The attacks on Russell Brand show that we are paranoid about our politics

We’ve all seen it. Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman this week has caused a stirring of the pants and a stirring of the bowels among social media patrons. And we’ve all seen the whinging.

Very few informed people – and those who did are deserving of praise – commented approvingly on Brand’s interview and essay in this week’s New Statesman, which the comedian also edited. That is, very few applauded on the argument’s own merits or its value in the context of global inequality and political disenfranchisement.

The first line of attack was accusing Brand of being too reductionist, simplifying vastly complicated processes of capital and social relations, as if in a 10-minute interview in which Paxman asked him two questions with discernably different content and a 5,000-word essay he is expected to coherently address the inadequacies of international capitalism. Paxman was not there to listen.

The second attack was that Brand was not an economist/philosopher/social scientist, etc, and so should not be making such arguments. Instead, it goes, he should not be getting involved unless he is an expert. Staggeringly undemocratic, this argument also claims it contrary to progress to have the unqualified talking on things they know nothing about. (This argument also took the form of poking fun at Brand’s ‘bad’ writing.)

This neatly leads to the third line of attack. Brand is an actor and therefore his opinion either has no value for the reasons above, or that he must guard against propagating any political thoughts of his own because people who listen – that is, idiots – will just gleefully and dumbly hoover up his words like they are greedily devouring truffles. As such, this argument goes, celebrities operate in a different sphere of influence to us mere lumpenproletariat and a different one again to the intellectuals, so Brand should butt out. Leave it to Chomsky and Žižek to duke it out. It is startling how often this argument is made by ‘liberals’ or ‘democrats’.

What do these arguments tell us about social media users, and thus about our political climate? It shows us that educated, mostly left-wing people are paranoid. They are paranoid that their cynicism is being undercut by a bubbling of optimism about the future, whether that be a revolutionary one or not. They are paranoid that they aren’t the only Marxist in the village. They trip over themselves to post about how Brand is a moron in order to trump up their own revolutionary vanguard status. Being well-read is a game. For many of those moans I noticed on my various timelines are from people who call themselves progressive and are quick to disassociate from Westminster but slow to support anything that looks like popular approval of the very ideas they profess to hold.

Moreover, this pattern of behaviour is linked to far wider social and cultural causes. This is the self-denial of an aborted search for meaning among my generation. We don’t know what we like so we say what we don’t like (usually whatever is popular) and get horribly sensitive when someone offers us an opportunity to find some truth, a bit of power, a gram of creativity. Hipster Marxism. For what Brand said is to be lauded in almost all possible contexts. Anyone who seriously considers themselves left-wing, progressive, socialist, Marxist, and so on, should do nought but delight in our arguments being shouted louder and louder. It is almost always a good thing. When was the last time anti-capitalist revolution was discussed on Newsnight?

The revolution is/is not coming. (Delete as applicable according to your cynicism.) But we certainly can’t pretend we aren’t heard when we try our hardest to stop people like Brand talking about it. Everyone agrees that politics is a dangerously exclusive discourse. Truly radical ideas are, at best, sneered at. By kicking Brand, you’re only making it worse.

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Television, like history, is written only by the winners

At April’s annual Oxford-Cambridge Jack Wills Boating Festival of Blonde Quiffs on the Thames, a dangerous new form of protestor called a ‘swimmer’, or ‘breast-stroke Marxist’, disrupted the world-famous race, halting two very snazzy boats carrying lots of pointlessly muscly, pointlessly expensive people down a river. The BBC’s anointed correspondent for the sporting endeavours of the landed gentry, Clare Balding, whizzed up and down the Thames on her speedboat, telling us viewers how wickedly important it was that we watched the action (with Balding taking a watery break from her usual presenting haunt – standing next to some tiny, rich, white folks who crouch on horses and beat  the crap out of them and crash them and shoot them).

The BBC, like Sky Sports’ shouty football coverage, has a perpetual propensity for self-inflated chest-pumping. Auntie’s TV events are not events – they are Events. Indeed, like all TV – we can blame 24-hour rolling news with its debasing use of ‘breaking news’ – the BBC is a hearty supporter of the hyperbolic. Big events like the World Cup final, the royal wedding and, to a lesser extent, the Boat Race, get their own dose of super slo-mo HD introductions, usually some silly poetry, gloriously epic Hans Zimmer-esque music, and so on. TV sells TV like nothing else. These are glossy productions designed to sell you one (and only one) type of product: suburban, petit-bourgeois, pro-monarchy identity fetishism.

The Boat Race was watched by 3.3m people. A hefty chunk, yes – but that is less than 6% of the UK’s population. Now, no argument (not even with the cavalier brilliance of the first two paragraphs here) could sensibly suggest that the Boat Race has any great impact on British socio-cultural values. But it is, definitively, a chunk of something much larger – TV’s remarkable ability to anaesthetise us. Few question the weight of the ‘history’ or ‘tradition’ of the Boat Race – we just reckon Balding is warmly leafing through our own cultural fabric, saying nice things in nice ways about ‘pride’ and ‘passion’ and ‘institutions’ and seldom considering what we are being asked to swallow as history – as truth.

The Boat Race and royal wedding, like the Olympics and Jubilee coverage will be, are part of a national infatuation with a sort of uniform faux-heritage. TV Event narratives – read by a Huw Edwards or a Gary Lineker – always tap in to some collective sense of identity, usually national, but often white, or middle-class, that are designed in some way to make the viewing unit (the family, the couple, the futon masturbator) feel attached to the national, communal whole. That’s hardly an outrageous statement: TV has been used for propaganda since its creation. What is outrageous is that it is still so prevalent now, in 2012, in our crunched, creditless times, in the shows we watch and the coverage we absorb and that a particular brand of ideas and values can be so unchallenged and can permeate our living rooms in such an unassuming way.

In the United States, tradition is a potent weapon in political rhetoric, far more so than in the UK. In Whitehall, much like Alastair Campbell’s assertion that New Labour’s would not ‘do God’, since the mid-90s one would struggle to find continued, explicit references to national identity in either the manifestos, press releases, policy statements or conference speeches of the mainstream parties. Contemporary political discourse simply does not ‘do Britishness’. Chest-thumping, Rule Britannia love-ins are the product only of the media. We’ve known for many years about how the newspapers use constructed notions of identity in order to whip up tensions – and sell papers. (The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are almost single-handedly responsible for the EDL and the BNP.) But these identity straw men are also stitched into the lining of televisual ‘culture’.

The Hunger Games, out in cinemas at around the same time as the Boat Race, was a brilliant, if slightly nonsensical (200mph super-trains, dresses made of fire – but no guns?) fictionalisation of how a politico-X Factor would run the world. Think The Voice with Lenin and Ceausescu on the panel. I know, I know – it’s fiction. And the novel is atrocious. But the film is excellent, and a fictional reductio ad absurdum is not always worthless. In the film, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are used to justify the subjugation of the rural poor to the will of the urban elite, with a game, for the entertainment of the ruling class, in which the poor must fight and kill each other for the ‘glory’ of their particular district. Now think about the X Factor. No contestant is being told to give their life in the arena (only their productive labour power) but the show’s competitors are predominantly working-class, painted as proud [insert region]ers, doing it for their mates at the local or for their families. The poor are plucky nobodies whose heartfelt tales are gently piped into Surrey living rooms, the Saturday audience of the eye-wettingly mawkish.

Television owns, builds and propagates a comfy idea of Britishness, not unlike in fin de siecle Europe. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the British upper class created the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy. Pall Mall, Trooping the Colour – we associate these traditions with centuries of heritage. But, in reality, they were created in the lifetimes of, at most, your grandma’s grandma – in the last one hundred and fifty years. And yet, we take it for granted that the monarchy, with all its ceremonial farts and flag-waving is part of our DNA. It isn’t. It is no more a part of us than a hairstyle or a jumper.

Like television, history is concocted by whomsoever is powerful enough to do so, by whoever the hell needs us to believe that the English bravery is in our blood. For the glory of our people, never ever shall be slaves, and so on. TV is the organ of the elites. So when Sue Barker or that bloke who does Formula 1 are grinning at us all summer with hours of saccharine Olympics coverage, and they start talking crudely about ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ and ‘patriotic spirit’, you’ll think about The Hunger Games, won’t you? The festival of Britishness will include only those whom television producers wish to include. If you are not that kind of British then you are not a winner. And you are not invited.

(This is an article for the fantastic Limbo Quarterly, which is out now and available here.)

Secularism means religious freedom, not a creeping suppression of faith

For the last fucking time: secularism is not the abolition, destruction and criminalisation of religion. It protects – protects – the right to follow any religion of your choice, protects religious minorities, protects people from feeling alienated as a result of having a dominant (or decadent) culture or process forced upon them. Secular law allows religions to share the public sphere equally. It is not ‘illiberal’, Eric Pickles. It allows all people fair access to the law, to council meetings, schools, hospitals and town halls, regardless of religious faith. Bleeding heart responses about Britain being ‘swept away on a secular current’ (Channel 4 News, tonight) show a total misunderstanding of what secularism means.

The Leveson Inquiry won’t stop us dehumanising celebrities

This morning, an interview with comedian Frankie Boyle was published in the Guardian. Boyle divides many, frequently crossing between the borderlines of offensive and risky, of malicious and cheeky, depending on your point of view. In the interview, he criticises the BBC’s Have I Got News For You for being safe and middle-class and obvious: ‘it’s people laughing at “John Prescott is fat” jokes long after he’s retired’. But Boyle, especially in his Tramadol Nights (C4) is just as lazy. For him, the jokes may be smarter, more biting, more challenging (they aren’t), but the jokes are always on the same people: celebrities. Jordan, Kerry Katona, Rebecca Adlington – there is little of intelligence or satirical value in his attacks on these figures. The reason we laugh at Boyle and at “John Prescott is fat” jokes? Because they’re celebrities. Because we think they can take it. Because, in the UK, with our media culture, our collective attitude to celebrity, nothing is below the belt.

 

At the Leveson Inquiry this week, the testimonies of Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and others highlighted exactly this problem. For too long, the British press have been intruding into the lives of celebrities, offering their personal lives as breakfast and commuting entertainment, selling us another’s family crisis as some cock-eyed window of truth into the murky underworld of celebrity life. The British public want to know, we are told. They have a right to it. Celebrities like Hugh Grant sell their images, movies and albums to us all the time, so we’re just taking something back, no? Grant lives off the back of a PR character he has created and we’d be none the wiser lest the brave folks of the gutter press were there when we needed them to shatter the heinous myth – right? Except, as Grant rightly explained to the Inquiry this week, it’s not just celebrities that suffer from the invasions of the press. The parents of Madeleine McCann and Millie Dowler, for example, traded on no such image. They had not thrown themselves into our living rooms, onto the sides of our buses, in the leaves of our magazines to sell products to us. They were the victims of a custom cruelly forged to wring real life of sex, death, murder, scandal and tragedy like sweat from a towel, a custom flimsily shielded by lofty, barely-comprehensible appeals to free speech and the free transfer of knowledge.

 

But this isn’t a blog about the phone hacking scandal and the overreaching arm of the British press. Wiser people than me have said finer things than these. Besides, it seems that the scandal is only interesting to the machinery of the executive now that non-celebrities have been found to be victims of the press. Does this not raise an alarm as to our view of the rights of celebrities? Have the British tabloids not – for decades – spun us a line that the personal life of the celebrity is open to all? The press have tried to convince us for too long that the life of a celebrity is worth less than yours – that their liberties and those of their families are owned communally by all who purchase their products. And we are convinced. We flooded in our millions to buy the McCanns’ trauma as it unravelled, day by day, in the press. If we bought that newspaper, we were part of the problem. We were convinced. We trekked in our millions to buy the sex scandals of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and John Terry. We scorn and splutter in our millions when Jordan is on our front pages or on our television screens. If we buy those newspapers, we’re all part of the problem. We are convinced. We are so patronised and medicated by the press that we take these stories to be ‘news’, so ill-thought-of are we by newspaper editors that this is all our ickle, wickle brains can take. Does celebrity ‘news’ exist because we want it, or are we told that we want it and we just don’t know to wonder any differently? If it all disappeared tomorrow, would we miss it? Everyone loves a scandal – as social animals obsessed with stature, we always have and possibly always will. It’s not unambitious to say that we probably can’t stop this obsession. But our media culture propagates turgid and relentlessly nihilistic spite trumped up as ‘news’, dressed up as social comment on just was has happened to ‘integrity’ and ‘class’ and accompanied by nostalgia (devoid of irony) that lusts for ‘celebrity’ like back in the days when the famous were famous for Something Good. But what we can stop is a neutered, comatose acceptance of celebrity gossip as something we are entitled to. We aren’t. Let’s give it up.

 

It is a victory that the Leveson Inquiry is happening at all. If it begins a national conversation about what our media should look like, then it is a positive start. But the Inquiry will do nothing to stop this culture. The Inquiry exists only because non-celebrities have been revealed as victims. Only – it seems – only under those conditions do we care about privacy. Plumbers, car salespeople, IT technicians, driving instructors – all of them trade under an image. But unless they are famous, they retain their right not to be followed home, not to be chased in cars and run over, not to have their personal calls hacked. It’s not funny, Frankie Boyle, if Rebecca Adlington has a face like a spoon. It’s funny because none of us care even slightly if she is hurt by the joke – because she’s famous, she can take it. It’s time we stopped devaluing celebrities as worth less than ourselves, time we dusted down a few trite old words about stones and glasshouses and time we realised that if we allow the press to treat the rich and famous like this, they will always – always – find a way to do it to everyone else. Like they  did to the Dowlers and the McCanns. Like they will this week – routinely, systematically – to Gary Speed’s family. And we’ll read all about it.

Hacking the phones of the murdered? Yeah, that seems about right

Yeah. Yeah, that seems about right. Newspapers hack the messages of murdered teenagers for a story. Bears also do big poo-poos near trees and the Pope is not a Sikh. How many of us were truly, truly surprised that the News of the World (or any newspaper) would dig so deeply into the bottom of the barrel? Are we really shocked that the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt so meekly waved through News Corporation’s takeover of BSkyB, jettisoning a major share of the UK’s TV media into the hands of a man who already runs The Sun, NOTW, The Times, The Sunday Times, Fox News, 20th Century Fox Films, HarperCollins Publishing, New York Post and The Wall Street Journal? Were any of us (though sadly few read it) astonished by Hugh Grant’s interview with Paul McMullan in the New Statesman, which revealed the lengths – and costumes – that Cameron was prepared to take to keep Murdoch and his influence on side?

Twitter was alive with the glory of rage last week after Ed Miliband’s interview on the pension strikes which looped like a Cheeky Girls album. These moments are not unconnected. They are, in fact, of the same loop, the same careering wheel of fuck that the media and Westminster are spinning for each other and for us. Miliband is keenly aware of the paltry crumbs afforded to a Shadow Leader on the 10pm news, yet so entangled in New Labour’s obsession with soundbite politics, an obsession with the press that roundly destroyed their term in office when Brown refused to get his botty out for News Corp. This was Miliband emptying himself to the press. This was his announcement to us and to Fleet Street that he is bringing his bat out to play. In cutting his output down to precisely and only that which he wished to be printed, he was not being miserly with his opinions to protect himself from miscued headlines, gaffes and remarks lifted out of context. He was simply acknowledging the rules of the game: You know why I’m here. I know why I’m here. And nothing more.

This and the phone-hacking scandal are of the same family. The press has such a clasp on our political sphere that politicians – our lawmakers, our representatives! – cower before its power. Such is its freedom that it can reach into the inboxes of celebrities, footballers, MPs and now high-profile murder victims for a story. And yet we are not surprised. The PCC will come out later today and tug one off about a ‘thorough review’ of this practice and ‘compliance’ with the (highly, highly pissing questionable) Met investigation into the NOTW scandal. Cameron has already slammed the ‘truly dreadful’ actions of the paper, yet will not review the decision to sell BSkyB to Murdoch. The Emperor himself will come out later this week and sack Rebekah Brooks. But nothing will happen. No boycott will take off. Utter powerlessness is all one can offer to Murdoch in lieu of profound, revolutionary reform of British media. But importantly, we’ll all keep buying The Sun and watching The Ashes and the Premier League and Avatar in HD. Because really nobody believes the press can be stopped. Nobody is shocked by their power. Appalled but not shocked; angry but accepting. Yeah, that seems about right.