Our malign celebrity culture has puffed up a narcissist into a revolutionary to fill a hole where politics ought to be
”Are you turning into neo-conservatives?” a friend asked after I and other leftish critics had hammered Russell Brand’s new book, Revolution. With evident relish, he went on, you have laid into a celebrity who for all his garrulous follies is against plutocrats, media corporations and the degradation of the environment. You say you are left-wing, but like the original neo-cons or the type of “leftist” Rupert Murdoch is so fond of employing, you only ever offer comfort to the Right.
He asked a fair question to which the simple answer is that a bad book is a bad book whatever the politics of its author, and the honest reviewer must say so. Revolution (Century, £20) is an exceptionally bad book, one of the worst I have ever read. I doubt anyone who is not paid to review it can reach the end without skimming large sections, and many will throw it away. Brand is a raging narcissist, who treated as brilliant whatever thoughts entered his cloudy mind while he underwent a recovery programme from drink and drug addiction. His egomania is such he thinks he can transform the world because he transformed himself when he kicked heroin.
I’ve just opened my copy at random. The first line in front of me is: “When you get Richard Dawkins yapping menopausally at some poor hamstrung old archbishop, while we dismantle our environment due to the materialistic, pessimistic principles that the atheistic tyranny of the day is tacitly sponsoring, it is time to look for a new story” — a sentence which is simultaneously chaotic, untrue, and cowardly. (The only “atheistic tyrannies” are North Korea, China and Cuba. Brand means the United States and Britain, however, but lacks the nerve to make such a false statement openly.) Toss this book in the air, and let it fall where it may: you can perform similar dissections on every second sentence you find.
The wider reason for the disdain is that Brand is a creature of a malign culture, which is turning public debate into celebrity babble. When the New Statesman needs a circulation lift or the BBC needs a ratings boost, they turn to Brand. Because he is a star, not one of his friends or editors at Century told him that he couldn’t write, and would not be able to write until he had mastered the skills of self-criticism and fact-checking. Stars expect and receive reverence, which is why it has taken so long for the legal system to prosecute celebrity rapists.
Television has been as negligent. I would not mind the airtime the broadcasters on BBC Newsnight and Start the Week have given Brand if its interviewers had presented him with the same detailed, contemptuous questions they fire at politicians. Instead, they revealed a dismal double standard.
Broadcasters, print journalists and the ever-growing army of voyeurs on social media have cramped the space for conventional politics. They turn minor mistakes or jokes into “gaffes” — Freudian slips that allegedly reveal a politician’s true perverted ideas, although more often than not they reveal nothing at all. A gaffe will have a “gate” added to it within seconds and will fill the news schedules for 36 hours. All forms of news media pay obsessive attention to the character and faults of party leaders, which ignores the collective nature of governments in parliamentary democracies. (Whether a man is “strong” or “gets it” is a simple story the viewers can grasp, they reason, as they elevate a pale 21st-century version of the Führerprinzip.) They refuse to let politicians speak at length without interruption — and then, without a blush of shame, complain that politicians speak in soundbites. They treat disagreements as “splits” — regardless of whether they are or not — and complain, again unblushingly, that politicians have become boring.
To try to keep an audience, which understandably has lost interest, television fills the hole where politics ought to be with celebrities, usually comedians, or “refreshing” politicians such as George Galloway and Nigel Farage. Broadcasters never apply to them the standards they apply to conventional politicians.
They do not mind that your average comedian on Have I Got News for You has no ideas beyond one-liners or that Galloway and Farage are ugly extremists. They are outrageous and “fun” and can hold the wavering audience’s attention. Newsnight, a supposedly serious current affairs programme, never exposed Russell Brand. Nor did it wish to. Like an old man swallowing Viagra, it wanted him to boost its limp ratings and revive its flagging appeal. You can hide on a television show, but you cannot hide in a 100,000-word book. If your thought is vacuous, it will reveal your vacuity, however much gibbering you deploy to conceal it.
Revolution is so bad it has finished Brand’s political career, such as it was. But he will move on and the celebrity system which puffed him up will remain: anti-intellectual, anti-democratic because it shuts out real argument, incurious and dishonest. No good can come from it for Left or Right.