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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Funny man delivers a serious message

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Brand's words sound over the top, but maybe he has a point

Russell Brand believes democracy's failings make revolution inevitable.
Russell Brand believes democracy's failings make revolution inevitable.

He's a stirrer, a gadfly, a provocateur who wants to challenge our assumptions and stimulate debate. He seems to be doing rather well at it.Russell Brand is probably best-known in New Zealand for his brief marriage to pop princess Katy Perry, which he terminated by text.

(It wasn't completely out of the blue: Katy sensed something was amiss when she went unannounced to his stand-up comedy show and found many of the jokes were at her expense.)

The Englishman made a name for himself as an edgy TV presenter, author and prankster who traded on his adventures in self-destruction: alcoholism, drug addiction, bulimia.

He's now a teetotal vegan who seeks the meaning of life in Eastern religions.

He's had some success in Hollywood playing a toned-down version of himself in a string of unmemorable films.

He continues to burnish his reputation as a Lothario, his latest conquest being Jemima Khan, ex-wife of lordly cricketer turned politician Imran Khan.

A journalist who fell under his spell recounted a manic charm offensive that included him singing her James Blunt songs over the phone. He terminated that relationship by appearing in the social pages in his capacity as supermodel Kate Moss's new boyfriend.

A busy boy then, but, perhaps as a result of being a teetotal vegan, Brand recently found time to dip his toe into the political swamp.

He guest-edited the left-wing journal New Statesman and engaged in an on-air joust with the BBC's heavyweight interviewer, Jeremy Paxman.

After revealing that he has never voted and urging others to follow his example to avoid being complicit in a rotten, undemocratic process, Brand delivered a theatrical lecture on the failings of Western democracy which, he believes, make revolution inevitable.

This comment summarises his stance: "Like most people, I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites."

In their single-minded focus on serving the interests of the economic elite, says Brand, politicians are allowing the planet to go to rack and ruin, ignoring the people they are supposed to serve and fostering massive inequality which in turn has created a sullen, apathetic underclass.

The backlash was swift. In fact, it began during the interview, when Paxman dismissed Brand as "a trivial man".

Some of Brand's critics never got beyond asserting that he shouldn't be paid any attention because he's an actor/comedian.

The implication, of course, is that discussion of serious issues should be left to serious people, the sort of academics and commentators whose contributions are composed - and usually read - with a furrowed brow.

Others zeroed in on his fluency - and Brand is nothing if not fluent; he must be one of the most articulate people on earth - to portray him as a grown-up version of the pretentious undergrad whose vocabulary outstrips his knowledge and who thinks it's cool to strike revolutionary poses.

As author and columnist Nick Cohen put it: "He does not know what happened when men burning with zealous outrage created states with total control of 'consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system' - and he doesn't want to know either."

I suspect Brand has a fair idea: even Perry acknowledges that he's a very smart guy.

The mistake his critics make is to react to his performance as if he's a political theorist or a politician, figures who should expect to be asked "Well, what do you suggest we do about it?" if they go around saying everything is stuffed.

Brand is neither. He's not really even the political activist he claims to be. He's a stirrer, a gadfly, a provocateur who wants to challenge our assumptions and stimulate debate. He seems to be doing rather well at it.

And when you strip away the rhetorical flourishes designed to get attention, are his claims really that outrageous?

Isn't it true that, even in supposedly egalitarian New Zealand, we've seen a widening gap not just between rich and poor, but between the rich and the salaried middle class?

Aren't we witnessing the emergence of an underclass stunned - and, in some cases, stoned - into apathy because they sense "the system" has given up on them?

In America, the spiritual home of democracy, Republicans in the House of Representatives are now solely concerned with pandering to the zealots who dominate party membership in their gerrymandered districts.

This week New Jersey's Republican Governor, Chris Christie - one of the few remaining recognisable human beings in his party - pointed out that Republican obstructionism in Washington had held up distribution of billions of dollars in federal aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy by six months.

Is that the "government of the people, by the people, for the people" that Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, evoked in the Gettysburg Address? Or does Brand have a point?

- NZ Herald

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