A new breed of political commentator has arrived in force recently: the comedian or well-known media personality who suddenly has a message for the world. But who are these people behind their carefully cultivated images, and why do we listen to their inexpert opinions?
The use of humour in politics has probably always existed, and indeed political satire too, but recently the line between what is a joke and what is important is increasingly blurred. It is, of course, a by-product of an increasingly politically indifferent generation which needs politics to be funny, lest it be disinteresting. This significant failing in Western democracy explains the rise of important figures such as Boris Johnson or Barack Obama, whose (public) personalities are deliberately cultivated to gain votes. This new breed of political commentator is not a desperate attempt to get young people involved in politics, but a trivialisation of important, and real issues which directly affect us.
The genesis of these attitudes can be seen in panel-shows like ‘Have I Got News For You?’, or ‘Mock the Week’. While the ability to satirize politicians is a necessary component of democracy, these programs can be accused of systematically trivialising political decisions through personal attacks on leaders. We might like to think of these programmes as ‘education through humour’, but really, the ignorant viewer is being fed an enema of political sludge. This week, Have I Got News For You thought we could all celebrate democracy by having a good old gawp at John Prescott looking uncomfortable in all of his own skin – God he’s so fat and old, right?
Russell Brand blurs this line between comedian and political-thinker like no-one else. Brand not only trivialises important issues, but he literally advocates further political disinterest. Personally, I must admit that upon watching the interview between he and Paxman recently, I was initially drawn in by his casual nihilism and conviction of the possibility for a better world – we all were. Yet throughout the following days, the video ‘Russell Brand tears journalist apart’ stayed fixed on the homepage of YouTube and was continually reposted, to what I’m sure we would all agree was a pretty weird level. It was clear that his views strongly resonated with many people.
As with all social media ‘phenomena’, it is important to ask why this is the case. This self-proclaimed ‘man of the People’ is considered to be representative in a number of ways. He represents a growing disillusionment with democracy and an estrangement with the political and corporate classes and he represents ‘the man who didn’t need society’. Which makes it even more important that, this man with little formal education should ‘tear apart’ a highly paid state journalist, educated at Cambridge. He attracts a growing number of young people and – this is where the problem starts – powerful individuals know it.
Brand ended a recent article for the New Statesman with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”. As recently pointed out by Robert Webb (also a comedian) telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea, because it gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people as they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.
Paradoxically, the very liberal democracy that Brand appears to resent is all that enshrines his present infallibility. Politicians conscious of their image, cannot deny the public platform to someone like Brand because to do so is to say, ‘Anyone who didn’t have a university education or is a former drug abuser cannot speak’. It is to present oneself as detached. If the need to be re-elected, or to achieve the vote of young people, is removed then so does the political deference to Brand’s views.
Finally, and most foreboding, is the carefully cultivated image as a nihilist revolutionary. His ability to make reference to Hugo Boss’s former connection to the Nazis, at a Hugo Boss sponsored event (and to get away with it) presents Brand with a larger-than-life image and the idea that he cannot be manipulated by the corpocracy. Yet ironically, Brand is the very thing he appears to be fighting against so ardently – he is essentially a brand of personality for consumption just in the same way as Kerry Katona or Gary Lineker; except while they may influence which packet of crisps to buy or at which supermarket our mums should shop, Brand is telling us how (or, how not) to vote.
Left-wing newspapers like the New Statesman (who recently made Brand temporary editor) not only make a lot of money from these kind of publicity stunts, but the increased number of readers are also more likely to read their other more moderate articles by professional commentators, which were tactfully woven through the edition. Who is this man, and all the other comedians who now have political views? What are their motives? And what are the motives of their supporters?
Like Brand, I will try my hand at prophecy: Sorry everyone, but there will be no revolution – only someone unaccountable profiting from our ignorance and innocence.