Why I Can’t Get Excited About A “Russell Brand” Revolution
There’s been much excited discussion online about the recent comments of actor Russell Brand during a BBC interview. Given how vapid so much of pop culture is, I get it that anytime a celebrity says something smart in public it’s almost a cause for celebration. Furthermore, the fact that Brand called out the rottenness of our economic system and even suggested that a revolution may be coming is a surprising experience. Something we’re so used to being minimized, denied, and even erased. Which is probably why the interview clip is spreading like wildfire, and Brand’s reputation shooting star ward amongst left leaning political types.
And yet, I can’t get excited about all this. Even if it ends up being a spark that helps start the fire. Celebrity worship fits way too tidily in to the oppressive systems many of us claim to be fighting. The ping of “wow” and “hell yeah” felt from the comfort of our homes, workplaces, and coffee shop seats rarely seems to translate into mass movement. Especially when what we are watching is not coming from one or many of us. News footage of civil rights or Vietnam War protesters brought folks into those respective movements, outraged and emboldened by the repression they witnessed, and determined to be part of a solution. Celebrity pronouncements, on the other hand, lack the gut level connection. Context. And creative spirit that makes it hard for folks ready for change to ignore.
I can’t help but think of the first lines from Gil Scott Heron’s classic:
You will not be able to stay home, brother.
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.
Isabelle Nastasia and Suey Park agree. In this brilliant article, they break down some of the major issues with progressive Brand love, and explore how celebrity statements and support can help movements, under the right conditions. These paragraphs re-contextualize Brand, both in terms of our movements and also his own history, which seems to be forgotten (or was never known).
the thing that stands out to us as particularly ridiculous is how corporate media is holding Brand up as a would-be revolutionary at a time when young people of colour and women, queer kids, working class and poor youth are leading organizations that are building a robust movement across issues, strategies and identities; a movement that is not looking to celebrities or elites for direction, but is informed from below.
It is also important to recognize that Brand’s individual levels of racism and sexism are not separate from the overarching systems of racism and sexism we reside in. To continue to engage in inherently racist and sexist acts on a micro-level also showcases a lack of understanding around how it operates on a macro-level, disproportionately hurting women and people of colour.
During the Occupy movement’s first wave, I was personally interviewed by mainstream newspapers and television stations nearly a dozen times. It didn’t take long for me to notice that I was targeted by media folks. Standing in mixed race, mixed class, I was just “clean” enough to give voice to. Here was a white guy who was struggling financially and angry about the state of the world, but also articulate enough to clip some soundbytes from.
The layers of minimizing and erasing are numerous. For someone like me, I got to be on TV or in print, but with the majority of substance removed. For my poorer, less formally educated fellow activists, the most they received was being seen in the background. Interviews with my fellow activists of color tended to be centered around police relationships, not so subtly limiting what they had to offer, while maintaining old, stereotypical links. I can’t recall a single interview or exploration by mainstream media about how Occupy organized itself, the creative ways people worked together, or going in depth into the various issues we were trying to address. The sustained attention that Brand receives during his interview was either never given to us, or was erased from whatever footage ended up being offered for public consumption.
This has been norm for a long, long time. The successes of progressive and radical organizations and the work of the everyday people behind them aren’t given time. You only hear about groups when they’re in deep trouble. Like the ACORN scandal, which effectively tanked the organization, while also smearing the decades of work they’d done in the process.
I think there is a deep longing amongst the struggling people for a visionary leader. Someone who will articulate our various desires in a way that unites enough of us to topple the status quo, and create a more just world in its wake. These sincere hopes seem to push us to uphold the murdered martyrs of the past, as if they can somehow still – from beyond the grave – be our leaders. As opposed to great inspiration for the work we’re doing now. And for those of us who aren’t doing this, we seem to be groping along with what’s presented to us. Here’s Howard Dean. Here’s Obama. Here’s Elizabeth Warren. Here’s Bono. Here’s Russell Brand. As if the elite would ever offer someone up that will truly threaten their power.
Nastasia and Park end their essay giving a nod to celebrity support, but also a valuable caution:
there is sometimes a need for celebrity signal boosting of authentic organizing. For instance, Talib Kweli’s open support of the Dream Defenders’ occupation of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office brought popular attention to the direct action.
However, without accountability, celebrity signal boosting can turn into another form of the non-profit-industrial-complex, which relies on the voices and dollars of elites to promote social good, instead of boots on the ground movements informed by the experiences of those most affected by injustice.
Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the next bodhisattva will come in the form of a sangha. Instead of single, enlightened leader, we would have something of an enlightened community. If we take this into the world of social action and activism, it really speaks to building decentralized movements filled with groups working together across differences towards common goals or visions. Instead of relying on a single voice, and being prone to becoming a cult of celebrity or being taken down by the corruption or murder of a single person, we move and act in an unpindownable manner. Allowing wisdom and compassion and brilliance to flow between folks, instead of residing within a given leader or set of leaders. Which doesn’t mean there are no leaders. It’s more that what we know of as leadership is intimately informed by things like our Buddhist teachings of interdependence, renouncing ego cherishing, and letting go of clinging to particular outcomes.
The cues for building an enlightened society are within each of us. Even Russell Brand. But we need to move beyond the desire for a single savior, in order to bring forth a new paradigm of justice and awakening.