A recent viral video of British comedian Russell Brand taking on a smug and dismissive BBC Newsnight interviewer by the name of Jeremy Paxman, and ending with Brand making a fervent case for social revolution, has had a surprisingly substantial impact, grabbing the attention of Facebookers, Tweeters, independent journalists and mainstream media alike.
Although certain establishment gatekeepers eagerly took it upon themselves to denounce Brand’s remarks as “trivial” and “half-baked,” many others warmly received his call for revolution and remarkably, his radical analysis of the status quo broke through what is normally a fairly strict firewall erected by the mainstream media to shield the general public from “dangerous” and “subversive” ideas.
The UK’s Daily Mail for example correctly reported that Brand’s vision is for “a socialist egalitarian system based on the massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibilities for energy companies exploiting the environment,” which the Daily Mail not unsympathetically described as “a Robin Hood ideology” born out of a frustration with “a system he just doesn’t think is working.”
Also remarkable was the impact that his call for revolution had within what is generally an apolitical and frivolous social media sphere more receptive to funny cat memes and baby pictures than political diatribes. The website Trendolizer, which tracks the videos and links that are popular on Facebook at a given moment, reported that no fewer than ten stories were trending related to Brand’s revolutionary call for economic egalitarianism and environmental justice.
What is perhaps most remarkable though is the way that Brand was immediately attacked by factions of the left, which decided that rather than piggyback off of the sudden popular interest in revolutionary ideas that Brand’s comments provided, they would rather denounce him as an inauthentic revolutionary who fails to pay due attention to favored leftist causes such as fighting patriarchy, LGBTQ liberation and immigrant rights.
That’s right – the left is briefly given a window of opportunity in which much of the country is openly discussing revolutionary ideas, and instead of welcoming and leveraging that opportunity, the leftist instinct is to attack the messenger and effectively shut the window by bringing up divisive issues related to identity politics and the culture wars.
At Salon, for example, Natasha Lennard penned a piece called “I don’t stand with Russell Brand, and neither should you,” in which she urged against “jumping on the (likely purple velvet) coattails of a mega-celeb with fountains of charisma and something all too messianic in his swagger.”
Lennard irrationally complains that because Brand’s ideas have had such a profound impact on the popular discourse, we should reflexively be wary of the deliverer of those ideas, who may or may not be some kind of false idol. “If we’re so damn excited to hear these ideas in (in their slightly haphazard form) from a boisterous celebrity,” she says, “then clearly we have some idolatry and ‘Great Man’ hangups to address.”
It seems completely lost on Lennard that if anyone is revealing unaddressed and deep-seated hangups (over Brand’s fashion sense, for example, his “swagger,” or the possibility that he might be – gasp – a great man), it is clearly her.
But the left wasn’t done yet in marginalizing itself and ensuring that the window of opportunity that Brand briefly opened is firmly and safely sealed shut.
In an op-ed published by Truthout, Youngist and Rabble.ca, Suey Park and Isabelle Nastasia praised Lennard’s piece and questioned “Brand’s personal commitment to justice for oppressed peoples” by pointing to a Native American outfit he once wore to a costume party and a 2012 allegation of sexual harassment emanating from the Sun, a British tabloid. Without so much as providing context, Park and Nastasia highlighted these alleged transgressions as ironclad evidence of Brand’s shameful “appropriation of Native culture” and “his sexual exploitation of women.”
Park and Nastasia, who describe themselves as “young organizers and radical thinkers,” wonder why the British comic is “getting so much attention, while we – the ‘disenfranchised underclass’ – been saying this shit for years?”
Rather than looking to Brand for leadership, Park and Nastasia suggest that instead, we need to look at real revolutionaries, specifically “people of color-led movements for transgender and queer justice,” “movements fighting the school-to-prison pipeline, and other prison abolition movements,” and “undocumented youth and students who are fighting for an end to deportations.”
While those groups are undoubtedly doing some important work, it’s pretty astounding that a couple of young American lefties would so quickly denounce and distance themselves from an individual who while undoubtedly imperfect has done more to get a popular discussion going about radical change than anyone in recent memory.
Here, Russell Brand provides the opportunity to advance a discussion about the need for revolutionary change, and all that certain elements of the left can think to do is to attack the messenger.
It should be noted, of course, that this all comes at an interesting and opportune time in which the general public is probably more open to real alternatives than most on the left or the right would be willing to acknowledge.
The recent government shutdown and the narrowly averted debt ceiling crisis (which followed countless other controversies of the past several years, including the 2008 bank bailouts), have stirred up a widely shared contempt among the American people for their elected representatives, a disgust that is possibly unparalleled in modern history.
Already well below average historically, the public’s general approval of its elected representatives plummeted to mind-blowingly low levels during the shutdown and its immediate aftermath. One poll found that among the things that are more popular than Congress include hemorrhoids, toenail fungus, dog poop, and cockroaches. The popularity of communism is more than double the approval rating of Congress, with 11 percent of Americans approving of the U.S. becoming a communist state and only 5 percent approving of the job that Congress is doing.
What’s beyond doubt is that the American people are deeply dissatisfied with their government and that this dissatisfaction cuts across party and ideological lines. While the Republicans rightly bear the brunt of the blame for the recent crises in Washington, Democrats are also widely disliked.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in mid-October found that 74 percent disapproved of the way Republicans were handling the budget negotiations while 61 percent disapproved of congressional Democrats. An earlier AP poll found that Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Republican John Boehner, the House speaker, shared a favorability rating of just 18 percent.
Most Americans disapprove of President Obama, with 53 percent unhappy with his job performance and 37 percent approving of it. The one thing that virtually everyone agrees on is their contempt for Congress, with 95 percent of the American people disapproving of that institution.
With these kinds of numbers, it seems that the time is ripe for a real political alternative to emerge in the United States. While that likely would not be Russell Brand – a Brit with a controversial past of drug and alcohol abuse – the aggressive (and somewhat jealous and petty) response to his sudden uptick in popularity makes one wonder whether the American left is even interested in taking power to effect change.
Perhaps the left is uninterested in revolution (or even developing a viable third party electoral challenge to the status quo) because that would mean that they would actually have to take responsibility for something and come up with solutions to our many problems.
The left may be more comfortable remaining a protest movement lobbing complaints from the sidelines than in seizing the reins of power in order to establish a just, democratic and sustainable world.
In other words, it seems the left may have decided (whether consciously or unconsciously) to consign itself to a permanent state of powerlessness, if not irrelevance.