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The celebrity prophet


Back in 2000, Tom Wolfe wrote a bad but apparently memorable essay called "In the Land of the Rococo Marxists" in which he excoriated prominent American left-wing writers for their treasonous refusal to let out roars of triumph at the conclusion of the great "American Century," despite all its indisputable victories for mankind (and/or Americans). One of the essay's ideas was that the critics of "American triumphalism" - which I guess was an idea that people, or at least Tom Wolfe, still subscribed to back in 2000 - were mere "intellectuals," not true experts: not tenured historians or political scientists but folks like Noam Chomsky, who had achieved celebrity for unrelated reasons and had then broadened with fame, making large-scale pronouncements on subjects about which he supposedly knew nothing. In particular, Wolfe took Susan Sontag to task for her infamous claim that "the white race is the cancer of human history," dismissing her as "just another scribbler."
I think of all this because, at a lower plane, something similar is happening right now with the British comedian Russell Brand, who's taken a break from starring in big-budget Hollywood comedies to become our newest public intellectual, inspiring a fair amount of public backlash. On the Internet, he's been steadily gaining renown for the past several months as an angry visionary guy who uses words like "paradigm" and "hierarchal," culminating with a BBC interview in October in which, under attack by stern-faced newsman Jeremy Paxman, he called for a global revolution.
Brand is most famous, at least in the U.S., for his brief marriage to Katy Perry and for his highly amusing roles in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek," in which he played the pretentious, tribal-tattoo-bearing rock star Aldous Snow, whose righteous sense of self-importance rarely got in the way of his low-level hedonism - and, moreover, never seemed remotely commensurate to his talents.
These movies now seem remarkably prophetic, but only insofar as they provided the "SNL" caricature of Brand's current persona before it even existed. Brand himself is talented and really smart. The very reason this ex-junkie is famous is that his brain moves a lot faster than our brains do; only his mouth can keep up, spilling out clever improvisatory monologues so rapid that, by the time we've figured out what he's saying, he's already contradicted it and moved on.
His comedy has always been pure cerebral vitality, not bearing any obvious point except its own expression. He's never had much insight into love or social mores or himself or any of the other areas where comedians tend to be useful - and so it probably makes sense that his relentless cheeky mind has now found its focus in politics, a subject to bear the brunt of his critical energy, where it's easy to form opinions and he can be impressive by having a lot of them. How long can one be impudent about nothing in particular?
Brand's would-be revolution aims to fix the usual stuff - income inequality, destruction of the environment, exploitation of the poor - that, to his mind, cannot be addressed by the current hopeless system that exists only to serve huge corporations. This is good stuff, obviously, but as a consequence of Brand's stated refusal to vote for any existing politician, his interview with Paxman was DOA (in a way that made for compelling viewing). If Russell Brand can't be bothered to vote, what right does he have to talk about politics?
Actually, Brand defended himself pretty well on the BBC, but his critics are right to take issue with his all-or-nothing political stance, wherein Westminster and the White House must be torn down, wealth must be radically redistributed, and we must all learn to love Mother Earth, or else Russell Brand's just not interested. In his New Statesman essay (a bright but near unreadable document containing his usual overwrought language - words like "neurodross," "carbuncled," and "pearlescent" - which is so entertaining on TV but difficult to slog through 5,000 words of), he says that he's chosen to write about "the subject of revolution because . . . imagining the overthrow of the current political system is the only way I can be enthused about politics." He admits that he's "bored" by elections.
Well, I appreciate the honesty, but this statement may also be the reason we can't take Brand too seriously. Boredom, of course, is a luxury; it's easy to be bored inside a Hollywood mansion. Your life is great regardless, so naturally it feels to you as though nothing changes whether we elect a Republican or a Democrat. You're not worried that you won't have healthcare if the wrong candidate takes office or that the president is going to send your child off to die in a war, so . . . wake me up when the big-picture stuff starts happening, right? Brand may be right that certain huge problems will never be fixed by the current system, yet the current system does have the power to let people live or cause them to die and is therefore probably worth caring about. Yes, it's boring. It's uninspiring to acknowledge that the world today is better than it's ever been before, that people (not just the One Percent) are generally healthier and wealthier than ever, and that probably things will continue to get better in the same uninspiring way - without any revolution, without ever becoming great.
On the other hand, if Brand's declarations had been more nuanced or balanced, would he have done as well to feed the meme cycle? This really is the important thing: after all, he's a celebrity, not an academic - much like Susan Sontag, or Tom Wolfe, who apparently didn't know that he, too, was just a meme, his takedowns serving the same culture as that which prompted them. The whole "truth" is out there if we really want it - who cares? Sometimes we just want people to say things. Like Russell Brand, we just don't want to be bored.