Please Stop Turning to Comedians for Wisdom (Except Maybe Robert Webb)

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, I think, but I just want to pass a few comments on Russell Brand’s editorial for the edition of the New Statesman. My issue is not so much that what he said was ridiculous, though it was, but that he was asked to do this at all. His job is  to make people laugh, which he is intermittently good at. Why on earth would that make him qualified to speak on political issues?

Everything worth saying to directly criticise him has, I think, already been said by Robert Webb who, whilst also a comedian, has the sense to tell him how problematic his view is and point him in the direction of someone who can provide the wisdom he needs saying, “please read some fucking Orwell.” But, that isn’t going to stop me from pointing out a couple of things that really annoyed me.

Regarding his argument, insofar as it is possible to discern an argument in an essay best described a meandering river of cliché that, if I was marking it, would get strongly worded feedback about structure and signposting, avoiding contradicting yourself, relevant sources and actually thinking about what you want to say before you say it,  the following claim struck me as being as central as it is naive.

Apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people. A system that is apathetic, in fact, to the needs of the people it was designed to serve.

The truth, I think, is the reverse of what Brand says. Apathy is not the rational response to a government who does not address the needs of its electorate. Instead, not representing, hearing, or addressing the majority of people is the rational reaction of a government to an apathetic electorate. Of course they don’t represent us properly if we don’t do anything when they don’t! Although, I’m not even convinced that one can explain political issues of the day in terms of the banal common-sensism “oh they don’t do anything for us!” It’s empirically false. Even this Tory-led government has raised the amount you have to earn before you pay tax. That’s for “us”, isn’t it?

I’m not saying the coalition is a good thing, but if we want to criticise it we have to do more than regurgitate clichés about disillusionment with politics and the corruption of politicians (“I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars”) or that they’re all the same those politicians (‘[We] see no difference between Cameron, Clegg, Boris, either of the Milibands or anyone else”). On that point, Robert Webb said something quite good in his response:

“They are not all the same. “They’re all the same” is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail. No, if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.”

Which is quite true. Anyone saying “They’re all the same” is saying the same thing as the BNP manifesto. It is also only possible to believe if one hides one’s head in the sand and deliberately avoids observing these people, as the differences are quite plain. In any case, even if it were true that the government does not do anything for us, the clear response is to become politically active and start voting, among other things. Apathy is not a re-action, as Brand calls it. It is absolute inaction. Not voting, which Brand encourages us to do, however is action. Abstaining your vote is not to stay out of it and some how transcend politics. It is to say ‘Do what you want, any decision you want to make is fine by me.’ In other words, not voting is a vote. A vote for, not against, the status quo. So, as Webb says, the solution is, ‘more votes, not fewer.’

But, as I said, I don’t really want this post to be about bitching about how uninformed and inadequate a political theorist Russell Brand is, but why we might expect him to be informed and adequate. Why have celebrities become sources to cite for wisdom? In particular, why would anyone cite a comedian? The comedian’s job is to make people laugh, not to discern truth. Most comedians lie constantly in order to make someone laugh. Even observational comedy, seemingly designed to make us look at true situations, involves its own special form of dissembling. For a start, the comedian is unlikely to be telling the whole truth, but elaborating and exaggerating a fairly common experience. Secondly, the situations themselves are not actually funny. The observational comic simply makes them seem funny through their delivery, viz. they lie about them being funny situations and we buy it. Stuart Lee is very good on this point. In his own comedy he has several times criticised stand-up comedy, breaking down stand up comedy by advising stand up comics with broken toasters or fridges to find their receipts and take them back to Argos and telling us that he hasn’t noticed anything about our lives and doesn’t much care about them.

But, comics are continually called upon as wise men. Richard Dawkins begins The God Delusion with a long quote by Douglas Adams. Fans of Stuart Lee seem to quote his jokes as theories. Comedians often appear on Question Time. OK, maybe some of them are satirists, but some of them are just normal apolitical comedians. Russell Brand as been given a guest editorship for the New Statesman and Brand himself, in his editorial, routinely refers to Billy Connolly.

Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. Billy Connolly said: “Don’t vote, it encourages them,” and, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.”

I mean it’s just silly. The first point, “Don’t vote, it encourages them”, is clearly a joke and the second isn’t Connolly’s idea it comes from Plato! Mr. Russell Flamboyant Uses Long Words to Appear Intelligent Brand, you’re a sodding philistine.

Now, admittedly, this phenomenon of treating celebrities as sources of wisdom isn’t limited to comedians. It covers all celebrity. It would take a lot of work to figure out why this has happened exactly. But, it seems to me to come from what Nietzsche calls the Death of God, though I do not know if Nietzsche makes the following claim or would even agree with it. Because it is no longer possible for people easily to believe in a god, but the are still living in a historical structure that has been built upon god, people want some sort of dogmatic moral/spiritual guidance and some sort of model for the way to live life. Thus, the modern celebrity becomes a role model and source of inspiration.

The reason for this, I think, is that celebrities are the most god-like entities in secular culture. Traditionally speaking, “God” refers to that entity that is most constantly present, that is most truly existent or “there”. In contrast, mortals are only there some of the time. They are not constantly present because they are only present for a finite period of time in between birth and death. Celebrities, however, are at least more present then any of us normal people: we nobodies. Celebrities are present to everyone. They are in newspapers and television programmes and magazines. Intimate details of their lives are available to us. They are known widely and talked about constantly. In the contemporary celebrity, maximum presence to all becomes a virtue in itself. Indeed, it becomes the only virtue worth having. Being famous becomes a vocation, rather than fame flowing from people who good vocations.

If fame is a virtue, then celebrities are better than us. For that reason, if a D list celebrity criticises an A list celebrity, people say ‘Who are they?’ Who do they think they are to criticise someone more famous than themselves? Inverting this point, famous people have the right to criticise everyone below them and their opinions have more power. Why was Russell Brand guest editor for the New Statesman? Because he’s quite famous and has a reputation for being a bit clever, because he uses long words. He must have something worth saying! Whoops, no he doesn’t. As Robert Webb, who is allowed to be quoted in this context, puts it:

You’re a wonderful talker but on the page you sometimes let your style get ahead of what you actually think. In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

Anyway, please watch this funny video of Stuart Lee talking about Russell Brand.

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