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Can Humor Be Revolutionary?

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Revolution by Russell Brand

In his new book, Russell Brand grandly declares: “The Revolution cannot be boring.”

Accordingly, his long and winding Revolution (Ballantine Books, 320 pages, $26) mixes comedy and politics, quoting Monty Python and Louis CK alongside the likes of George Orwell and Noam Chomsky. In Brand we have someone who will point out that the richest 1 per cent of British people have as much as the poorest 55 per cent, while also referring to that country’s present government as a “cartel of Etonian skanks.” Sometimes his humor is inexplicably nasty: writing of the food industry, Brand casually suggests that we are “[f]lying beef around the world, like a dead, carved up rent boy.”

This book not only seeks to spread awareness of (and anger at) inequality, but also to make you laugh. Brand implicitly suggests that Revolution is unusual in this respect, writing that, barring the odd “George Carlin or Bill Hicks or whatever…for some reason changing the world is assumed to be a serious business and exempted from humour.”

On the contrary, Brand’s cocktail of polemic and comedy fits quite comfortably into the groove of the present moment, where political memes are shared for both lulz and activism, The Onion is revered for its ability to poke fun at “awful people doing awful things,” and the Buzzfeed-ification of everything continues apace. Satire is omnipresent: it’s the spoonful of sugar that often helps left wing politics go down.

Not everyone is happy about the rise of light-hearted political rhetoric, however. The online smarm versus snark contretemps sparked by Gawker last year, for instance, saw new life being breathed into ongoing debates about whether satire is an inherently conservative medium. More specifically, in a scathing 2012 Baffler essay on the successes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Steve Almond criticized the notion that we live in “a golden age of political comedy.” He wrote:

Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

It’s a spiky, challenging read. Responding in Vulture, Margaret Lyons asked whether it was “really the role of all comedy, even political and media-centric comedy, to radicalize a population?” To my mind, the answer lies somewhere between yes and no. That is, it’s doubtful anyone really expects comedians to build the good society, but the idea that laughter is liberating remains seductive. When speaking truth to power, all the better if you can make the most powerful people or institutions the butt of a joke while you’re at it.

Jokes can have real bite, of course. Witness the minor culture war that Blackadder, a television show over twenty years old, recently prompted in Britain due to its focus on the dreadful follies of the First World War–whose centenary commemoration is ongoing. Watching the leaders of a world power arguing about a 1980s television show in 2014 lends some credence to assertions about the value, and long-lasting impact, of comedy.

However, the notion that political humor is inherently subversive merits unpacking. For a start, it rather depends who is being mocked, and why. These questions go deeper than contemporary debates about whether comedy needs to “punch up” the power hierarchy, rather than down.

For instance, in a 1999 essay, “The Arrogance of Clowns,” journalist Ron Rosenbaum took aim at received wisdom concerning Charlie Chaplin’s satirical 1940 film The Great Dictator and also skewered Roberto Benigni’s disturbingly whimsical Holocaust movie Life is Beautiful. Rosenbaum took issue with the “arrogant assumption that even the most intransigent evil can be dissolved in the mocking laughter of the triumphant clown.” He concluded that Chaplin’s gently mocking film represented “a terrible missed opportunity to really take on Hitler in a scathing, satiric way at a time when a still-neutral America was deciding whether to assist those at war with Hitler.” As Almond also argued, comedy can provoke and inspire–but it can also lull us into amused inaction.

So, where does Brand’s Revolution take us? It’s hard to tell. The book has flashes of insight, and the author’s sincerity is felt on every page. Unfortunately, he surrounds his attacks on inequality and injustice with unnecessary, meandering anecdotes. With some sharp editing, Revolution could likely have been half the length and twice as effective.

It’s also replete with self-help talk such as, “Revolution is change, I believe in change, personal change most of all.” There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with drawing analogies between individual personal flaws and the faults of our economic system writ large, and Brand’s championing of community and other-regard is refreshing. His earnest musings on the dependence of human happiness on fellow-feeling are also welcome: books about the impact of capitalism on our lives need not limit themselves to stern lectures on economics.

Unfortunately, however, Revolution emphasizes the metaphysical over the material, and suffers from a rather frustrating lack of clarity throughout. For instance, Brand writes: “It’s not that we want an old-style Revolution of guillotines and gulags and big-fancy show-trials, it’s actually a powerful but gentle process where we align to a new frequency.” One needn’t be an advocate of guillotines or gulags to find the second half of this sentence, and the broader focus on spirituality, quite confusing–set as it is in a book about the exercise of power.

It’s unfair to smugly denounce Brand for failing to provide solutions to the difficult problems he documents, as some critics have done. Nevertheless, it’s regrettable that, as one reviewer wrote, the book doesn’t “explain how the personal translates into the political.” Ultimately, its relentless focus is on Brand himself, rather than on the political economy at large. There is something sad in this: the author is trying to escape the confines of individualism (“to transcend the limits of the instinctual and anatomical self”), but seems to end up going in circles.

For all its faults, Revolution names the sickness at the heart of global capitalism. It’s still not clear, though, whether laughter is medicine enough.