In an interruption to normal service, I am taking the liberty of using my blog to engage with popular culture. In case you’ve missed it, Russell Brand, a British comedian, mainly famous for marrying an American pop star and for being an ex-heroin addict, has written an article calling on British people to start a revolution.
In a rather bloated and meandering diatribe, Mr Brand moans about his disillusionment with British politics, stating that “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”. To which my initial response is – “you don’t know you’re born, son!”.
Of course, it is true that there are politicians who you shouldn’t trust and that the system that supports them in this country is far from perfect. But I would really encourage Mr Brand to go and take a look at the political systems in some other places before whining about what we have. When the expenses scandal broke in the UK, I spoke to a number of African friends who were shocked – not that MPs were using public money for personal gain – but by the fact that anyone cared about politicians stealing what to them seemed like trivial amounts. We should be delighted that we live in a country where that type of behaviour IS seen as a scandal.
In many countries, politicians and officials routinely make use of public funds. In some cases this is illicit (see the recent scandal in Malawi). But the amount of funds that goes to support politician’s ‘legitimate’ expenses in many countries is even more shocking. For example, many politicians expect to be paid ‘sitting fees’ (on top of their inflated salaries) for turning up to meetings. This, along with accommodation at expensive hotels and business class travel is seen as normal and legitimate. I turned up to one meeting with a group of MPs in one African country and each of them was given an ‘arrival present’ of a high-spec new laptop (paid for with public money) to thank them for their attendance. A government official from a country in which millions of people live in poverty complained to me at a conference that his accommodation was not acceptable since when he travels he expects to stay in hotels with a minibar, a Sky Sports subscription and a Jacuzzi. While on a trip to another desperately poor country, the nation’s only functioning ambulance was taken out of service for a day in order to escort a group of dignitaries on a trip to the beach.
Mr Brand’s statement that “apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents the vast majority of people” suggests he believes that there was a previous golden age in which the system did represent all people and the people were as a result motivated and engaged – a concept which I find hard to swallow. He appears to believe that this golden age was responsible for all the great advances such as “the formation of the NHS, holiday pay, sick pay, the weekend” and that no further advances have been made in living memory. Really Russell? Really? I mean there is the small matter of equal marriage for gay people, equal rights for the disabled, the minimum wage, flexible paternity arrangements… All advances which have taken place during my lifetime and thus, presumably, his (unless he is in fact a toddler… and his whiny manner does make me wonder…).
Maybe, the fact that there are not revolutions on the streets of Britain is not because everyone is disillusioned and apathetic. Maybe it’s because some people recognise that they are bloomin’ lucky to live in a place in which they are comparatively free and have relatively equal access to opportunities. Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna and there are many things about the UK which I think could and should change. Of course prejudices exist in the UK including racism, sexism, homophobia and the rest. But I feel incredibly lucky to live somewhere where such behaviour is increasingly socially unacceptable and, crucially, not sanctioned by politicians. I still remember the first time I truly felt proud to be British (a relatively controversial sentiment for a Scottish person!) and it was when I happened upon a gay pride march in central London and saw the Gay and Lesbian Society of the Metropolitan police proudly marching in uniform down Oxford Street.
Rather predictably, Russel attempts to regain some credibility by telling a story about how he had visited poor suffering children in Kibera slum in Nairobi – poverty porn destination of choice for celebrities wishing to demonstrate their caring side (see @mjrobbins’ great article on Kibera here). This visit apparently made him feel a little bit guilty for a while about his lavish lifestyle and shallow existence. But rather than dwell on that for too long, Brand seems to have decided that fomenting unrest and railing against the evil capitalist system with pseudointellectual tripe is the most appropriate way of saving the world.
Brand attempts to deflect criticisms by acknowledging that people will accuse him of being a hypocrite who is “a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth”. In a way, this is a clever rhetorical device – somehow by getting in there first and predicting how he will be viewed, he almost manages to persuade the reader that the accusations that will be levelled at him are unfair. But actually, in the remainder of the article he does not really say anything that persuaded me not to view him in this way. He comes across as someone who badly needs to get some perspective in his life.
Right, sorry about that – I realise it was a bit of a rant. If you need some light relief, I recommend you check out someone else who decided to put on their fighting trousers here. Alternatively, if you want to hear more reactions to the Russell Brand article, check out this article from @arobertwebb and this editorial from @helenlewis.