My following book review appeared in the Weekend Australian on 28 February:
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
By Johann Hari
Bloomsbury, 390pp, $29.99
The numbers are staggering. More than two million American citizens are in prison, about 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. Many are African-American and Hispanic, in jail for drug offences. Race and the selective application of justice is a key theme of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, a stunning examination of the “war on drugs”.
Hari, a British journalist, takes a trip down memory lane, to the US of a century ago when it was possible to “go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine”. But a key instigator of the war on drugs, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, soon found his enemy.
Singer Billie Holiday, a drug addict, was one of the most public victims of Anslinger’s zeal against black individuals who dared to question their second-class status. Holiday was a crusading woman who had been beaten, raped and abused for most of her life but her strength, and threat to the then social order, was to resist the suffocating, low expectation of her skin colour.
Anslinger warned the US House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations that Mexican immigrants and African-Americans were undermining social cohesion by excessively smoking marijuana. He had been informed of “coloured students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result? Pregnancy.”
This sounds comical today but Anslinger’s vision remains alive. Hari argues “the main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people”. In the 21st century, it’s black Americans and Latinos who disproportionately feel the full weight of the law for often relatively minor drug offences.
The Obama administration still spends billions every year fighting a war that it knows can’t be won. Addiction is seen as a moral evil instead of a condition that should be treated compassionately.
Former policewoman Leigh Maddox, who spent years arresting and imprisoning drug offenders, tells Hari she eventually realised that “nobody ever trained me on the collateral consequences of marijuana arrests. I had no idea … It’s not something they’re made aware of. It’s go out and get numbers [arrests]. Do your job.” Today she runs a legal clinic in Baltimore, working with students to remove the arrest records of drug offenders. It’s one way to assuage her guilt for sending so many young people into a broken justice system.
Hari is an acclaimed writer who was caught plagiarising a few years ago, but this book is a redemption, and already a New York Times bestseller. It skilfully constructs a narrative around compelling, personal stories, the usually ignored or forgotten individuals who are selling or using various substances; living, avoiding or dying in the “war on drugs”.
Rosalio Reta was an American man who had killed for a Mexican drug cartel but eventually tired of his life and confessed to American officials. Hari visits the border town of Juarez, where he witnesses resistance to a US-led drug war that enriches politicians and police and causes intense suffering among a local population that is forced to flee, kill or remain silent.
He examines Portugal, a nation that ended the persecution of addicts and users in 2001. The numbers speak for themselves, a revolution in method and treatment. Drug use has dropped. “In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 per cent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 per cent going to treatment and prevention. In Portugal, the ratio is the exact opposite.”
Hari’s sympathies are never hidden: he’s opposed to the war on drugs. Chasing the Scream presents a persuasive argument that prohibition has not reduced drug consumption or abuse, but pushed generations into lives of misery, crime and imprisonment.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book Disaster Capitalism.
I’ve just returned from South Sudan (very briefly) to speak at Adelaide Writer’s Week. What a culture shock coming from Africa. Everything here is so shiny.
Anyway, I’ll be speaking about Israel/Palestine, my investigative work over the years, interviewing British writer John Lancaster on financial shenanigans and running a masterclass with the South Australian Writer’s Centre.
Here’s the Adelaide literary festival director Laura Kroetsch introducing my work:
My Guardian column:
The creaking Russian helicopter lands in an open field in remote Wai, a town in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. The sky is perfectly clear; the temperature reaches 45 degrees. Women wave the South Sudanese flag to welcome the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, who arrives with Unesco peace envoy and American actor Forest Whitaker. His peace and development initiative, founded in 2012, works across the region.
They’ve come with a small group from the capital Juba to see how the UN is managing around 25,000 women, men and children who arrived in late December, fleeing a civil war that has entered its second year and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
It’s a remarkable operation, establishing basic but workable services. Local leaders press Amos for more help – especially for digging bore-holes for water – and complain that the central government isn’t listening to their demands. I’m observing as a journalist, as Amos is leaving her position in March and touring nations with the most desperate needs.
Her visit was my introduction to South Sudan since moving here recently with my partner, who works for an international aid organisation in advocacy and campaigns.
Neither of us had been to East Africa before we arrived, but we knew something of the country through friends who worked with the South Sudanese community in Sydney. The country’s political strife felt like a distant issue. I saw the occasional news about communal violence, pleas for Canberra to play a larger role in resolving the crisis and events such as the one organised by my friend, photographer Conor Ashleigh, which helped teach young South Sudanese and Afghan youth how to use a camera (aside from taking selfies).
At first, the idea of relocating to a war zone elicited curious and confused stares from friends and family, but both of us have spent time in challenging nations. We’d both discussed for a long time our desire for a change of scene, away from Australia.
It wasn’t such a leap, then, to leave the comforts of home. We wanted to be more than just temporary bystanders, and had the chance to experience the inner workings of the world’s newest nation. It didn’t take long for my girlfriend to convince me that her job in South Sudan would give me the opportunity to deepen my experience as a journalist, while avoiding the usual fly-in fly-out habits.
Juba, where we live, has poor infrastructure, few paved roads and an excess of dust, but there are also bars on the Nile and a growing use of social media. We live in a simple apartment in a compound in the middle of the city. There’s a strict nightly curfew. Security isn’t excessive – this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan – but streetlights are almost non-existent and it’s unwise to walk alone when the sun goes down.
It’s safe to walk the streets during the day, though, and I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve been asked whether I know relatives living in Melbourne or Sydney’s big South Sudanese populations. Over 19,000 South Sudanese live in Australia – many refugees, who arrived over the last decade. People I meet are happy that their family members are safe and thriving away from South Sudan.
A government worker last week quizzed me on the Socceroos’ career prospects. He knew far more about them than me. Like many places I visit, apart from areas in the Middle East, Australia is seen as a benign force in the world.
Many of us know Africa as the place Bob Geldof used to visit, a continent defined by aid. That image was false, but it remains the case that without humanitarian aid, South Sudan – created with huge fanfare in 2011 – would likely collapse in many areas.
There are other descriptions: journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in February this year that after its creation, the country became the “world’s emotional petting zoo”. Alex De Waal, writing in African Affairs, argued that “South Sudan obtained independence in July 2011 as a kleptocracy”. The Guardian’s Daniel Howden wrote that the country was born from a “seductive story that could be well told by handsome movie stars” like George Clooney.
I’ll be exploring other questions during my time here, too. What role did Washington’s desperation for an African success story play in creating the current mess? Why is the African Union dragging its feet on human rights? Wikileaks cables confirm that US administrations were deeply involved in funding all sides of the brutal war that led to the 2011 independence; US Christian Evangelicals were key to building support for the soon-to-be independent Christian nation back at home.
Being in South Sudan will also force me to face the complex relationships that exist in a developing nation: between journalists and NGOs, and Western aid donors and their recipients. How much money stays in the pockets of foreign contractors and how much reaches the locals?
During my visit to Wai, the military governor of the rebel-held area said: “We are at war but at the end of the day we are one nation.” It was a hopeful plea, despite all sides committing horrendous abuses, at a time when South Sudan needs unity, reconciliation and accountability. It also leads to the most crucial question of all: what hope is there for a durable peace agreement between the warring parties, to avoid the ongoing displacement of millions of people and save billions of dollars?
My following story appears in today’s Guardian (I’m currently based in Juba, South Sudan):
Valerie Amos has joined calls for an arms embargo against South Sudan, the most senior UN official to back growing international demands for action against the country as it enters a second year of civil war.
“Anything that takes weapons off the streets, out of countries and out of communities will help us because ultimately for us it’s about bringing peace,” the UN humanitarian chief told the Guardian. “If there are no weapons, it’s harder for people to fight, peace will come sooner and we can get more aid to the people who so desperately need it.”
The United States has so far resisted efforts to implement an embargo, although the secretary of state, John Kerry, and senior members of the Obama administration have recently spoken in support of one. An arms ban would target both the South Sudanese government and the opposition, with both sides being accused of war crimes after fighting broke out in December 2013.
Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and millions of citizens forced to flee their homes during the civil war in the country. Aid group says about 2,5 million people are at risk of famine.
Amos, who leaves her position as UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator after five years in March, was speaking in Wai in Jonglei state at the end of a three-day visit to South Sudan with Unesco peace envoy and actor Forest Whitaker.
The UN is assisting around 25,000 people in rebel-held Wai, providing food, water, some shelter and basic medical care. Amos praised the resilience of the refugees she met, adding: “I just wish that those that are really pursuing this conflict would take time out to come and see what the impact of this is, particularly on women and children.”
The economic cost of war has already reached billions of dollars and a recent Frontier Economics report found that ending the conflict this year would save the international community about $30bn.
Amos said both sides should be held accountable for human rights abuses and expressed concern about an “economic crisis” in the country. “It’s a country dependent on oil and we have seen production halved,” she warned.
After meeting the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and many of his ministers in the capital Juba, Amos both praised and criticised authorities. “The government does not want to admit hunger figures of 2.5 million people facing severe food shortages. We have to keep the pressure on,” she said, adding that the government had improved access to aid in many areas.
Amos has urged the international community to embrace a “more interventionist” approach towards global conflicts but urged caution against military involvement. “One of the things I’ve become more conscious of as I’ve been working in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan is that we have this whole international framework of law and norms, but those rules are being broken every single day. We talk about the importance of protecting civilians yet it’s about those civilians being killed as a result of barrel bombs or women being raped.”
She said it was shameful that these abuses were tolerated. “So my question is, where is the accountability? Countries have signed up to these rules so how do we hold them accountable? When you talk about interventionism, everybody thinks about war and putting troops from another country on the ground. That’s not what I mean. When we see this happening, how do we stop it? One of my jobs is to raise these questions.”
My following story appears on US website Mondoweiss:
“Europe will forever be tainted”, wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer in the wake of the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket in Paris. “It will always be the continent of expulsion, blood libels, numerus clausus, ghettos and the Final Solution.”
It was an ominous warning to European Jewry that it “may be too late” to save them from discrimination, hatred and violence. “Freedom of speech is shrinking in Europe”, Pfeffer concluded, “hemmed in on all sides by libel laws, political correctness, financial pressure and religious intimidation.” Jews would inevitably flee, he argued, if “freedom and tolerance” didn’t survive across Europe; instinctively Jews knew the history of pogroms, expulsions and death camps and never felt safe away from Israel.
This is the debate that never goes away. It’s a discussion that lurks under the surface of almost all arguments on the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Terror in France has unpicked a scab that never heals, unleashing insecurity over what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century and where to live it. Growing numbers of French Jews are moving to Israel, claiming they feel safer there than in their birth country, happy that they can openly wear a kippah [skullcap] and comforted with an army to protect them. There’s little comment about what that military actually does to the Palestinians, occupying and brutalising them daily.
It was a highly selective argument forcefully made recently by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling French Jews that they were only secure under his nation’s protection, though he was slammed for shamelessly appropriating a tragedy for political gain. Israel even pressured one of the Jewish victim’s families to be buried there.
Too much of the discussion in the last weeks has revolved around a clash of civilisations narrative, with refined Europe, Israel and the west on the one side and barbaric extremism of the Muslim fanatic on the other. This is a gross insult to the truth. Moroccan-Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali explains that the reason so many European Muslims are disenfranchised, and a tiny minority are attracted to violent jihad, is because “Muslims are every bit as European as the Roma, gays, intellectuals, farmers and factory workers. We have been in Europe for centuries and politicians and the press must stop acting as if we arrived yesterday. We are here to stay.” Both Said and Cherif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo killers, had a long history of radicalisation against France, the US and Jews.
Increasing numbers of Muslims have argued that Islam itself needs to become far more capable of both tolerating and accepting blasphemy in a non-violent way and acknowledging that virulent antisemitism, not simply in response to Israeli violence in Gaza or the West Bank, is a rising problem. Not all anti-Jewish hatred is about Israeli crimes in Palestine (though it is one of many causes). The Jews of France have felt increasingly targeted for the act of being Jewish. Historical anti-Semitism was always about targeting the “otherness” of Jews, playing on stereotypes that today finds an expression in Islamist attacks on Jewish centres of learning. Muslims also face deep discrimination for their faith, practices and alleged association with terrorism. In fact, separatist groups are the largest majority of perpetrators of political violence in Europe, not Islamist jihadis. For example, in 2013 there were 152 terror attacks across Europe and only two were “religiously motivated”, according to Europol.
Israel is hardly a good model of tolerance and plurality; there’s a reason European boycotts are surging, more young Israelis are refusing to serve in an occupying military and prominent Zionist groups decry intermarriage as treason. It’s a delusion to believe that Jews are either safer in Israel than in Europe or more able to live peaceful lives. The narrative pushed by Netanyahu that all Jews of the world should move to Israel – 90% of his election funding comes from American Jews, proving that a Jewish diaspora remains an essential support base for maintaining Israeli policies – cynically expands the belief that Jews are the eternal victim (despite now having a country with nuclear weapons). Islam is framed as the enemy, an image recently tweeted by the Israeli embassy in Ireland.
Instead, Israeli writer Orly Noy explains, it’s easier to “promote a worldview in which there is no national conflict, no occupation, no Palestinian people and no blatant disregard for human rights. There are only Jews and Muslims. Turns out we look a lot better fighting a religious war than we do running an occupation.” Free speech is constantly under threat in Israel with a vocal and active far-right, Jewish fundamentalist movement.
Hypocrisy over free speech principles defines this debate. Muslims are accused of having no sense of humour over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and yet Israel and its backers routinely try to censor images critical of the Jewish state.
France, with its historical and ongoing record of colonial adventures in Africa and the Middle East, claims to believe in free speech but wants to silence those with whom it disagrees. The Charlie Hebdo massacre should enlighten us to the real power of satire and how it affects those with and without power. Is it a false comparison to say that if you can insult the prophet Muhammad, you should be able to poke fun at the Holocaust? Does British journalist Mehdi Hasan have a point when he says that “Muslims are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren”?
British political parties such as the UK Independence Party have mainstreamed anti-Muslim rhetoric of the type once experienced by Jews. “The cold truth is that organised suspicion and denigration of Islam is the new antisemitism”, argues historian John Keane. Islamophobia is a scourge despite the term being dismissed by the French prime minister.
So what are Jews to do from Australia to Europe to America? In a recent survey, a majority of British Jews said they couldn’t imagine a long-term future in England, concerned with rising anti-Semitism. This Jewish feeling of insecurity is real and can’t be easily dismissed. British police have recently stepped up patrolling Jewish communities and soldiers in Belgium are guarding Jewish sites. The threat exists.
The answer isn’t more state surveillance, as proposed by Australia, Britain, France and the US, nor mass emigration. The facts speak to a vibrant Jewish diaspora that has the right, in light of the 20th century, to settle and be safe wherever they want. Fleeing to Israel isn’t the answer. It would be a “blatant capitulation to terror”, suggested Israeli reporter Chemi Shalev.
Israel has framed itself since its inception as a “light unto the nations”. “There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state”, Netanyahu proclaimed in 2010. But the vast bulk of global Jewry feels secure in their own multicultural country with full rights and responsibilities, a transformation from 100 years ago when Jews were often ghettoised.
Living in Israel isn’t the solution to antisemitism, though many like the concept of a Jewish state despite its racial exclusivity. Modern Jewish identity isn’t about cowering in fear but should be about building decent communities that accept the diversity of human existence.
A powerful short film from the Centre for Constitutional Rights on Yemeni man Fahd Ghazy who has been imprisoned for 12 years. No crime. No guilt.
This is what causes terrorism and resistance:
My weekly Guardian column:
The secret CIA files appeared just before Christmas. One detailed how CIA operatives could maintain cover, using fake IDs, when travelling through foreign airports. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was said to be one of the hardest to trick.
The other document, from 2009, was an assessment of the CIA’s assassination program. It raised doubts about the effectiveness of the program in reducing terrorism. Likewise with Israel’s killing of Palestinians.
In Afghanistan, the CIA discovered that murdering Taliban leaders could radicalise the militants, allowing even more extreme actors to enter the battlefield. The Obama administration ignored this advice and unleashed “targeted killings” in the country. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency is thriving.
These vital insights into the “war on terror” were released by WikiLeaks and received extensive global coverage.
Since 2010, when WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, showing American forces killing Iraqi civilians, there have been multiple covert – and public – attempts to silence the organisation. Julian Assange has now been stuck in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for two and a half years fighting an extradition order from Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct. There is an ongoing US grand jury examining the organisation’s role in publishing war and State Department cables. On Christmas Eve, WikiLeaks revealed that Google had turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a US federal warrant.
The organisation’s ability to stay afloat – and continue to source and release insightful documents – among all this is remarkable.
There is some good news: Visa and MasterCard are being sued for refusing to allow funds to flow to WikiLeaks, and Assange’s lawyers are confident that the current impasse with Sweden will be resolved (although the irregularities over the case are deeply disturbing).
But the reality remains that the public image of Assange has taken a beating after years of legal fights, the botchedAustralian WikiLeaks political party and constant smears by journalists and politicians. We apparently want our heroes to be mild mannered and non-combative. We supposedly need them to be polite and not uncover countless, dirty abuses by western forces. We clearly don’t forgive them for not being perfect. Or perhaps we have a limit to how many war crimes we want to hear about with nobody facing justice? That’s hardly WikiLeaks’ fault. The group has made mistakes, and will make many more, but as a supporter since its 2006 inception, I’m struck by its resilience.
WikiLeaks has been warning against the dangers of mass surveillance for years. The 2014 Assange book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, features an insightful essayon the dangers of Google’s desire to lead American interventionist foreign policy. The book gained headlines across the world. In the month of its release, the organisation offered new documents on German company FinFisher selling its spying equipment to repressive regimes.
The emergence of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his ability to live a relatively free life in Russia is partly thanks to WikiLeaks, which helped him escape Hong Kong and claim asylum in Moscow. Snowden remains free tocontinue campaigning against the dangers of global surveillance, unlike Chelsea Manning who is now suffering in an American prison for bravely leaking American cables. WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, a British citizen, lives in exile in Germany due to fears of returning home after working to protect Snowden. This is the definition of heroism.
Just because WikiLeaks’ Assange and Harrison no longer appear in the media daily doesn’t mean their contribution isn’t significant. Take the recent report published by Der Spiegel that showed western policy in Afghanistan aimed to kill as many Taliban leaders as possible, regardless of the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The thinking was summarised by the head of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) intelligence in Afghanistan, who once said during a briefing: “The only good Talib is a dead Talib.”
This story built on the 2010 WikiLeaks release of Afghan war logs and uncovered yet another level of the “kill everything that moves” mentality that’s been unofficial US military policy since at least Vietnam.
The danger of discounting or ignoring WikiLeaks, at a time when much larger news organisations still can’t compete with the group’s record of releasing classified material, is that we shun a rebellious and adversarial group when it’s needed most. The value of WikiLeaks isn’t just in uncovering new material, though that’s important, it’s that the group’s published material is one of the most important archives of our time. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists and writers who tell me their work wouldn’t have the same insights without the State Department cables. My recent books have been similarly enriched.
States across the world talk of democracy and free speech but increasingly restrict information and its messengers.
“This war on whistleblowers is not ancillary to journalism, but actually it directly affects it,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It’s making it much more difficult for the public to get the information they need.”
WikiLeaks remains at the forefront of this struggle.
Yesterday’s massacre in Paris at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is shocking and unforgettable. The publication may have been frequently racist against Muslims and a whole host of “enemies” but the right to offend is a key attribute in a democracy. This doesn’t mean we have to applaud editors and writers who trade in racial stereotyping.
As a journalist, such an attack affects me deeply. The only response is standing up for what we believe and stating it strongly and frequently. We will not be silenced. We will write. We will speak out. We will continue to tell the truth. We will reject the onslaught and say that talking honestly about Islam, Palestine, Israel, terrorism and the “war on terror” is vital.
Charlie was a good friend from my high school years in Paris, in the early 1970s.
Charlie Hebdo was a child of May 68, France’s youthful rebellion.
It was a good time to be in Paris.
You could see the latest Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Visconti, Tarkovsky, Godard etc.
Sartre was still around.
You could attend public Foucault lectures at the College de France, watch the inscrutable Lacan or the great mythomane André Malraux hold forth on TV.
Where are they all now?
The gunmen who spread Charlie Hebdo with bullets and assassinated four of France’s best and wittiest cartoonists among others have also fired bullets in our collective psyche.
Nothing is fun any more.
This is real.
A binary hyperreality as defined by G W Bush & Co: with us or against us.
What happened yesterday morning in Paris was unthinkable some 40 odd years ago.
Yes, there were Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, the PLO, the War in Vietnam, the coup in Chile and so on, but there was also hope, solidarity, love, tenderness, humour, poetry.
Going to the Quartier Latin to see Felini’s Satyricon or Easy Rider, one passed the black vans of the CRS, the riot police, parked on the Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint Germain.
You’d spot them inside, playing cards, ready for action at any hint of “trouble”.
The same game of youth versus authority was played in the very same places in medieval Paris, between the king’s constabulary and mischievous students.
It was all part of the great French tradition of youthful rebellion against authority, King & Church or, after the Revolution, the much despised bourgeoisie.
It inspired a rich poetic tradition: Villon, Ronsard, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert, to name but a few from a very long and bright list.
Charlie Hebdo was part of that wonderful centuries-old tradition of biting satire and irreverence.
Nothing was sacred.
Every now and then Charlie was banned for a particularly outrageous issue.
It used to run a serial called Les Aventures de Mme Pompidou (The Adventures of Madame Pompidou).
Occasionally Mme Pompidou and her husband, Monsieur le Président Georges Pompidou were not amused and all copies of Charlie Hebdo were seized.
But that was an innocent game compared to yesterday’s massacre.
Something has changed in the world.
Too much blood has been spilled since 9/11 and now the entire planet is soaked in it.
The age of Enlightenment and rational thought is making way to medieval faith-based intolerance.
G W Bush declared a Crusade, and enough lunatics have answered his challenge.
We must answer them by saying: JE SUIS CHARLIE.
Charlie lives as long as there is humour, laughter, tenderness, satire, love, poetry, art.
If we give up on that, the forces of darkness win.
And the light goes off.
We can’t let this happen.
WE ARE CHARLIE.
Ha Noi, 8.1.15
My weekly Guardian column:
Political success for society’s invisible souls is rare. So when US investor Westbrook Partners announced last week that it had withdrawn from evicting families at the New Era estate in East London, it was cause for celebration. Instead of building expensive properties, the company sold its development to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing organisation. People who faced skyrocketing rents now have security and hope before Christmas.
British writer and comedian Russell Brand was key to this victory. His support of the campaigners on the ground and on social media led The Independent to describe New Era as “Proof that [his] revolution may actually be working”.
After New Era, it’s harder than ever to mock him as “the voice of the discontented wealthy”, as the Observer’s Nick Cohen did in his review of Brand’s book, Revolution. On the contrary: protest organiser Lindsey Garrett said Brand’s involvement “gave us a bigger voice. And rather than taking over, he gave us a much bigger audience to speak to”.
Accusations of hypocrisy and shallowness are also getting harder to make. When it comes to inequality, housing, income – all the things the left is supposed to be interested in – Brand seems to understand that the personal really is the political. As he wrote on New Era:
“Drawn in initially by the importance and ubiquity of the cause, housing is the issue of our time, I was compelled to stay, as if held by the heart, by a deeper issue, both social and personal. By something I didn’t even know I was grieving; the loss of community, our connection to each other.”
More broadly, his thinking on issues like climate change – he says agreements like Kyoto are “not worth a wank in a windsock” – accords with the thesis of (among others) Canadian writer Naomi Klein, in her bestselling book This Changes Everything. Admittedly, Klein’s language is rather less fruity.
Now it seems to be Brand’s turn to do the mocking: of the insular world of star fucking that permeates our culture; of the ennui and flatness of modern life; and of the insularity of the media elite.
He is convincing a legion of followers that there’s more to life than, “do a gram, drop a pill, download an app, eat some crap, get a slap, mind the gap, do a line, Instagram, little grope in the cab”. He acknowledges his luck and wealth while constantly taking the piss out of himself. He likes having money but fears losing it.
Squarely in the 1%, even as he reminds us “the richest 1% of British people have as much as the poorest 55%”, Brand enrages his critics because his celebrity and wealth give him easy access to media and money.
Case in point: he is making a documentary about inequality that’s reportedly funded by some of the big bankers he’s going after. Does this neuter his anti-capitalist message? Surely it could instead be seen as a savvy way of culture jamming an establishment that thrives on extravagance.
The filmmaker Michael Moore, director of hugely popular documentaries challenging US hegemony and capitalism, was plagued by similar accusations of hypocrisy. One New York Times bestseller, Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, is devoted to these kinds of attacks.
So what if people like Brand and Moore are sometimes pompous, or narcissistic, or populist, or inconsistent? Or if they don’t correspond with the cliche of the ascetic Marxist revolutionary? What matters is what these multi-millionaires do with their money.
Moore has produced any number of films that both entertain and challenge orthodox views of state violence, health care and capitalism itself. Earlier this year, he joked wryly that, “Entertainment is the big dirty word of documentary. ‘Oh no! I’ve entertained someone. I’ve cheapened my movie!’.”
Or as Brand puts it: “The revolution cannot be boring.”
A public feeling economic anxiety, at turns enraged and defeated, might agree. People flock to hear the stories Moore and Brand have to tell, no matter how much scorn is poured on them by critics.
“Aren’t we all, in one way or another, trying to find a solution to the problem of reality?” Brand writes in Revolution. What his solution looks like might depend on how you see him: media darling, irritant, inspiration, guru, reformed drug addict, former husband to singer Katy Perry, author, founder of daily news hackThe Trews, opponent of voting or man of the people. Take your pick.
Plenty have picked “hate object”, which, like the accusations of hypocrisy and selfishness, will be harder to justify after the New Era win. Surely it’s time to acknowledge that Brand – like Michael Moore – is actually a working class voice who belongs in the mix?
As he told Democracy Now, “If you sort of go, ‘Hey, I’m actually from a background where people are affected by stuff like this. This is what we think. Can we talk about this in a different way?’ people are so fiercely territorial and protective, it’s interesting”.
Brand isn’t the messiah (or just a naughty boy, for that matter) and his messagepisses off plenty of people. So does his method, sometimes. But his apology to an RBS worker whose lunch inadvertently became a casualty of a film shoot is heartfelt:
“Jo, get in touch, I owe you an apology and I’d like to take you for a hot paella to make up for the one that went cold … When I make a mistake I like to apolgise and put it right. Hopefully your bosses will do the same to the people of Britain.”
He’ll apologise for the small things; many of the established columnists who dump on Brand won’t apologise for getting it wrong on the big-picture issues, like the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, national security and the like.
On these stories, Brand speaks for the mainstream far more than many self-described national security experts. A 2013 Pew poll in the US found that a majority of citizens were more worried about civil liberties than terrorism. His recent comments on the Sydney siege nailed the way governments implement excessive state surveillance after a terror attack – increasingly a mainstream concern.
Nevertheless, anybody famous who proclaims themselves dissatisfied with society’s options is bound to be accused of wankery and ungratefulness by some. So be it. But Brand is a fascinating man, who dares to ask a huge audience to question the causes of housing shortages, corporate power and state terrorism. He is also ready to swing his star power behind the cause of a few dozen families facing eviction before Christmas. And he makes these issues relevant to millions.