Russell Brand (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Subversive man subverts

Russell Brand’s bad behaviour was rewarded by a progressive media in love with upending social norms

Artillery Row

Russell Brand is having his MeToo moment. The allegations are certainly disturbing, ranging from a secret three month affair with a 16 year old to multiple accusations of rape and sexual assault. Legally, we are obliged to extend to him the presumption of innocence. We should wait for a full accounting of the evidence against him, along with subsequent investigations in the media.

Brand’s power is entirely the product of progressive opinion

In the Brand case, however, disturbing signs of bad conduct were already out there. Regardless of whether the specific accusations (which Brand denies) stand up, he has spent decades openly and gleefully behaving badly. There will be a lot of moralising and false soul-searching in the next few weeks. It’s vitally important not to be taken in by it. Russell Brand is wealthy, famous and powerful not despite but because he was subversive, transgressive and outrageous. Progressive opinion will try to make him an object lesson in the dangers of powerful men. It will ignore the fact that Brand’s power is entirely the product of progressive opinion delighting in precisely the behaviour they now profess to be horrified by.

Popular culture and fashionable opinion alike have long worshipped at the altar of the professional bad boy. Brand’s celebrity career is a perfect circle. It was launched on Channel 4, via its flagship reality TV show Big Brother, and it has been ended by Channel 4, with a sensational Dispatches documentary (with ad breaks, of course) drawing a massive audience.

The whole point of Brand was to trample on bourgeois convention, Brand’s brand was “cutely verbose druggy sex addict”; he was rock star meets court jester meets Don Juan. He’s always a victim — he’s addicted to sex, poor thing, can’t help himself! — even as power and money fall into his lap. He’s a fitting representative of Channel 4 itself, a powerful mainstream media outfit that likes to pretend it represents the counterculture, rather than the ruling elite. Just like Brand, it knows how to turn confession and apparent self-flagellation into just another performance, a lucrative spectacle that allows it to escape real consequences.

The takes are already being churned out: modern society, Channel 4, men in general need to be more progressive, more woke. The irony is that Brand was being progressive: he’s just the messy leftovers of the last revolution. In the 2000s, he was sweeping aside remaining taboos around sex, drugs, radical confessional “honesty” and polite norms. In 2013, he guest edited the New Statesman. He was in its pages defending the London Riots as a “political” act reminiscent of “carnival”. In his own words, he “beams at the spectacle of disruption”.

He wrote dozens of articles for the Guardian. Star columnist George Monbiot hailed Brand as his “hero of 2014”, describing him as “volatile, vulnerable, troubled, mercurial”, praising him for his “emotional honesty” and completing the romanticising portrait by naming him a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac. When the Sachsgate affair broke — in which Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand rang actor Andrew Sachs to boast of Brand having slept with his granddaughter — the Guardian’s reaction was distinctly pre-MeToo. Far from expressing outrage that Brand was engaging in sexual bullying and humiliation of a former partner, the Guardian was in these days firmly on the side of letting everything hang out. Its commentators largely wrote off the incident as tabloid hysteria.

The Guardian review of the Dispatches documentary about the Brand allegations laments “so many red flags ignored for so long”. However, when the BBC dropped Brand, and prime minister Gordon Brown deplored his conduct and the tabloid media denounced him, outfits like the Guardian were mostly bothered about protecting the BBC from the evil Tories. Catherine Bennett described the reaction as “hysteria”. Lisa Marks wrote of Brand at the time of the controversy, “He is honest and funny and brilliant. That’s what the reporter from the tabloid should write. But I doubt he will.” Years later, alleged satirist Marina Hyde was still treating the affair as a case of tabloid-astroturfing, rolling her eyes at the thousands who wrote to complain to the BBC. In a similar vein, comedian and Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker wrote in its august pages that those who complained about two adult men sexually humiliating an ex-girlfriend were “a bunch of sanctimonious crybabies indulging in a wretched form of masturbation”. Those who criticised Brand were right wing opportunists, foes of progressive public broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC, prurient prudes who needed to get a life.

The progressive not-so-counterculture delights in disruptive, disturbing heroes, but it is routinely horrified when they disrupt and subvert everything — not just the things they’re supposed to. The ideal rebel is like a Hollywood anti-hero: a mass murderer who spares children and pets, or a nihilistic cowboy who respects women. In reality the boundaryless bad boy who exults in rioting, drugs and sex is not just going to upset Daily Mail readers and have colourfully tame relationships. He’s going to sleep with teenagers; he’s going to get aggressive with women; he’s going to harass those he has power over.

There’s little sign that Channel 4 has slowed its pushing of boundaries

There’s something quite sickening when the same channel that gave Brand a platform to say outrageous things now repeats the same sort of anecdotes, but in hushed tones and in an ominous voice over. Yes, in the age of #MeToo and BLM, the white leftist bad boy is probably a thing of the past. It’s no coincidence that in the past few years Brand has drifted from cheeky socialist to conspiratorial dissident right-adjacent pundit. Nonetheless, we can expect new horizons of subversion and arenas of abuse. Earlier this year Channel 4 launched its miniseries Naked Education, in which teenagers as young as 14 were exposed to naked adults in order to “educate” them about bodies and sexuality. There’s little sign that Channel 4 has slowed its pushing of boundaries, or recognised the way socially subversive content endangers vulnerable people.

It’s not merely that Channel 4 has a politically radical agenda — if only its executives were committed democratic socialists, with a coherent and socially responsible agenda. Instead it is a hive of vague, unfocused radicalism, firmly yoked to money and celebrity. Boundaries are pushed simply because they’re there, recklessly and in all directions. In 2002, a live autopsy was broadcast by the channel. The following year a magician played Russian roulette for the entertainment of viewers. In 2008, they allowed the then President of Iran (a totalitarian Islamic theocracy) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give an “alternative” Christmas address denouncing America. It’s approach to sex, disability and poverty is cheerfully crass, with programmes with titles like Embarrassing Bodies, Benefits Street and Am I a R*tard?.

We would never even have heard of Russell Brand if our culture did not reward coarseness. It seems equally unlikely that he would have been able to so readily exert abusive power over women without the celebrity conferred on him by a liberal media establishment that valorised his dissolute lifestyle. If actual bad boys are never quite as lovable as the fictional ones, they can be cut to fit the image so long as one edits out the uncomfortable bits.

Social conventions around politeness, sobriety and sexual continence are not, and should not, be beyond question and debate. When we discard them entirely and refuse limits on our desires, though, we unleash the destructive excesses of human nature. It’s a continual tension at the heart of the progressive approach to sex. On the one hand, we are supposed never to say “no” to our own urges, but we are also expected to absolutely respect when others say “no” to them. This may make sense conceptually to those who promote radical autonomy, but it doesn’t make sense psychologically. Self control is a habit easily lost when not continually reinforced.

The lure of countercultural individualism is not only felt on the left. Even as the mainstream media is dropping Brand, there’s a legion of “anti-woke” figures happy to pick the turd off the floor and give it a polish. Ian Miles Cheong, Laurence Fox and Andrew Tate (himself accused of sexual abuse) have all ridden to his defence. So Brand escapes taking responsibility for his actions yet again, adding another self-indulgent loud-mouth to the chorus of conspiratorial dissident right voices.

The Brand case is certainly about powerful men and sexual abuse, but if that’s the only lesson we draw, then expect it to keep happening. Until we challenge the cult of celebrity, the love of subversion for subversion’s sake, and the idolisation of money, power and consumption, we will keep seeing powerful people with “open secrets” about their abusive conduct, sexual and otherwise.

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