is in the business of tearing to pieces. They are not interested in helping unlucky people – they want to scapegoat and punish them. You specifically object to George Osborne’s challenge to the EU’s proposed cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour simply wouldn’t be doing that right now. They are not all the same. ‘They’re all the same’ is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail. No, if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.
What Webb says here is correct from a procedural point of view. And yes, he’s right, sadly, the stupid and the impressionable have a vote too. But it’s the LibCon coalition’s policies, and those of the previous and very disappointing Labour government, that are driving many voters, too many voters, to the right, not the reactionary ideas of Brand and others. Just because Labour aren’t the ghastly LibCon coalition, that doesn’t make them, or an altered version of them, the solution. Settling for something you’re not entirely convinced by shouldn’t be considered good enough to earn your vote. Part of a having democracy and freedom of speech is attempting to find the best political structure to serve the people, not only the best party.
On that point I take umbrage with Webb’s insinuation that Brand was somehow getting above his station, just for voicing an opinion that diverged significantly from his – ‘I don’t think it’s your job to tell young people that they should engage with the political process.’ Why isn’t it Brand’s place? Or anybody’s for that matter? Especially as it’s hypocritical on Webb’s part as he, in a roundabout way, uses his open letter to encourage people to vote Labour. Webb’s statement admits that not enough young people are engaged in the political process. It appears to me that by engaging people with controversy Brand is hoping to make them think about politics, about issues that affect them and what voting or not voting would mean in the current context. The ideas, his ideas, at this stage are secondary; the horse has to be lead to the source of water first. The most immediate concern should be getting people involved in politics, and restoring the belief that their voice matters, whether it be voting, voicing their opinion, and spreading it as far as they can, or campaigning.
Disagreements with the specific impracticalities of Brand’s suggestion(s) are inevitable, but the tone of Webb’s piece is indicative of the snobbishness towards new ideas that I suspect Brand wanted to expose. Without cutting through intellectualised apathy change will be impossible.
Given Brand’s primary occupation he does unfairly face the challenge of appearing to be a credible voice on serious topics. Perception is everything, and most people’s perception of Brand has been coloured, to some degree, by his character and his incarnation within popular culture. That Brand’s demeanour and propensity for light hearted self-deprecating humour doesn’t change, when tackling any issue, can make it harder, for some, to decipher when and whether he is being authentic.
Whether Webb intended it or not, and I don’t think he did, his article does tap into a certain cultural groupthink. Some folk out there completely miss any form of nuance, and struggle to differentiate the veracity of an opinion from their pre-existing bias towards its source. Even worse, there are those who are disingenuously focusing on Brand’s irreverent quips as evidence of him being a bit of a misogynist. This primary function of this isn’t to advance women’s rights, it’s simply a way of diminishing Brand’s political opinion. Even if Brand is a bit of misogynist (I don’t know if he is or not), does it make what he’s saying any less valid? Perhaps it’s just a lot simpler than that, that it’s an irrelevant diversion, and that Brand’s success, especially if you don’t rate or like him as a comedian, and his ability to articulate himself, just makes people feel inferior and or inadequate. Sadly, there are plenty of people on Twitter who detest him and who question whether he has the right to speak with any authority on any serious subject. Again, they have votes. This insidiously dismissive attitude is what we’re up against and it’s one of the causes of the current malaise.
Webb isn’t ignorant and has no reason to be jealous of Brand, so he has no excuse when he delivered what I consider to be a highly reductive, ignorant jibe, one which was intended to shame Brand into a reflective silence – ‘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’. Thankfully Brand is a man comfortable with who he is and has complete conviction in his beliefs, but that’s just the point, most of us don’t. Most of us are too easily silenced at the first sign of self-doubt or a scathing rebuttal. Webb’s smart enough to understand that his ‘public letter’ to someone like Brand was unlikely to shake him, but what if his letter discouraged those from voicing their opinion, particularly if it is similar to Brand’s?
So it was a shame that Webb went there, as did Brand with his Oxbridge jibe. Just because Webb was fortunate to be born into an affluent environment and was well educated, that doesn’t mean he is incapable of empathising with people of other backgrounds or from other social spheres. Brand knows this full well, but he just couldn’t help himself giving tit-for-tat. This sort of stuff is pathetic, and certainly won’t improve the likelihood of either’s message being taken seriously. As a Private Eye reader I know there’s a time and place for political satire, but when it comes to political debates people aren’t interested in a pissing contest. They can watch PMQ’s for that.
Due to the climate of the public’s apathy for politics the difference between telling someone not to vote and someone telling them which way to vote isn’t as significant as it once was. Both Webb and Brand are trying to effect change. I happen to agree with both of them, and that neither position is wrong. Until we formulate a better political model, and have the complete conviction and willingness to do so, we have to make the best of the current system. You can’t tell me, at the very least, that votes are a valuable method to prevent destructive, progress inhibiting scum like UKIP and the BNP, and the increasingly desperate and vulgar Tories from gaining more political influence. At the same time I sympathise with Brand’s point of view. I doubt any vote I’ve ever cast has ever swung a seat in Westminster, but if I, if you, if we all took that attitude to the extreme, when added to a wider sociological disenfranchisement, it would continue to lead to low voter turnouts. Low turnouts have lead to the existence of this ‘coalition of losers’, as Paxman once put it, a government which in many aspects has transcended the divisive nastiness of Thatcher’s cabinet.
Brand believes there will be a revolution. I wonder if he really meant a revolution of self-confidence? We won’t have the former without the latter. I’m not advocating that we live the joyless existence of a hardcore revolutionary, but we do need to strike a better balance between altruism and hedonism. That existing imbalance makes me sceptical that we will see any significant movement for change develop in the near future. Brand provides a bit of insight in that interview which undercuts his optimism. He talked of valves of comfort, which is a good point, even people on benefits can have too many of these ‘valves’ to feel truly despondent and destitute, to the point where they just can’t take it anymore. I think it’s fair to characterise many poor, often uneducated folk with no prospects as downtrodden, and even beaten, rather than angrily energised. Even worse those who are educated show a shocking lack of ambition and imagination in tackling the problems that exist. We distract ourselves by moaning about petty nonsense, attack the opinions of others often through the use of insignificant differences of class, affluence, nationality, race or a display of self-aggrandisement, instead of focusing on the issues and policies.
Webb suggested that Brand read some George Orwell, well I’ve been reading ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ again and this ghastly excerpt of precognition has been haunting me for weeks:
All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterise our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived. Physical rebellion, or any preliminary move towards rebellion, is at present not possible. From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working, breeding and dying, not only without the impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is. They could only become dangerous if the advance of industrial technique made it necessary to educate them more highly; but, since military and commercial rivalry are no longer important, the level of popular education is actually declining. What opinions the masses hold, is looked on as a matter of indifference. They can be granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect.
To put it bluntly Webb’s staunch adherence to the current political structure mirrors this line – ‘without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is’. So I don’t think we’re ready for a revolution, or eliciting positive and lasting change, until we revolutionise our attitude towards new ideas and how we treat the vocalised political opinions of others. And this is where both Brand and Webb, in fact all of us, could use some introspection.
I often wonder, if there was a revolution now, would it be motivated by a sense of injustice and altruism for society’s downtrodden? Or would it be fuelled by a sense of entitlement, fed by the perception that a Western standard of living isn’t enough because Capitalism hasn’t been regulated properly? That won’t make revolting wrong, but it would be misplaced and disingenuous. It would be yet another agonising legacy of Thatcherism, which has permeated society more than those of us on the left would like to believe. I don’t think that there’s much empathy, or self-assurance left in our culture. If you’re doing okay then you’re liable not to be that bothered that the government’s policies are targeting the unemployed, the disabled, and the immigrants, especially if it doesn’t effect you directly. The motivation for reform is, at best, phlegmatic. And if there is a willingness to change, it’s to alter what already exists to suit ourselves. It’s not a good situation, and I don’t have a solution.
Neither does Brand, by his own admission. Nor does Webb, but through the enthusiasm and openness of their opinions, they exemplify a method, which if we all followed, could lead to a revolution in societal attitudes towards publicly debating political issues. And maybe, just maybe that could ultimately lead to a political reformation that’s genuine and beneficial.