Internet Histories | 28 October
Russell Brand, voting and investment theory
Art and the Artist
Credulity in the ocean, in the bedroom, on the internet
Russell Brand got interviewed on Newsnight and served a reporter, and now people on Facebook want him to go into politics! That's the gist of the weekend's trending YouTube clip, and the idea is insufferable on multiple levels, right?
But then, I spent ages thinking Russell Brand was insufferable overall. Totally took him to be the 21st century wave of British light-ent who plastered WB Smith in bestseller titles with names like "My Booky Wook", prank called old people on shock jock radio, and failed to get the part of Super Hans when he auditioned for Peep Show. The idea that he was going to be the sort of person you'd seek out reading in the papers based on Get Him To The Greek was out of the question. But I'm wrong - the piece he wrote after Thatcher's death was devastating and personal, the blow-by-blow travelogue of a red-carpet night at the GQ Awards worked just fine without the 'payoff' of him getting kicked offstage (honestly, it didn't add that much).
But they're small change compared to having been viewed 7.5 million times or so on YouTube. I like his exchange with Jeremy Paxman a lot, and though I think there's a risk some people took the wrong message away and there's some points I'm still up in the air about myself, I'm glad it's something this many people have seen.
The 'bad', first - most of which was out of Brand's control. There seems to be this notion that Jeremy Paxman, one of the best political interviewers anywhere, got resoundingly dealt to - that he's a guardian of the establishment and Brand took him down a peg or two. In fact, Paxman's efforts have probably done plenty to achieve what Brand would probably like to do on a more utopian scale, either extracting some clarity and candour from Britain's political class or practically eviscerating them when they don't: this exchange with ex-Tory Minister Chloe Smith is hard to watch. If he was seen to be asking hard or blunt questions of Brand, it still wasn't the same sort of scrutiny someone in Cabinet gets. And for his part, it made Brand focus and qualify what he was saying. This would not be getting talked about if it was a fawning pulpit to let a famous person expound their 'deep thoughts', largely interrupted.
Harder for me was the generalised "don't vote" message that comes stridently through in the first few minutes - though I know I'm conflating it with a whole lot of cynical Reddit-level Internet dudes with Dark Knight posters feeling vindicated after hitting pause, having got their takeaway - "YEAH! THEY'RE ALL LIARS". I don't think Brand is being cynical, though, and his immediate response is to call for change and for a structure (still resembling a state, because it's hard to see how he'd get his environmental or redistributive outcomes otherwise) that he would want to vote for. But holding back until you get it?
Voting, not voting, and the dickwaving around either move is something I've been prevaricating on for a bit. In the past, I've been quick to pile onto that particular breed of whiny US columnists who do open letters to Obama about how he betrayed a particular interest that only educated middle-class people care about (Internet freedom, Prism, nuances of foreign policy) and how They-Are-Taking-A-Stand this time by not voting at all. Which seemed like a awfully selfish form of letting "perfect be the enemy of the good" while other people depend on "okay being the alternative to completely horrible". That is, opting not to vote when you've got nothing to lose is a pretty privileged place to be.
Except - except. In places like the States, and the UK, and here - people who have the most to lose aren't voting, and doing so in record numbers. At which point I've seen the argument in favour of voting turn into a reinvigorated form of missionary heroics: "well, then, it's our job to vote for them". If this raises a few problems for you, maybe you can just single out the big, mathy, statisticy one. In Brand's England, where a whole class of people were left out of politics by Thatcher, a few more left under New Labour, and none came back, lofty discussions about civic duties to vote or not vote are kind of like questioning the legality of a try ad infinitum and never actually checking the result. So I think he's entitled to say "this isn't working" - particularly since he's not adding ", so fuck it".
My understanding is that Brand didn't go to university, and it seems like he's reasonably wary about reeling off a whole list of names he didn't study. Which puts him above most of us that actually finished a degree, but the interesting thing is that he's intuitively pulling in directions that political scientists have already identified. The idea that "voting doesn't have the effect you think it does, because a lot of these electoral and policy shifts are dictated by corporations" isn't all that far away from Thomas Ferguson's investment theory of political party competition. Neither Ferguson nor his peers (nor Brand, for that matter) go down the Illuminati-rabbit hole and suggest that this is a matter of fixing elections - but they do recognise that a combination of labour-intensive and capital-intensive business elites are going to want different things at different times, and that to achieve these they'll send messages to political parties about "what needs to happen" that those parties in turn send to their voters.
Ferguson's thesis is that this will sometimes mean positive outcomes for some voters, and sometimes mean negative outcomes for some voters - but they shouldn't go patting themselves too eagerly on the back when things go in their favour, and they don't have great electoral options if they're not. Where different elites want different things (protectionism vs free trade is a good example) parties might offer some significant points of difference. Where they're broadly in agreement, Ferguson describes it as such:
"If it pays some other bloc of major investors to advertise and moblize, these appeals can be vigorously contested, but - and this is the critical deduction which only an investment theory of parties can draw - on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition will take place. Instead, all that will occur will be a proliferation of marginal appeals to voters - and if all major investors happen to share an interest in ignoring issues vital to the electorate, such as social welfare, hours of work, or collective bargaining, so much the worse for the electorate."
Ferguson pointed the following way out in the late eighties (in a US context, mind):
"Once it is clear that most ordinary people cannot afford to control the governments that rule in their name, then the normative remedy is obvious: public participation must be subsidised, and the costs of its major forms made as low as possible....the prerequisites for effective democracy are not really automatic voter registration or even Sunday voting, though these would help. Rather, deeper institutional forces - flourishing unions, readily accessible third parties, inexpensive media, and a thriving network of cooperatives and community organisations - are the real basis of effective democracy."
For all Brand's talk about revolution (which, given that an iOS update can be a revolution in 2013, isn't a super-edifying word at this point), these seem like a good start in terms of what a counterbalance looks like. It's worth noting that we (and France, and Germany, and others) have effective third parties now and forms of proportional representation, and I'm still convinced that's a sort of safety valve the US and UK badly need, though it's not a total fix. It's a pity Brand wasn't going out on a limb like this before the damp chode of a referendum to replace First-Past-The-Post in the UK in 2011 (42% turnout, Labour and the Conservatives did their best to kill it).
Still - it's great, whether you're fully in agreement or not (not sure) - that, like , millions of people have seen this - someone talking about the possibility of alternatives without speaking down to people in theoreticals, and not stumbling into complete sloganeering, and retaining an edge, a real note of anger when they do it. The bit about the halls of power (and all interactions with power, really) being designed for one group of people to feel comfortable and a different group to feel anxious is magnificent. And the last minute was sad and triumphant (and suggested that Brand had researched his interviewer as much as Paxman did his subject). I'm glad the guy's around.
When The Ghost Writer played at the film festival a few years ago, my flatmate refused to see it. “Polanski,” she spat, condemning his entire oeuvre, declaring she would never see any of his films again. Not because she considered him a bad filmmaker but because supporting his films meant supporting a man who was guilty of having sex with a thirteen year-old girl.
Okay. So: In no way do I condone his behaviour. In no way do I not find it appalling and upsetting. But my argument at the time – and it’s one I’m still grappling with – is that you should be able to separate an artist’s life from their art. That’s not to say I think their experiences and values and concerns are kept separate. Of course they’re not. It’s essential they’re not, which makes it a tricky line to draw, especially compared to the scientists and politicians and activists of the world, the ones whose private lives feel more clearly demarcated from the work they’ve produced. It’s work that doesn’t require the same kind of psychological vulnerability, so they leave fewer trace elements of themselves on the screen, the page, the walls.
There are a few obvious exceptions like when you’re reading the artists themselves. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I got to see the wonderfully exuberant Ali Smith at the Manchester Literature Festival. She described in that talk the life-changing optimism-inducing experience of reading Angela Carter’s short stories chronologically: “Her art changes in such a way that it really changes your soul to see. She comes from dark, painful misery– she had gangrene, actually – she comes from dark, painful misery about the impossibility of love and the terribleness of the ways in which love will visit pain on us and moves through these books to come to this great laughter, this great orgasm, this happy and excited jouissance. Real pleasure. So by the time you get to the end of her work you know that lives can change. Things can change. Politics can change and all these things are possible... Never mind that you’ve read some of the best stories you’ll ever read along the way.”
It’s such a beautiful reading of her evolution and one you’d never get if you didn’t make Carter the spine, both in terms of her psyche and her craft.
Joe’s already touched on Brand above, and I’m in agreement with his appreciation of the dude. I think it’s wonderful when people use their voice to champion something they feel passionate about in an open way – encouraging discussion rather than claiming superiority while making wild and incomprehensible leaps in logic. Or, in the case of the extraordinarily awful Canadian novelist David Gilmour (whose novel Extraordinary was longlisted (though not shortlisted) for the Giller), boasting on his publisher’s own blog about holding a bingo card-worthy list of prejudices:
I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.
I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
It’s the kind of interview where you can’t help but wonder if he’s taking the piss and maybe he is, a little, but mostly he’s not. Following the interview he pulled the classic sorry-if-you-were-offended non-apology and explained he’d been misinterpreted:
I said, look, I’m a middle-aged writer and I am interested in middle-aged writers. I’m very keen on people’s lives who resemble mine because I understand those lives and I can feel passionately about them – and I teach best when I teach subjects that I’m passionate about.
Look, it’s not his fault his taste reflects his values.
A few quick links: I'm consistently in awe of the pieces being produced in American GQ and recommend all three profiles in their August issue: Joe Biden (which shapes an emotional narrative so stunningly), Thomas Quick, the most notorious serial killer in Sweden (the component parts of which will floor you - this is one of the most bizarre and disturbing crime stories I've read) and this incredible one of Bryan Cranston which should serve as a model for what makes a great profile. Also from GQ is this fantastically compelling essay by Vanessa Veselka on searching for the trucker who nearly killed her so many years ago - a man who potentially, perhaps definitely, brutally tortured and killed countless other teenage runaways just like her.
And: I remember being so stupidly blown away when I realised the obviously fraudulent nature of Nigerian scams just serve to maximise the signal-to-noise ratio of idiots: the more obvious the scam, the more likely it is that someone responding is going to be stupid enough to send you cash. That makes this prank, where a guy tricks some scammers into transcribing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - by hand - so appropriate and so entertaining.
Last time I went out on the water a huge pod of dolphins kept pace with the boat for a few minutes, racing and playing under a cobalt sky. I’d never seen such a thing before – a hundred sleek grey mammals leaping like salmon from the Hauraki Gulf – but managed to snag a video, and I don’t think I’ll forget it soon.
This is the kind of first-hand experience that’s personally meaningful, but ultimately not a particularly great indicator of dolphin life in the Gulf. It’s a snapshot of a certain place on a certain day and time, of conditions that are either rare or common – but who knows? A story did the social media rounds last week with a clickbaitingly distressing title: ‘The Ocean is Broken.’ For the first time in ten years, a sailor retraced his journey from Australia to Japan to the US, and was confronted by a cursed quiet wasteland.
''After we left Japan it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,'' Macfadyen says. ''We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. I've done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I'm used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles, there was nothing alive to be seen.'' But garbage was everywhere. ''Part of it was the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan a couple of years ago. The wave came in over the land, picked up an unbelievable load of stuff and carried it out to sea. And it's still out there, everywhere you look,'' Macfadyen says.
It’s moving stuff, and I’d recommend reading it, but it’s the perspective of a single man’s single journey, and by placing too much emphasis on a solitary striking account we risk sinking into a shrugging fatalism as deep as the ocean we surely can’t save. This point was rammed home in a piece by marine scientist Carlos Duarte, who wrote something of a rebuttal in The Conversation:
We scientists are to blame, to some extent, as we love bombarding people with trouble and bad news, composing a narrative that is overly apocalyptic, what I refer to as the plagues of the ocean. Depicting the ocean as broken makes the problem seem boundless and eventually deters society from engaging, giving up to an ocean portrayed as already broken. The conventional narrative extends from plastic pollution and overfishing into a litany of plagues including the proliferation of impacts associated with climate change, hypoxia, eutrophication, ocean acidification, marine pests, such as spreading jellyfish blooms, and loss of valuable habitat. Many of these are happening, but their severity and immediacy are sometimes exaggerated through a feedback loop involving, among other factors, spinning of research headlines to compete for media attention. […] We also now know that many changes that are portrayed as symptoms of a broken ocean, such as coral bleaching, outbreaks of populations such as that of the of crown of thorns starfish or toxic algae, and others, may largely represent symptoms of global oscillations, which we do not yet fully understand and where human drivers may play little or no role. Separating natural process from human impacts entwined in such fluctuations is a daunting task, so we should not be too quick to jump to conclusion and blame humans for all changes we perceive in the ocean.
He goes on to explore more fully some of the apparent devastation Macfadyen wrote about, and ends with a call to arms on a phenomena we can do something to change, immediately: our buying habits.
Should we eat tuna, which at trophic level 5 in the food web sits at the same level as a monster eating wolf-eaters, or should we settle for sardines, oysters and seaweed for tonight’s meal? Was that chicken we ate yesterday for dinner fed fish flour? Do we drive a 4WD car contributing to releasing CO2 that will acidify our oceans further, or do we cycle, drive a hybrid or electric vehicle or catch a bus powered by biofuels?
Obviously I’m not suggesting that the only non-fiction of value comes from within an academic framework. Take another story making waves last week: Japanese people can’t be fucked with fucking.
Japan's under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren't even dating, and increasing numbers can't be bothered with sex. For their government, "celibacy syndrome" is part of a looming national catastrophe.
It strikes me that both this and the ocean story have a similar eschatological bent – the end of life as we know it. This article, though, refers to some peer-reviewed papers to make a point:
A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. (There are no figures for same-sex relationships.) Although there has long been a pragmatic separation of love and sex in Japan – a country mostly free of religious morals – sex fares no better. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16-24 "were not interested in or despised sexual contact". More than a quarter of men felt the same way.
These statistics set the scene for a number of short interviews that follow, of happy young Japanese singles who each explain in strikingly similar terms why they abhor relationships. These are interspersed with explanations from Ai Aoyama, a sex counsellor:
Aoyama cites one man in his early 30s, a virgin, who can't get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers. "I use therapies, such as yoga and hypnosis, to relax him and help him to understand the way that real human bodies work."
This story works because it’s every Westerner’s conception of how Japanese society already functions. Keiko Tanaka, an actual Japanese person, writes on how Japanese social media users responded to the Guardian article:
In the days following its appearance online, the Guardian article was picked apart by Japanese and Japan-based Twitter users, who questioned the author’s interpretation of the data, her understanding of Japanese society and her grasp of its cultural norms. […] “@guardian #fail,” tweeted “American, Japanese” @eidoinoue. He pointed out that a study cited in the article as reporting that “an astonishing” 90% of young Japanese women believed that “staying single” was preferable, actually reports that nearly 90% of the women respondents said they planned on getting married. “Call me a snob,” he said to another Twitter user, “but I think people that report on Japan should understand Japanese language and use pure untranslated sources.” @hunyoki felt the author was mixing matters: “‘marriage', ‘sex', and ‘decline in birth rate’ are correlated, yet these are completely different issues to be addressed separately.” This sentiment was echoed by Tomomi Yamaguchi, who tweeted that the Guardian “seems to be confused which issue they intended to cover: lack of sex, or marriage, or decline in birthrate.” Another concern of Yamaguchi’s was that the author likely focused on urban areas, failing to address “the problem in the countryside where the decrease in number of children has quite a serious impact.” @Ucaty suggested that social desirability bias might have come into play: “I think Japanese people state less than the actual amount they study or their level of interest in sex. Just like when we used to say to our classmate right before the exam, “I didn't study at all last night”.
The important thing, I think, is to read these stories that appeal to our emotional or political or cultural biases without credulity; we should accept that things like ecosystems and eroticism are remarkably complex, and expect the literature concerning such subjects to be equivalently nuanced. This seems obvious, but the viral reach of these stories last week indicates that sometimes clicking share and basking in mutual outrage can be hard to resist, even if we should know better.