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If Russell Brand has a thesis, it’s time for his viva

You checked my Hirsch index rating lately? Matt Crossick/PA

As we hurtle towards peak Russell Brand, I have a question. Treat it as rhetorical if you like but if anyone has an actual answer, they would be warmly welcomed.

My question is: what has Brand actually revealed to us about the society in which we live? What nugget of truth has he mined that wasn’t already demonstrably obvious to anyone during the past three or four decades?

Have some people become too disenfranchised or just too lazy to seek out answers for themselves? Is their only recourse, as Hadley Freeman recently suggested in The Guardian, to turn to someone that can make politics seem sexy?

Musician and activist Billy Bragg says Brand has invoked a tradition of celebrities using their position as a platform for change. But I think Brand’s “contribution” is problematic and even dangerously populist in its aims. If he has a thesis, we need to poke at it like we would any other. He needs to be rigorously interrogated in the academic style of a viva because everyone else who comes up against him – and particularly those in journalism – don’t seem to be doing a very good job.

Drop the sex and there is no obvious material basis for the lionisation of Brand. He may continue to present himself as a provocative figure but the things he actually has to say are not all that provocative. Nor does he add anything beyond those all too often muted voices – such as grass-roots community groups – that have been challenging inequality and social injustice for generations.

But perhaps there is also no need to criticise Brand directly. He is a symptom of a wider and increasing lack of desire to invest in communities or society and the ideas that underscore them. We live in a world of ideas and concepts, moments and events, all foreshadowed by precarity and by their own planned obsolescence. Brand is in that sense just another ice-bucket challenge or #bringbackourgirls. The good intention might be there but it’s often all too fleeting to really matter or ultimately make a difference.

Our retreat from critical analysis and the loss of interest in questioning everything we see around us – including Brand – is a trend that has me very worried.

Branding exercise

Brand could offer something vital to society. He could offer himself as a much-needed resource for practising and fine-tuning the sort of critical faculties we should all be directing at those in power and those who challenge power.

We should debate Brand, not simply condemn or revere his stance. We should read and position his ideas in wider contexts that expose them to the complexities they seek to remedy. Brand might not have the answers – he says as much himself. But before we allow him a platform (and make no mistake, he has one), it must be asked whether his ideas lead anywhere at all, for you or those to whom they appear to mean so much – for those that find them so revolutionary.

To my mind this is what many interviews with Brand have singularly failed to do over the past year or so. Few have seriously challenged him. Far too many interviewers have opted for a playful run-around of spiritual and pseudo left-leaning universal truisms conducted mostly at the behest of Brand himself.

The result of Jeremy Paxman’s Newsnight interview with Brand was airtime sucked-up by a discussion that eschewed any complexity and rendered fundamental principles about democracy basic to the point of embarrassing. And yet, for some, such as Zoe Williams in The Guardian, Brand emerges from these shallow depths as some kind of prophet or soothsayer (Tiresias with a penchant for waistcoats?).

Brand’s ability to take charge of media interviews comes as no surprise. Perhaps it is simply an automatic reaction born of the years of experience at managing an audience that he forged in the white heat of celebrity PR. But the reality is that, based on the sheer gravity of Brand’s proposals (yes, I do take them seriously, or rather I see the seriousness of them), not to mention the ubiquity of his present platform to espouse them, a thorough critical appraisal is needed.

Someone needs to conduct a viva with Russell Brand. After years of graft, exploring a subject to its depths and producing a thesis, this is what we expect of every PhD student, and I think Brand should face the same rigour. I’m not advocating inflicting an ivory tower tradition in order to silence or tame Brand – quite the opposite. This is about demanding rigour in order to test serious ideas, irrespective of where they are presented or by whom.

Why do I suggest such an ultra-academic examination? Because I fear some enterprising university will soon step forward to offer Brand an honorary doctorate in philosophy or political science or whatsoever academic camp he’s deemed to fall into for the purposes of a silk, a ceremony and a scroll, and that really would be icing on the cake. If his ideas are serious, they need a serious response. Let’s see what they’re made of.

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