Russell Brand divides opinion like no one else on the telly. But what kind of example does he set to young people?
Russell Brand - capturer of hearts, master of language, bamboozeler of minds. If you haven’t seen his interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight this week then you probably haven’t been on the internet.
Some important context – the interview goes alongside the current issue of the New Stateman, which Brand has edited. He’s also written a long piece in the magazine. The internet has been fairly split on this with some people rallying behind Brand to man the barricades (I need to stop watching Les Miserables on a loop), with others poo-pooing his ideas as all style, no substance (SPOILERS – it didn’t do Francis on Great British Bake Off any harm).
Me? I found it frustrating; frustrating because Brand gets so close to being utterly brilliant. Here’s an articulate, funny, attractive man, loved by young people, talking about genuine political engagement, the need for people to be politically savvy and do something about the issues that matter to them. This is exactly what we need; we need people who you’d normally see on E4 talking like they’re on BBC 4; we need Vernon Kay talking about poverty in the UK, Fearne Cotton highlighting global warming as a real issue and Nick Grimshaw inviting Angela Merkel onto his breakfast show. These things aren’t going to happen, but Russell Brand does talk about politics, does engage and does capture people’s imaginations.
But this only makes it worse when he uses the platform he has created to tell people that he has ‘never voted and never will.’ Brand followed this up by letting Paxman know that the ‘revolution is coming.’ In fact, the interview is ten minutes of this – an endless stream of pie-in-the-sky political thinking that you may hear from a politically informed but agitated sixth former. Paxman pushes Brand for genuine alternatives but Brand offers only vague hopes and dreams like a parrot that accidentally swallowed Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
Brand is right. Change is possible, and that change can be pushed forward by young people; so many of the great social and political revolutions have been. But his method is all wrong – we don’t need young people to opt out of the system, we need them to opt in. We need people to join political parties and change them from the inside or create viable alternatives. We need young people to engage in elections so their voice is genuinely heard, rather than shouting from the sidelines about the coming revolution, all the while never going near the ballot box.
There are unjust structures and policies which target the weakest and most vulnerable in this society and worldwide. But injustice doesn’t come undone by itself - it takes people standing up, engaging and doing something about it. As youth workers we should be showing young people that another world IS possible, but we need to be equipping them to do something about it. So listen to Brand, talk about his ideas with your young people, and then take or leave his thoughts while you go and change the world by getting your hands dirty.