Russell Brand, Revolution, and the Audacity of Apathy

 

FIRST OFF, LET’S dispense with decorum and declare the obvious: Russell Brand is brilliant, and quite possibly a genius. In addition to his comedic and acting abilities, he is a first-rate thinker and a (surprisingly) superlative writer. Wipe that smirk off your face and read his tribute to Amy Winehouse. Or, check out this paragraph from a remarkable piece on Margaret Thatcher, deconstructing both the hypocrisy and opportunistic destruction of the Thatcher/Reagan ethos and what it wrought:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die this week from a stroke; perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven defeated from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively antiestablishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support; I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee,” said when the National Union of Miners eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided, “[We] broke not just a strike, but a spell.” The spell he’s referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

Brand’s most recent foray into sociopolitical observation is, justifiably and encouragingly, going viral and prompting all sorts of (justifiable, encouraging) commentary. Check it out:

 

So while Russell Brand’s eloquent and witty rant does some heavy lifting in the service of exposing the Royal Scam of manufactured democracy (etc. etc.), and I endorse much of what he says, I do take serious exception with the statement he thinks he’s making by declining to vote. Apathy, or better yet, the type of cultivated disgust that leads to “both sides do it” equivocation is almost certainly what the people pulling the proverbial strings want our default settings to be.

I always get nervous, and ultimately frustrated when I hear intelligent people asking the rhetorical question: Why bother?

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother since politicians are all the same?

Why bother voting at all?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who is even moderately informed. Not to mention aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration combined with the ideology informing those policies bankrupted our nation and—this is the toughest one to grasp— made us less safe is not a matter of opinion. There is no room for any possible nuance. There is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than five years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980.

There was probably not a more irascible yet articulate comedian who spoke the Truth to Power in the last quarter-century than George Carlin. He made you laugh, but the topics were often ugly and dead-serious. He dissected the greed, opportunism and collective culpability of a super-sized America as well as anyone has but, like Twain, his indignation eventually (inevitably) took a turn for the bitter toward the end. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If any famous public figure—an artist, no less!— went as ungently into that not-so-good night, I can’t think of one; eternal kudos to Carlin for keeping it real until he flat-lined.

The one beef I had with Carlin was similar: he famously refused to vote as well. And while it’s difficult to quibble with any of the points he makes in the video below (wherein he proves that he still had both his fastball and spitball up until the last pitch he threw), it is in the 21st Century—and after what we’ve just witnessed with one party fighting for the right to default—disingenuous to deny that the other party even bothers to pay lip service to working Americans.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what one studies in college, or the type of person one already is (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if one is a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right, reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: agency vs. incapacity, history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

Put another way, even if one is open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science, you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little!), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious non-identification.” This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes facts, even if couched in fictional narratives, which are largely outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and Mexican immigrants—especially the illegal ones—who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those who work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces, or engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Authority. Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the Weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion-dollar bonuses (thanks taxpayers!) while unionized public school teachers and middle-to-lower class workers’ pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

One must concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one sloganeers for the soldiers, country, and Christ like Republicans. Of course, we won’t count the ultimate cost of “Mission Accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars our adventure in Iraq has put on the ledger. And isn’t it amusing how seldom the war that would pay for itself comes up during discussions of the big deficits racked up during the last decade? Remember this, when those hoping to drown government in a bathtub crawl out of their taxpayer-fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers.

The Democrats are not immune from the corrupting influence of their donors and corporate masters, but they can continue to ensure the people owed the most won’t get the least. It’s up to enlightened citizens to ensure the Dems don’t dance with the devil and sell out Social Security. It’s the obligation of those who know better to remind their disgruntled or oblivious buddies that Obamacare is almost entirely a plan designed by Republicans! Listen to right-wing radio or the rhetoric of men like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, who will happily sign off on savage cuts to food stamps, and persuade their supporters to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?

There will be haters, and it’s easy enough to feel their pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle. Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. More than ever, as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish, we don’t want any government interference. We don’t want to pay taxes and then wonder why the Free Market isn’t sorting out these pesky problems that won’t take care of themselves. Put still another way, if you don’t share the view that giving the wealthiest one percent even larger tax cuts is not an antidote for what ails us, you should vote and there is one party you should never vote for.

This is why we have to choose sides. This is why we can’t to let the super-affluent and well-insured with the least to lose lull us into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless class warfare they will instigate, their ultimate ambition is to render the literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Your vote matters, and is vital, so whether it’s the disarming charm of Russell Brand or the transparent mendacity of the puppet-masters, resist the temptation to walk away: the only hope to win what feels like a rigged game is to remain on the playing field.

 

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Sean Murphy

About Sean Murphy

SEAN MURPHY (@bullmurph) is the author of Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother. He is a columnist for PopMatters and writes frequently about the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, Punchnel’s, and Northern Virginia Magazine. He studied English at George Mason University and has an MA in Literature. One of his thesis papers dealt with the utopian impulse in ’70s rock which, depending upon one’s perspective, at least partially explains why he opted not to pursue that PhD in Cultural Studies.
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10 Responses to Russell Brand, Revolution, and the Audacity of Apathy

  1. Alexander Wolfe says:

    I don’t understand how anyone can read what Brand says, agree with it mostly or in its entirety, and still believe that we have some sort of obligation to vote. Our active participation in the two-party system in our country has only abetted the rightward swing of the Democratic party, the degradation of social services and the inability to check government power.

    Plus, Brand is hardly arguing for apathy. He’s arguing for revolution. Voting, and considering your duty as a citizen done, only propagates this system.

    • Wendy says:

      I live in North Carolina. We went from being the most progressive state in the South to being featured on the Daily Show about once a week– and not in a good way. Why did this happen? Too many people stayed home in 2010.
      So, yeah, there’s a difference. A huge difference. Does it mean often (if not always) voting for the lesser of two evils? Yes. But I’ve seen how the greater of two evils can destroy a state. I’ll keep voting, thank you very much.

  2. Sean Murphy Sean Murphy says:

    And what is revolutionary about not voting?

    I don’t know, this stance, of avoiding the so-called fray with a sense of indignity or, worse, self-righteousness, seems a lot like a dude playing a bongo outside of JP Morgan and thinking he is making a statement. He is, but not the statement he hopes he is. By disdaining his obligation to vote, he is making it easier for the people he despises to go about their nasty business (and laugh at him while they do it).

    Also, who said voting is the beginning or end of the process? Certainly not me in this piece. Even if you really can’t be convinced (whatever facts are placed in your path) that there is no difference between the two parties, if you care about teachers, veterans and the poorest of the poor, there is indeed only one party preventing a total, unregulated dismantling of programs designed to assist them (and us: Hello, Social Security. What’s up, Pensions.).

    As stated, the Dems are too often feckless, pitiful and painful to watch. But I have no time for anyone who has been awake this past year claiming “both sides do it” and that not voting is somehow a statement that amounts to anything other than apathy.

  3. Caleb Powell says:

    Genius? He’s a sharp guy, sure, but calling him a genius lowers the bar. When you call those who reflect political views that you agree with “genius” what you are really saying is, “People who agree with my politics and say so in a public forum are geniuses.” And his “revolutionary” comments are overrated, unless you think it revolutionary to articulate and parrot how a lot of people on the left feel. Thus, in a roundabout way, you are patting yourself on the back.

    Brand is no dummy, but his voting comments are egregiously foolish, especially in context of the history of women’s suffrage in the US and Europe and now in places like Saudi Arabia where women do not vote. At least you agree and push back on Brand’s voting comments, but the lacunae exposed in the Brand Manifesto are so huge that Brand reveals himself a talented and eloquent but mediocre purveyor of left-wing ideology. He’s an elite person who has a complex but shallow reading of current politics and he is not a genius by a long shot and a longer shit.

    • Sean Murphy Sean Murphy says:

      Eh, I think you’re overlooking the entire point of the piece (re. apathy as revolution) to quibble with the fact that I write Brand is “quite possibly a genius”. Opinions and mileage will vary, but I’d suggest that for his relatively young age, there is room and time for him to carve out a significant space if he dedicates himself to doing more writing. His flair with words and the way he can discuss history with genuine sociopolitical insight makes me think he could evolve into a new sort of intellectual for our times: a cross between Hitchens and Oscar Wilde. Imagine him carrying The Hitch’s torch on the debate trail, taking on all comers? We need many more voices that can take the piss out of the mainstream media clowns and appear to have fun doing it. That, in my opinion, is how you get potentially impressionable voters to pay attention.

      That said, there’s nothing quite like somebody calling someone out for patting himself on the back by….patting himself on the back, with equal parts condescension and unwarranted scorn. The commenter doth protest too much, methinks.

      My endorsement of Brand as a political voice (and potential commentator who can reach a huge audience with writing that is sharp, intelligent and fresh, albeit perhaps not leftist enough for some) is predicated on a hope that he could reach the type of crowd that more “serious” thinkers won’t reach. Hence, my disappointment in his misguided –and shallow– stance on not voting. You know, the issue that the other 99% of the piece grapples with?

      Out of curiosity, who are some of your personal favorite political voices? On one hand, I’m certain we’d find much common ground. On the other hand, I’d bet the audience these deeper-thinkers reach is painfully limited, and that’s a problem. Of course there are myriad reasons for that, most of them a commentary on why we like our thinkers (when we listen to thinkers; when we think) to be facile (Fox), “moderate” (Sunday talk-show bloviating) or true believers. I’d imagine you’re of the latter ilk. I am too, but trying to influence apathetic non-voters is not a zero sum game: I’m a fan of anyone who uses their platform to engage with issues. For this alone, Brand warrants gratitude from anyone who wants Establishment thinking and hypocrisy exposed.

      In sum, I’m left wondering if you actually read this piece, or understood the intent behind it. More insight, less trolling is encouraged.

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  6. MSimon says:

    with one party fighting for the right to default

    There was never a need for default. It was political theater. The US was taking in enough money to pay the interest on the debt. You know – the debt – the obligations we are saddling our children with.

    Of course if you don’t care about the children – heh – spend away.

    Ever ask yourself how much of you the government owns? They own you in two ways – by giving you money and by taking away money.

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