The British comedian Russell Brand says we need a revolution, and suddenly the claim monopolizes many minds. Do we need a revolution? Inquiring minds want to know.
Judging from mainstream media’s discussions the answer must revolve around do we like Brand, or even think he is funny, or dislike Brand, or even think he is sad? So much for media substance.
In many people’s minds, however, what mediates our deciding whether we need a revolution is nothing about Brand himself but rather concerns about
1) the state of the world,
2) the benefits that could accrue from successful revolution, and
3) the catastrophes a failed revolution might precipitate.
No matter how partial and flawed Brand’s words are, even alternative and left media scrutinize them, not just mainstream pundits fixated on silly questions. When did you last see a call to revolution garner similar attention on the left, much less in the mainstream? Mainstream media anoints. Even the left listens and reacts. The hoopla is inevitable. No individual deserves blame. After all, a phenomenon is a phenomenon, even if it is media propelled.
Okay, what about Brand’s comments? First, he wants a revolution and we should welcome that he does. More so, that he said so publicly, even better. And we should also welcome that Brand says he wants revolution not as a provocation or punchline, but because people hurt while vile profit accumulates. We should also celebrate that Brand’s public pronouncement has generated wide sympathy. Of course, Brand offered only daft ideas for how a revolution might unfold or, even more so, for what it would yield – and for that reason, his comments did not speak to two thirds of what mediates a choice about do we need a revolution or not, as noted in points 2 and 3 above. But, honestly, how is that worse than the offerings of most folks who aren’t funny and don’t entertain, but are leftists?
Asked repeatedly what his alternative is, quite like many – most – other leftists, Brand won’t answer other than to note that slaves don’t need to be able to present an alternative to slavery to say that slavery should be overthrown. His observation is true, and it is even wise in some respects. Admission: It is also precisely how I used to answer that question, in 1968, though having gotten a bit older since then, I now feel that Brand’s not having a ready answer to such a question even though it isn’t his responsibility to do so, is unwise and even politically suicidal, because it allows dismissal of his whole revolutionary stance and drastically weakens the chances for anything collective and sustainable emerging from his moment in the spotlight. When Brand’s interviewer says why should we take you seriously if you offer no positive vision for what you say, the interviewer is probably poorly motivated, but that doesn’t mean his feeling is wrong, or that millions of others are wrong for feeling similarly. What do you want, how would we get it – are fair questions. Taking absence of an answer as an indication of lack of seriousness is reasonable.
Brand, I am told, is overtly and crassly sexist. I bet he starts to make amends for that, and that is to the good. He certainly appears to be more than a bit self centered. But why is that surprising, I wonder. Brand is a massive mainstream comedian operating in the upper byways of a sick society whose germs infect us all. Still, even with his blemishes, Brand took a step that most others in a position anything like his, avoid unto death. That is what’s surprising, not that Brand is sexist or self centered. And, yes, it is worthwhile clarifying the flaws in his words – though not formulated as flaws in Brand himself, who in any event, we don’t know – but it is also rather easy and safe.
Look at it this way. A prominent comedian goes on TV and calls for a revolution. He doesn’t have the most enlightened possible comprehension of the meaning of the word, it seems. He certainly doesn’t have ideal politics, quite evidently. But he is also clearly immensely better informed and better inclined than most famous celebrities. So the question arises, how should we engage when someone that prominent moves even just somewhat to the left, much less calling for a revolution, albeit with plenty of detrimental views still present? Should folks with longer histories and who have put in more study try to obliterate the prominent person moving leftward due to his having some daft or harmful residual views? Or should we praise the prominent person’s step to the left and try to facilitate his coming further by constructively addressing problems in what he has said? Put differently, should we point out flaws seeking a public beheading while we implicitly celebrate ourselves being smarter and more left than he? Or should we point out flaws, but supportively and constructively, while congratulating and even admiring his step leftward even as we try to facilitate additional steps?
Clearly I favor the latter path, but I think there is another possibility as well that could be even more valuable. We could suggest, for example, what could have been said, in this case by Brand, that would have been better. Rather than mainly picking on some personage such as Brand who was trying to do something valid and worthy, albeit without having sufficient understanding and while still parading some really harmful inclinations and views, we could try to indicate where he and others who may at some point be given a similar platform might go with their thoughts and words that would be more beneficial.
So, suppose you were in Brand’s shoes. You are a re-branded Brand, and you are, for whatever reason, given a pulpit from which to call for revolution and be heard far and wide. You are then asked the questions Brand was asked. How would you answer so that your words would have lasting positive impact?
Can you answer, for example, compellingly and succinctly, or even at some length if given ample time, the two key questions that Brand dodged? Not: what is wrong with society today? In a short exchange, he handled that one pretty well, albeit not remotely comprehensively. But how about the two follow up questions.
1) You say you want a revolution. Well, okay, what does it mean? How would society be different, not just in glorious outcomes like equity and justice that you and nearly everyone who isn’t psychotic would want, but in institutions and structures and practices that would make those outcomes real? What would your revolution bring in to replace the systems you reject? And
2) How would your revolution come about? Why should we think the process would yield the institutional outcomes you favor rather than leading to some disastrous nightmare, like many past revolutions?
I ask whether you could handle these queries because we who favor drastically changing society – revolutionizing it – need to admit that Paxman, Brand’s interviewer, was right about one thing. We will not have a massive and sustained movement for revolutionary change, nor will a revolution take us to desirable ends – unless and until we, and by we I mean pretty much all those who will participate in making such change happen – know at least broadly what we seek and how we will seek it. Asking Brand for answers arguably makes, as he adroitly pointed out, little sense. Asking ourselves, however, makes excellent sense.