Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman interviewed British comedian Russell Brand last week, and according to Gawker, Brand “may have started a revolution.” Needless to say, the interview is making its rounds on social media.
Russell Brand did not begin a revolution last week. I know, a bunch of your Facebook friends thought he did, so every other story on your news feed linked to the interview on Gawker or another website.
In the video, the immaculately condescending Paxman asked trivial questions to the very funny, very distracting British comedian regarding his guest-edited, revolution-themed issue of The New Statesman, a British political magazine. Throughout the interview, Brand denounced the power in voting to affect change regarding income equality, climate change and a disengaged political process.
Many of you may have listened to a bit of it, found his sarcasm in the face of disdain entertaining and agreed with some of the general ideas he was talking about. It’s possible some of you actually agreed with everything he was saying. But to treat this poor excuse for an interview as anything more than two oddly unqualified men arguing with each other about nothing is to delegitimize the real progress that the women and men who spend their lives working on humanity’s problems actually make.
It reminds me of a scene in “Wag the Dog,” David Mamet and Hilary Henkin’s spectacular 1997 black comedy about a group of political operatives and major Hollywood filmmakers who stage a war with Albania to distract the public from a presidential sex scandal.
In the scene, the filmmakers sit around and discuss how, even though they are currently engaged in a propaganda campaign to compel the American public to choose their candidate, none of them vote.
The difference here is that Mamet and Henkin are laughing at both the absurdity of the political system and the people who are too disconnected to actively attempt to fix it.
And for all of Brand’s claims to the opposite, his suggestions, that young people ought not to vote and ought not to work within the system, will not make the world a better place.
To begin, let’s assess Brand’s common refrain that we all shouldn’t vote because people have been voting for centuries, and all it’s done is put us here, where inequality and environmental destruction run rampant. I am going to adopt an Americentrist voice here, as sifting through the entirety of world history takes more words than I have.
Not only does this apathy ignore the fact that for many people, simply achieving the right to vote required monumental political, military and social struggle; it also devalues the immense progress brought about within the system from laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To Brand, the fact that hierarchy exists at all is evidence that any social mobility is meaningless, and those of lower social strata have no say. It’s especially ironic because, as he points out a number of times, he is a product of those lower social strata.
But his disregard for actual, measurable achievement does not stop in the past; it extends happily into the modern political climate, as well.
This comes from three major and very reasonable declarations Brand made: We shouldn’t destroy the planet, create massive economic disparity and ignore the needs of the people.
Each of these is an idea that the vast majority of reasonable people can get behind. Where Brand loses his way is in asserting that, since people have already voted and the world is extremely imperfect, the mechanism of voting is inherently broken.
Forget that fixing problems like global climate change will demand a comprehensive effort from the world’s governments. Forget that ensuring that human rights are upheld requires sufficiently motivated political entities. Ignore that the top 1 percent of U.S. citizens control more than a third of the wealth.
According to Brand, if those of us who believe that this concentration of wealth is immoral, universal human rights are important and we shouldn’t treat our planet like a dumpster refuse to vote, the problems will improve. He neglects to specify how, but he assures us that abstaining from the political process is to no longer participate in an illusion.
Central to Brand’s argument is the assumption that politicians of all ideologies, parties and affiliations are ultimately the same. It’s the point that your resident Facebook troll with the “Ron Paul 2012” profile picture makes on every political post that you see. They all accept campaign donations, or so the story goes, so electing one is no different from electing another. Voting makes no difference, because candidates are not individuals with actual beliefs; they’re just talking puppets for the machine to control.
To Brand, Paul Wellstone and Newt Gingrich are one in the same within the paradigm. This is both philosophically and empirically incorrect. It doesn’t take a sociologist to understand that we would not be inching toward universal health care if Mitt Romney had been elected. If people did as Brand wanted and didn’t vote in 2012, that’s exactly what would have happened.
The criticisms that Brand offers are often legitimate and ought to be addressed by our elected officials quickly. His very tenuous outlines for solution, though, require an awful lot of mental gymnastics to justify, and, in reality, contribute more to the problem than to its solution.
So please stop sticking this in my news feed.