Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Clowns Attack! Or Why Russel Brand Offends All the Right (and Sometimes Left) People

Warning: dangerous when opinionated.
Clickbait links are the colorful, candy-coated landmines of the Internet. We all know they're full of empty calories (You Won't  Believe What Kim Kardashian Just Did!), provide traffic for dodgy commercial sites (Incredible Story Of How This Georgia Housewife Lost 30lbs In 3 Days!), and lead us to websites that we wouldn't want showing up in our web history (The Rude Pictures Of Obama The CIA Doesn't Want You To See!). The clickbait I almost invariably fall for is the kind that's offering me a clip of one of Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, who I'll get to see "takedown" or "destroy" some cruel/clueless/vapid right-wing pundit/pol/entity.

These video bits are usually smart and funny, and their targets always richly deserve the comic abuse thrown their way. Lately I've stopped biting on these clickbaits (and even watching the shows they come from) because there's something depressing about the enthusiasm that greets these "epic takedowns." The glee with which these bits are greeted online by those of a left-wing bent (and I'm pink verging on red) speaks to the absence of vigorously left-wing politicians and parties in the US, Canada and Britain. The takedowns done by TV's political comedians amount to a political form of whistling past the graveyard. These shows are an opiate that delude us into thinking that the cabal of rightist politicians, think tanks, advisory groups, and media conglomerates that dominate political discussion and decision-making are faced with a vocal, determined and effective opposition. They aren't.

The popularity of the political humor programs fronted by Jon Stewart & Co. is a testament to the lack of success of leftist politicians and organizations. All the riotous jokes, witty ridicule, and takedowns by these comedians have done nothing to retard the growth of income inequality; rollback government privatization; stem the tide of anti-union legislation; or diminish the increasing role of corporations in political life. All that laughter is the soundtrack to the morphing of the welfare state into the corporate state, If there were political parties fighting and winning battles for the majority, rather than the super-affluent minority, these shows probably wouldn't exist. In fact, back in the 1960s and '70s political comedy was relatively uncommon, and what little there was took the form of good-natured ribbing rather than today's acid attacks. The modern age of political comedy got underway in 1984 with Britain's Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show, which was a reaction to the rise of Margaret Thatcher (elected PM five years previously) and the concurrent dismantling of unions and the welfare state. Similarly, America's political comedy shows were a reaction to two terms of George W. Bush, the advent of Fox News, and the growing mainstream acceptance of barking mad groups such as the birthers, creationists, and the Tea Party.

Today, political comedy functions as a loud, entertaining, but toothless opposition party that helps hide the fact that the left has, to varying degrees, become mute and emasculated. Even the shows' stars sometimes seem to realize what's really going on; Bill Maher and Jon Stewart often complain that Obama isn't pulling his progressive, leftist weight. The right wing is quite aware of the harmlessness of left-leaning political comedy. Occasionally a Fox News anchor or Republican politician will get in a snit over something they heard on the Comedy Channel, but more and more often they simply ignore it. Stewart and the others have settled into their role as clowns and court jesters, people whose political opinions and barbs can be ignored because they present themselves entirely in the role of comics, and who takes that kind of person seriously?

And then we get to the curious case of Russell Brand, a comic who seems to make both the left and the right uncomfortable and angry. About a year ago Brand made waves in the UK when he advocated in print and interviews that people shouldn't bother voting since all the main political parties are simply playing minor variations on the same pro-corporate tune. More recently, he raised hackles on the right by suggesting that the rise of ISIS and its appeal amongst some British Muslims was partly attributable to British political policies and attitudes. I'm not going to argue the validity of Brand's opinions, but the flak he's taken seems to be as much about his background and profession as it is the intellectual strength of his arguments. What seems to have infuriated his critics is that this particular jester is daring to aggressively suggest alternative policies and points of view. This isn't what designated clowns are supposed to do. The mockery and caricature that typify programs like The Stephen Colbert Show passes without criticism on the right because it's largely calorie-free; their hosts put laughs ahead of advocacy at all times. When Brand combines humor and advocacy, and reaches a large audience, voices on the right get hot and bothered. This piece in the Catholic Herald is a typical response.

Brand's critics, from the left to the right to spittle-flecked Fox News personalities, make disparaging mention of his lack of qualifications to speak out on the issues of the day. He's often described as "only" being a comic, a celebrity, and a third-rate actor. Apparently being articulate, intelligent and passionate isn't enough. I can understand the angst about Brand's lack of qualifications. The mainstream media overwhelmingly favours and respects voices that are "qualified" by virtue of having degrees from the right universities, a job at a think tank or NGO, a position within government or a political party, or are ex-military officers. In the Catholic Herald opinion piece the writer says that Brand's "ignorance" might be aiding and abetting (to an undefined degree) the flow of Muslim jihadis from the West to Iraq/Syria. Just for argument's sake let's say Brand has somehow inspired one or two Muslim lads from Bradford or Manchester to decamp to an ISIS stronghold. The theoretical blood on Brand's hands would pale in comparison to what the tall foreheads from Oxbridge and the Ivy League, the writers on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and the legions of "experts" on CNN and Fox are responsible for. It's these people who supported the sanctions against Iraq (1990-2003) which led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 children, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in search of mythical WMDs. That conflict cost Iraq somewhere between 200,000 and one million lives, and those figures don't include those who died as result of breakdowns in health care delivery and sanitation.

It would seem that if you have the right kind of qualifications, and express yourself in a dry and academic tone, your opinion and advice can be as deadly as a car bomb or IED. Brand's rambling, witty, orotund musings have so far proven to be far less lethal. Just think what the body count would be if he had no sense of humor and a degree from the London School of Economics or Harvard.

No comments: