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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.

 

 

 

 

Comments (8)

  • just a guy

    it may not be televised, but it MAY be digitized.

  • Inge

    I watched Russell Brand’s interviews and frankly I was thrilled that he thinks and says the same things I have been saying. The difference is that I do vote and was a member of the Democratic Party for years. I even volunteered to elect Obama the first time around. It wasn’t long before I figured out that Obama is just another politician and I left the Dem Party.

    I won’t get noticed by the media because I’m not famous and those I do speak to, call me simple minded because I don’t fall in line with their political/social belief system. They choose to point fingers at the other party for their woes instead. They don’t bother to question anyone about their motives.

    You may not like the messenger but who cares? The message is getting out there and hopefully getting people talking, which will get them off their butts and do something. We can talk about our problems (like we have for decades) or we can take action. Its up to us to change the world and if it takes one person, like Russell to get things fired up… so be it.

    And if I understood you correctly, you insinuated he is racist and sexist and therefore not qualified to speak about such things. We are all guilty of one thing or another. No one is perfect and if you are waiting for a perfect example of a human being to lead us…then you are two thousand years too late.

  • nathan

    In terms of getting the message out there, I agree that anyone making quality points can be helpful. And I never said anything about Brand not being “qualified.” I don’t see that as important when it comes to truth telling.

    But context and background are vitally important. Brand’s history isn’t terribly great when it comes to various forms of oppression and the ‘isms, so it’s worth considering what his actual message is to us all. He is rightly outraged about corporate corruption and the severe limits corporate influence has put on electoral politics.
    To me, that’s the main message – which was the main push behind the Occupy movement in it’s hayday.

    And yet, all the interlocking and unexamined or poorly addressed oppressions that go into the economic issues came roaring out within Occupy once it got going. I personally witnessed all sorts of oppressive fail from mostly white, middle class activists who couldn’t see beyond their economic analysis to go deeper and see how the American Empire and it’s colonial roots are in need of being fully exposed and uprooted. Which means facing racism, genocide, land theft, and all sorts of other issues.

    Brand’s comments felt like numerous comments from 2011. Made by everyone from us nobodys to fairly well known public figures who were riding the Occupy wave. It’s good to be reminded, but it’s almost as if folks on the left had totally forgotten really recent history.

    The thing is, the guy was just giving an interview and spoke about what was on his mind. I can’t fault him there, nor expect him to do much better than the message he did give. It’s more the reaction I saw from so many progressive/left folks. The sort of wide eyed admiration that seemed devoid of of Brand’s background and a little too cult of celebrity for my taste.

  • bezi

    yeah ar umm… if Brand’s comments electrify people into doing something, and I thing we’re still awaiting evidence, then good on him and the better for all of us. I read them and they didn’t strike me as this towering treatise or particularly radical. *yawn* NEXT. Some of us have been kicking WAY more hardcore ish for ages… and not needing any freaking cameras and fandom to do it either.

    I’m cool

  • Inge

    I think most Americans have a short memory. Regarding the Occupy movement, I was a member of the Irvine Occupy group in California. It started out well intentioned — until we got permission from Irvine City Council to camp on their public grounds (against public opinion) as soon as the tents went up the flavor changed. It went from changing Wall street to a scene from Wood stock. It went from bad to worse within a few weeks. It became the campers against the non-campers…tons of infighting and insults and all the ‘isms you mention. I had to walk away. I was disillusioned and disappointed.

    I feel the left can be just as dogmatic as other political groups. What I see is a lot egos talking and no one listening to each other. Lots of finger pointing and self righteous behavior. There is no self reflection.

    Obama Care is a case in point. The left have become zealots and refuse to listen to any personal stories of how people are affected. I think we should come together and find a way to make it work for everyone instead of making “flip” comments…”its the law of the land” or “it only affects 5% of the population”….I dare them to say those remarks to one of the 5% in person.

    Brand sounded irritated and I don’t blame him. Yes he is an entertainer but so was Ronald Reagan and he became president. I would love it if more of us spoke out like him…and we were taken seriously.

    Too bad you won’t post on this site any time soon again. I might not always agree with you (mostly I do though) you give me good food for thought. See you on your other blog….

  • nathan

    Inge,

    I never dismissed Brand because he is an actor. Some do, but I don’t. It is interesting though that some of the same things could be said by a progressive politician, for example, and folks would have no problem with an examination of the person’s past or the context of the whole thing. Somehow, being an actor either leads to a wholesale dismissal or a total pass. Very strange in my view.

    As for Obamacare, I am one of those “zealots” as you call it. And I am also one of the 5 % directly impacted. I have been critical of the whole thing since day one because not only is it nowhere near a single payer model, but it actually – in mandating purchase of an insurance policy – is forcing us all to buy a private product. Unlike car insurance, which you don’t need to buy if you don’t drive. I know multiple people who are also part of that 5% who are struggling just to sign up for somerhing. And one famiy member of mine who is in deep financial trouble if what they’re quoting him for costs is the best option. I question whether it can be made to work. Given over 10 years without coverage, I have reasearched the hell out of health care and the various options other nations and different states have come up with. There are plenty of other ways. To me, Obamacare is mostly an insurance industry grab. One that will probably provide short term relief for some, while adding misery for others. And that’s if it lasts and actually functions, which is a big if.

    bezi – I hear ya. I didn’t think what he said was all that earth shattering either. Nice to hear on a big stage, but that’s about it. And yeah, I’m not convinced much “social action” will come from it. Especially if it was just a one off set of comments. It just seems to me that we could do with more crictical analysis of how celebrities (anyone well known: not just entertainers) and/or their statements and support fit into or enhance social movements. As opposed to co-opting or sidetracking them.

  • Inge

    Nathan,

    I think you misunderstood me (its easy to do when we can’t communicate in person). The zealots are the ones who claim Obama Careis the answer and we just need to sign up. I completely agree that it is a gift to insurance companies. The law has zero to do with actual healthcare. I am hoping that people will start looking to alternative healthcare and preventative care…like eating healthy foods and exercising. I know so many people who have diabetes and are on several different meds and continue to eat junk AND their doctors seem to be fine with it. It makes me crazy.

    Here is another example… I over heard a woman at the hospital where I volunteer tell someone that her doctor prescribed meds for her migraines…the meds raised her blood pressure….so, the doctor added blood pressure meds to her drug regimen. This woman is in her late 30s and just accepts her doctors advice that she must be on both meds for life… no questions asked.

    She seems to take no responsibility for her own healthcare. Doctors are too quick to write prescriptions without really understanding the cause of the symptom (in this case migraines)

    Its the same with the public when it comes to government…they don’t question their parties motives… until it hits them personally. I do have hope in the new generations…they seem to think for themselves and refuse to buy in to the hype…maybe social media via online blogs and independent new sources help move that along.

  • nathan

    Woah! Yep. I misunderstood your other comment. We are really on a similar page with the health care issue. There are so many “alternative” forms of medicine that are less damaging/invasive than allopathic and none of that is even a whisper in this whole Obamacare debate. Preventative medicine isn’t where the big bucks are. There’s no incentive to centralize prevention and personal power over health in a for profit system.

    I think the younger generations are more aware of things earlier on. Greater access to diverse info. helps alot. Hopefully, it keeps translating into more and more major societal shifts…we will see.

    Glad you came back on that point. I think I have been in too many discussions where my criticism of ACA and such has been treated as “zealotry” or aligning with the Republicans. As if I had claimed to allign with the Dems, and suddenly broke ranks. When the reality is that neither major party has represented me. I often find talking to “liberals” more challenging than “conservatives” because of assumed agreements that turn into argument points.Whereas with most conservatives, there’s no assumed agreements – which makes it all the more interesting when we find common ground.

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