Brand at the Union: the Risibility of Russellmania

Image credit: Chris Williamson

Achtung! Achtung! Britain’s favourite revolutionary rapscallion has come to the Cambridge Union to spread the word! (‘What word?’ you may ask, to little avail.) And such piercing perspicacity he imparts unto the audience – did you know that Heaven works at a “subtler vibrational frequency” than the Earth? That political violence and “mass disobedience” are the only way forward? That “the citadel of the self isn’t real”? Oh, and remember – “Be true to your essential self; don’t fuck anyone else over”. Words to live by indeed, though you might want to be wary of the fact that his advocacy of violence has gone from implicit to explicit.

Russell Brand’s talk at the Union will have proven to those who have held shares in the volatile stock market that is Brand’s Weltanschauung that the man is little more than an impeccably coiffed maelstrom of narcissistic, verbose wankery. Liked that sentence? Chances are you like Russell. His repeated mispronunciation of words like ‘Sisyphus’, ‘predestined’ and ‘filtration’ barely registers as he resorts to his trademark method of flabbergasting everyone with his voluminous vocabulary.

Given his practically self-bestowed ‘spokesman of a jaded generation’ mantle, his refusal of both student and national press interviews was a little unexpected. Still, I thought to myself before watching the live stream, it’s the Cambridge Union. He’ll have to up his game, or the audience will tear him to pieces.

He didn’t up his game, and I suppose that deep down I was cynical enough to not be particularly surprised. What threw me completely was the sheer inadequacy of the interviewer and of the audience’s questions. The interviewer began promisingly, archly mocking Brand’s highbrow-lowbrow-mumbo-jumbo synthesis by enquiring rhetorically, “Was it Nietzsche or Kanye West that said, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’?” From then on, the ‘interview’ increasingly resembled a match between a tennis pro and a soft wall of foam rather than a match between two able sportsmen. After eliciting a negligible silence by asking Russell if he could ask Russell a question, the interviewer back-pedalled rapidly and needlessly: ‘Do you not want to talk about that? What would you like to talk about?’ And he could have asked many interesting and thought-provoking questions about Smiths frontman Morrissey, but he finished off the ‘interview’ with: “Whose discography do you prefer: the Smiths, or solo Morrissey?”

The audience questions were little better. Most of them humoured Brand almost pathetically, with assumptions of revolution and ill-defined ‘spirituality’ incorporated into the questions themselves. It was left to Jennie King and a final questioner I couldn’t identify to finally ask the sensible questions, the ones I assume the audience was there to hear. Unfortunately, the minute it became clear that King’s question – about the difficulty in quantifying Brand’s nebulous concept of “general will” – was going somewhere interesting, the star of the show began to talk over her, digressing with references ranging from an “informed electorate” to the induction of orgasms. Perhaps there were lots of audience members with burning but brilliant questions that coincidentally weren’t selected; we’ll never know.

While the Cantabrigian crowd fell astoundingly short of expectations, failing to be the “smart fucks” Brand claimed they were, the man himself looked marginally more foolish than usual. When asked why he was referring to himself as a drug addict in the present tense, he evaded the question in the most ridiculously sincere fashion: “Let’s not get caught up in animalistic concepts like ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’.” To Brand, clearly, the ability to probe temporal and historical consciousness is indigenous to non-humans. His purportedly pithy observation “Socialism is Christianity politicised” suggests he knows little about either phenomenon: it has some truth to it, but without qualifications it’s no more than a facile sound-bite. And his invocation of Clegg’s betrayal is worse than patronising – it shows lack of imagination.

Sadly, the depressing news doesn’t stop there. Brand’s advocacy of violence is a particularly difficult pill to swallow because it is mired in confusion and self-contradiction. He espouses libertarianism (“Drugs should be completely legal and unregulated… [it’s] not the business of the state”) while maintaining that humans are only divided “temporarily and atomically”. Inbetween gyrating wildly, miming masturbation and losing his train of thought, he also finds time to address politicians non-ironically (“Wait ‘til we smash your fuckin’ windows, that’ll let you know! We’ll torch your Parliament – is that clearer?… We’re coming for your jobs”) while claiming that the revolution must be built on “love, tolerance and compassion”. And how’s this revolution going? “[It] will happen instantaneously. It’s happening now.” Strange – all this “mass disobedience” he’s preaching must have passed me by.

We’re left with gobbets such as “authority figures [like teachers] aren’t all cunts… but they’re mostly cunts”, and “Let’s not be bound by illusions that we can’t do what we want. Of course we fucking can!” The latter recalls a certain line spoken by Jay Gatsby – you know, the one about repeating the past. We all know what happened to Gatsby; Russell, however, is too cynical to reach the same fate. At times, he is openly facetious about his lack of interest in helping bring down the colossal, corrupt corporations and structures for whose destruction he calls: “Investigate it for yourself… I certainly can’t be bothered.”

Brand’s contradictory personality is hardly headline news; it’s because of their nakedly personal messiness that people like himself and Kanye West are the subjects of endless fascination on the part of the liberal media. Brand himself must be only too aware of the dissonances sounded by his own muddled ideas. Usually, the man is amusing, and he’s occasionally interesting to watch; it is true that he injects some much-needed adrenaline into otherwise anodyne discourses. But his speech at the Union was downright embarrassing. Not that you’d know it from the fawning reactions of an obsequious audience.

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