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Truthdigger of the Week: Russell Brand

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Posted on Oct 27, 2013
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By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
—William Blake

We in the West are rightly weary of lofty pronouncements from celebrities. In societies shaped by advertising, sane people come to regard statements by the rich, with their carefully constructed images, with extreme skepticism. Promotions for products and political personalities turn out too often to be lies designed to steal money from unwitting consumer citizens, falsehoods that additionally rob their victims of precious time and a measure of their inborn ability to trust.

What to think then of the most recent performances by British comedian Russell Brand? Earlier this month it was announced that Brand, who has been increasingly vocal in his dislike of all manner of elites, would guest-edit an issue of the London-based left-liberal magazine New Statesman. The theme? Revolution. An early-October interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones offered an unofficial preview of what was in store to viewers unacquainted with Brand’s political thinking. A newcomer myself, I concluded at the time that the basics of Brand’s sense of what’s wrong were spot on, but that his insistence on mystical sources of salvation exposed him as another celebrity detached from reality. Now, after watching him deflect the provocations of BBC stuffed shirt Jeremy Paxman, and reading his essay in the latest issue of New Statesman—which deserves to be read for its dead-on insight and playful, engaging voice (“The price of privilege is poverty. David Cameron said in his conference speech that profit is ‘not a dirty word.’ Profit is the most profane word we have.”)—I’m less sure.

“Russell Brand, who are you to edit a political magazine?” Paxman asked at the start of their interview as it appears on YouTube. “Is it true you don’t even vote?” he added.

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“Yeah, no, I don’t vote,” Brand responded. “Well how do you have the authority to talk about politics then?” Paxman asked. “I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people,” Brand explained. “I look elsewhere, for alternatives that might be of service to humanity.” Gripping his thigh with one hand, an incredulous Paxman inquired, “They being?”

“Well I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy!” Brand responded. “I had to do a magazine last week. I’ve had a lot on me plate. But I say, here’s the thing you shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people. The burden of proof is on the people with the power. Not people, like, doing a magazine [which includes writing by Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein] for a novelty.”

Let’s spend a moment reviewing Russell Brand’s personal history. Wikipedia says he was shipped around during a lonely childhood that included at least one episode of sexual abuse. At some point his father took him on a sex tour of the Far East, presumably in his teens. Around age 17 he enrolled on a scholarship in a prestigious theater school, but was expelled after a year for missing class and using drugs. By the year 2000 he was performing stand-up, and in 2004, around age 29, he embarked on a one-man show centered around an allegedly honest account of his years of addiction to heroin.

We don’t need to guess at the nature of this experience. We have it in Brand’s own words, embedded in a testimony he gave in April 2012 to the British House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. Brand became a drug addict, he said, “because of emotional difficulties, psychological difficulties and perhaps a spiritual malady. For me, taking drugs and excessive drinking were the result of a psychological, spiritual or mental condition. ... I was sad, lonely, unhappy and detached, and drugs and alcohol for me seemed like a solution to that problem.” Addiction is a “disease” and an “illness,” he declared, which led to him being arrested 12 times. “I was a criminal when I was a drug addict ... by virtue of my addiction, and the ways that I had to acquire money to get drugs.” He credits his recovery to the methods of Focus 12, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization that he now helps support financially and which is helping large numbers of other addicts recover.

What stands out from all of this is the comedian’s obvious deep, personal acquaintance with suffering and taboo joys, and an accompanying inability to burnish himself with an image that commands the respect of those who regard straightened ties, perfect grammar and a refusal to swear as true marks of decency. Brand did everything those people learned not to. Though it was not always healthy or attractive, he energetically embraced life. He didn’t go to Eton, the proud training ground of so many well-behaved scions of the kingdom and then the empire. He dropped out of school, dove headfirst into a hedonistic decade of drugs and alcohol, and took his pleasures between the thighs of who knows how many women. Having survived the variety of experiences of youth and taken their lessons seriously, he is now more or less always free to be at play.


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