Saturday, October 26, 2013

Brand values

So, what to make of this week's Newsnight encounter between Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand, prompted by the latter's guest editorship of the New Statesman, that got the interweb all animated?

I should start by saying that it didn't really surprise me. Much of the reaction has been from people gobsmacked that Brand, known primarily as a comedian and actor, can actually make eloquent and passionate comment on politics. This wasn't news to me (I love listening to him speak, even if the whirl of words is sometimes a case of style over substance), and Paxman's attempt to dismiss his interviewee as "a very trivial man" came across as cheap and haughtily dismissive. Others have been sceptical of Brand's motives, claiming that everything he does is a cry for attention, but I don't think there was much self-publicising in the interview as it was aired, especially by his own standards.

Brand's defence of his policy of not voting (and indeed having never voted) was generally sound. Very far from being a case of apathy (as non-voting is often denigrated by politicians), it was actually a case of caring too much to vote in "tacit complicity" with a system that doesn't work for the majority of people. While I vote and have always felt the importance of exercising that right, I must admit to a weariness when it comes to the actual process because the choice always seems to be between various different shades rather than between genuine alternatives.

Paxman could perhaps have suggested that a more effective way of protesting against the choices available would be to turn up to the polling station but spoil the ballot paper - that way it couldn't be mistake for apathy. In any case, though, Paxman didn't seem to understand Brand's general point, and later Brand asked him if he wasn't "bored" by his dealings with politicians trotting out the same old toss, to which he had no answer.

My sense is that Brand wasn't alone when he talked about working outside the political system and that many people, while having not necessarily given up on mainstream politics completely, nevertheless see support for charities and pressure group campaigns (Avaaz, Change, Sum Of Us) as a more successful means of bringing about positive change. If you're passionate about the environment or the gradual privatisation of the NHS, for instance, I'd suggest that you could wield more direct influence on policy as an active supporter of Friends Of The Earth and 38 Degrees respectively than as someone who puts a cross in a box next to one of the three main political parties every few years. This is a point Brand could have made to strengthen his argument.

Where Brand did strike a nerve was in alluding to Paxman's appearance on Who Do You Think You Are?, when he was reduced to tears by the tale of how his grandmother was "fucked over" (Brand's words) by the rich and powerful ("emotional porn" - again, Brand's words). Paxman looked genuinely taken aback, Brand going on to point out that such injustice is not just a thing of the past but actually still continuing to this day.

Where Brand let himself down is in failing to have a particularly cogent response to Paxman's persistent attempts to get him to outline what his "revolution" might look like. "What's the scheme?" indeed. Saying he wasn't going to come up with a proposal for an alternative system in the course of an interview was weak - no one would expect him to, but he could certainly have been expected to put some sustained thought into it beforehand. This does him few favours, as it makes it harder to take him seriously.

Nevertheless, in speaking out with real fire in his belly and taking on an interviewer of Paxman's stature, Brand has at very least drawn attention to the issues and initiated a debate - and that can hardly be a bad thing.

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