Bad Penny and Brand(ed) Journalism

[Note: More New Statesman non-news in a time of global Big Brother, Climate Calamity, $5.5 Trillion Held by 1,400 People, War is Peace, Lies are Truth, in a piece, titled: “A Discourse on Brocialism … On Brand, iconoclasm, and a woman’s place in the revolution: a dialogue with Richard Seymour on the question of how to reconcile the fact that people need stirring up with the fact that the people doing the stirring so often fall down when it comes to treating women and girls like human beings.”  Whew, more of the toilet training hissy fits!]

So, the left (sigh) isn’t done beating up on Russell Brand. Laurie Penny, the self promoting journalist (sigh again) could be counted on to scold Brand for his sexism, and to react defensively about this now over-hyped appearance on the BBC with Jeremy Paxman. Then we get the possibly even more parochial hectoring of Richard Seymour, a sort of celeb in the blogsphere, now graduated to gigs in the mainstream. But first Penny.

Penny spends several paragraphs explaining all the things Brand said that were right. In fact everything he said was correct. But he will be taken to task for his “sexist” comment at the top. Which when asked why he chose to guest edit, he answered ‘because an attractive woman asked me’.  That was it. Somewhere in the humorless world of Laurie Penny, this constitutes great harm. Or rather, it constitutes some really virulent form of racist sexist language. Now, it is sexist. But it certainly didn’t strike me as problematic. Given the wholesale violence against, especially, poor woman, and the rise in a semi institutionalized rape culture on campuses and more, in the military, and the stunning rise in abuse of female prisoners in the U.S., especially in privatized prisons, I’m not sure this amounts to anything like even a symbolic example of gender privilege. The issue isn’t that it’s not sexist, but that such  pious almost Victorian close readings of a comedian’s asides,and after which opening aside, followed a good deal of really cogent observations, feels profoundly misguided. But then Laurie Penny apparently has “suffered” in her professional life.

The problem with both Seymour and Penny, is that this character assassination of Brand is painfully short of specifics and examples. Here is Penny:

But what is this ‘real struggle’, if it requires women and girls to suffer structural oppression in silence? What is this ‘real struggle’ that hands the mic over and over again to powerful, charismatic white men? Can we actually have a revolution that relegates women to the back of the room, that turns vicious when the discussion turns to sexual violence and social equality? What kind of fucking freedom are we fighting for? And whither that elusive, sporadically useful figure, the brocialist?

What exactly has this to do with Brand ?

"It has to do with 'the problem of charisma'" (Photo: Getty)

Well, apparently his looks, and his being a man and a celebrity (his greatest sin for an ambitious self brander like Penny). Both Seymour and Penny seem distressed that Brand is attractive. Penny returns to this topic a good deal. And now this term “brocialist”. I mean what the fuck? It is this fatuous snarky sort of pseudo cleverness that really goes to the heart of the problem. A brocialist is what?  The degree of self loathing here is interesting. Penny is what, then, in her own mind? How has Brand’s appearance on the BBC been extrapolated to somehow demean the pathetic Trotskyists and their antiquated notion of revolution? Penny is guilty of a blindness to her own celebrity intoxication.

The revolution (a loaded term these days for a variety of reasons) is not about celebrity. Organizing at the community level is not affected by Russell Brand. All Brand did was speak the truth and inform many who might not otherwise attend local left party gatherings. That it is going to be demeaned repeatedly by arm chair revolutionaries like Penny is so expected. Lets look at Penny’s bio for a second: born in Brighton, attended the independent (costs money) school Brighton College, then went on to Oxford, and eventually became a blogger after a stint in a burlesque troop on campus. Right. Now, the affluent classes, it is my experience, tend toward a desire for proletarian authenticity. Penny went to Oxford, and apparently was a very good student. So, discussions of revolution seem a bit much coming from her, but again this may be why these terms need to be put to bed. But her desire to be associated with struggles of the poor is its own symptom, and in this she isn’t alone.

There is not going to be a storming of the Winter Palace. Power is decentralized. It is de-territorialized to be more au courant. And it is also acute. Social change wont happen or even be generated by Trotskyist parties still hawking their newspapers on street corners. I spent enough of my youth in custody to understand the draconian conditions of modern incarceration. So, to be clear, I have no diplomas, and did not attend college. That is my educational bio. Social change is going to come from a community level, autonomous zones, and also by cultural change, but first, there needs to be majority support, if only in sub regions.

Penny again: “I don’t believe that just because Brand is clearly a casual and occasionally vicious sexist, nobody should listen to anything he has to say.”

Vicious? And that word “clearly”. No, its not clear. And in any case, one needs examples. But its enough Brand has funny hair (but attractively funny). Its enough to attack him for who he has sex with. Personally, I don’t know because I don’t read tabloids. Penny, I guess, does.  Brand is a millionaire comedian. I quote a Wikipedia entry on his background…

Russell Edward Brand was born in Orsett Hospital in Grays, Essex, England. He is the only child of photographer Ronald Henry Brand and Barbara Elizabeth Nichols. Brand’s parents divorced when he was six months old, and he was raised by his mother. He has described his childhood as isolated and lonely. When he was seven, a tutor sexually abused him. When Brand was eight, his mother contracted uterine cancer and then breast cancer one year later. While she underwent treatment, Brand lived with relatives. When he was 14, he suffered from bulimia nervosa. When he was 16, he left home because of disagreements with his ill mother’s live-in partner.  Brand then started to use illegal drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, LSD, and ecstasy.

No Oxford. Dysfunctional family. Entered show business and had more success than some others I can think of. But let me quote Seymour here:

How can he be so heartfelt in his sympathy for poor women fucked over by the rich one minute, and yet sound like an enemy of women the next? Why do some men on the Left who plainly feel in some way oppressed and undone by masculinity, who are obviously hurt by patriarchy – not at all to the extent that women are, but in real, concrete ways – respond by embracing it nonetheless? It can’t just be that Brand is now a rich man. Loads of leftist men who have no economic stake in the system share these attitudes.

The system of patriarchy has a lot of material compensations and advantages to offer those who accept it and identify with it. To me, the rape jokes and misogynistic language – all this is straightforward symbolic violence, ascriptive denigration, and obviously linked to punishment for transgression. Whether knowingly or not, it’s an occasion for male bonding – the ’naughty’ laughter – and the production of a type of masculinity. It’s the exercise of a ‘privilege’ of patriarchy. Of course, not all men like or want such ‘privilege’. But for it to be effective, quite a large number of men and women have to accept its basic inevitability, its naturalness.

So, it is given at the start that Brand has sympathy for poor women but is an enemy of women because of his jokes and whatever. For his “style”. I am sure that Brand’s films are terrible, but I’ve not seen them, nor his comedy act. It probably is full of sexist jokes, but again, this raises the issue of celebrity. I worked in Hollywood. My background was more dysfunctional and certainly more impoverished than anyone in this column. I was lucky to jump from theatre to film for a decade. I made a fair amount of money, though honestly, not that much. Then I left. I DON’T want to be held accountable for most of the shit I was paid to write when I worked in Hollywood. Two things I am proud of. The rest is junk. My point is, that people are complex entities, and reducing them to the means they employ or take advantage of to pay bills is rather pointless. Also, people change. People wake up. The significant factor in this is that all the talk was generated by Brand’s interview on the BBC. It was a terrific interview. Nobody argues that. Nobody except Laurie Penny I guess, late of Oxford and Oxford University Light Entertainment Society. The impulse for policing of language is itself patriarchal and authoritarian. Its not that language doesn’t matter, it matters deeply. But when the discourse on language is generated by personal attacks, it becomes authoritarian and that in turn, is a part of patriarchal domination.

The class and gender inequality in society is a significant topic. It is significant in organizing, and it is significant culturally. But this sort of dialogue between Seymour and Penny raises so many straw men, so many generalizations, that the issue is obscured, because the real topic here is to attack Russell Brand and his hair. It is the love-hate dynamic that many in this society feel about celebrity. I have no idea if Brand will radicalize further. I hope so. But for now, I am happy with what he said, and I wonder at why Seymour, a once pretty cogent blogger and analyst, who has devolved a good deal as he climbs the recognition ladder and becomes his own small cottage industry, feels the need to attack Brand? Talk about sexual politics, about a rape culture and about a system of male domination and militarism and violence, but why attack a comedian for saying utterly supportable things? Oh, because he so represents “brocialism”, this pseudo category invented to serve as a platform for snark? Brand reached millions of people. That is good. What he said, everyone agrees, was good. He was a voice for change, if only for forty minutes.

As for Penny, there has always lurked within Penny, besides the obvious ambition and branding, a scary sort of police state mentality. For all her avowed anarchism, there is the sensibility of a prison guard on display. Penny appropriates the struggles of the poor, especially poor women, and those in the developing world. The point of this piece on Brand is, essentially, not to listen to him because he is a sexist man with swagger and charisma. Although, also attractive. And Seymour’s point is that …well, I don’t know what his point was, other than to shill for Laurie Penny. So I guess we chalk it up to career move.

I find myself having now written twice about a comedian I’ve never paid money to see. A comedian I know little about except for that he married, I believe, Katy Perry, who I also know little about. I heard the Paxman interview because it got attention. Here was a celebrity using air time well, smartly, and articulately, all of which is rare. If one is going to attack a performer for what they say or do, that seems utterly appropriate. But if you attack him for what he didn’t say, or for who he fucked, or for what he has done in the past, or for how he or she looks, then one had better make a very strong case with plenty of examples. Brand’s hair got more attention that most anything else, and for a blogger who continues to discuss public shaming and stigmatizing, the topic of Brand’s looks seems an odd.

For it is counterproductive to attack one of the few smart and truthful moments to reach mass media (and reach millions more than those newspapers reach on the corner, or any blog). See, that is the point. One can educate while not engaging in the character assassination. If one is there to point out the misogyny embedded in daily discourse, then do so. Is Brand the best example, directly following his rather impressive appearance on the BBC? If Penny finds Brand somehow  the embodiment of all male oppression of women, then I’d say, there is a problem of perception. But I also suspect, just the human tendency toward resentment. The fact that it is highly predictable for the left to react this way is the most depressing part of this. The tone of the white affluent leftist is invariably snarky. Snark is privilege, and its almost always white. Snark in the mouth of the poor turns into something else. Pathos perhaps. The career choice: “leftist”, or socialist, or radical, is its own disservice.

The desire to be punitive is patriarchal in my mind. The tendency to police. Penny even ends her piece with this:

All I’d like to add is that right now, women and girls across the world are clearly not going to wait patiently for liberation until the conclusion of a class struggle that speaks largely to and about men. They want change now and they are going to keep demanding it, and I believe that they — that we — will win. And brocialists everywhere had better listen, or get left behind.

That is the sound of warning and ultimatum. It is the voice of entitlement in a sense, a white voice from a classy University. It is not education, or inclusion. It is about winning a fantasy revolution in the mind. And throughout this article is the vocabulary of the post graduate University. It is an elitist vocabulary, it is every bit as expressive of class difference as posh accents.  The voice of Angela Davis or Rosa Clemente, or even Sarah Fowler, all tend to be more disruptive than the voice of Penny, even as they are more inclusive. They address the poor and the vulnerable, and they give voice to the poor and vulnerable as well. Their writing is based on an experience of a society based on class race and gender inequality. Penny is a white girl, a careerist, an Oxford grad, and a reactionary in her heart. She borrows issues from an underclass, an oppressed class she does not represent, and gives voice to, mostly, her own career. I find that institutional media platforms are the inheritance of the upper class, in general, and of accreditation. Personally, I would rather deal with the promise of Russell Brand at this point, than the veiled petulance and prohibitions of Laurie Penny.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Paul Haeder said on November 5th, 2013 at 2:55pm #

    Hey, John, I am 56, kick-ass, younger than most of my students in college — culturally and politically, that is. But, to be honest, I think we need to listen to someone like my significant other, my wife, who is, well, half my age-twice my wisdom. She’s on Facebook, Tweets, etc., but not a big fan of Tee-Vee. The interview Brand did, no matter how much we are putting into it, well, the comment about “a pretty woman asked me to write” was playing with the crap of these mainstream mushers. It was a play and a ploy. Satire must be dead, because he was pulling that card. He, I believe, was promoting the stupidity of Paxman. A joke. He anticipated the ire and flummoxed nature of Paxman and his cronies just deriding the New Statesman and Brand for attempting to allow for serious discourse from a celeb!

    Sexism? He was playing possum, as the parlance of old should be applied. He is a celeb, so, the pomposity of Paxman wondering how the hell a ragamuffin like Brand might end up penning in such a notably sad sack magazine, or whose bright idea was that, well, Brand did a double-whammy.

    It was a joke, not embedded, institutional, PTSD-inducing sexism. We really have lost our way to redouble our efforts to reinterpret what has not need for reinterpreting. It was a joke.

    Moving on . . . .

    On another note — I wonder what glib, freaky stuff will be penned about the Toronto mayor’s mea culpa but the election and job must go on comment today. Just listening to NPR and BBC, I have to upchuck the bizarre schoolmarmy pathetic judgments. CRACK COCAINE? OMG. One rock away from Breaking BAD bad people on TV.

    I sense this generation and the older farts are so, what, separated from the reality of Criminal In-Justice and Incarceration and Puritanical Prison Warehousing and 12 Steps to Repentance? Just hearing the news (sic), well, it indeed is a queer time for humanity. We are daft, patronizers, and delusional. I know for a fact that most Americans, at least, have a family member, or have had one, in the system of the War on Drugs, the War on Protest, the War on Debtors. Really, two degrees of separation.

    The broadcasters couldn’t believe this man hadn’t already committed seppuku!

    Quote —

    Toronto Mayor Rob Ford told reporters Thursday that he’s not stepping aside and plans to run in the next election, while ignoring calls to provide answers to the latest questions about an alleged drug video that he denies exists.

    Ford spoke with reporters after two more staff members abruptly left his office on Thursday, following on the heels of three of their colleagues who departed in recent days.

    Doug Ford ‘is not our candidate,’ Ontario PCs insist

    The mayor thanked the staffers for their service and said he plans to hire replacements in the near future.

    The mayor was emphatic that “the work is being done, phone calls are being returned, emails being responded to” in his office.

    The first question lobbed at Ford was whether he had ever used illegal drugs while serving as mayor of Toronto.

    “Anything else?” Ford responded, using a phrase that he would repeat several more times as reporters asked him about the drug video allegations.

    Ford defended his record as mayor and reiterated plans to seek the mayor’s job in next year’s municipal election.

    “I’m not stepping aside, I’m running in the next election and if the great people of this city want to go in a different direction, that’s what their prerogative is,” Ford said.

    He vowed that he would register for the mayoral race on the first day possible.

    End Quote —

    You want to write up a joint essay on this one?

  2. Paul Haeder said on November 5th, 2013 at 3:13pm #

    yeah, i sort of agree. I think the comment was perfectly fine. It was a joke. All true. I was sort of suggesting, that even if it was technically sexist in some weird context, that that’s not problematic. Its not offensive. I mean if THAT offends you (and i write all the time about this culture of hurt feelings) then there is a problem.

    This is also my sense of penny and even seymour’s over attention to how attractive brand was. It was very telling. Like sexy guys can’t be political and smart. It was all so puritanical.


    i gotta dig into the Toronto story.