On Russell Brand and my silly millenial life

Russell Brand on revolution

I developed a soft spot for Russell Brand’s political side way back when I saw him kill the Westboro Baptist Church with kindness. (If you never got to see this glorious ten minutes of indefatigable love, check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBA6qlHW8po) To be honest, the guy’s never really been on my radar, and he strikes me as an unsalvageable doofus. But that may be why I enjoy it so much when he does politics.

He can be serious about something without taking himself too seriously. He can speak passionately and disagree without dehumanizing his opponents. For a doofy ex-addict popstar, he’s way ahead of most of the other talking heads today.

It’s truly rare to find a person, let alone a political personality, willing to honestly and publicly acknowledge his or her own imperfections. We tend to think we need to assert our moral superiority in order to successfully argue on ethical issues. But Brand inserts healthy doses of self-deprecation in his writing. On talking today’s politics:

Like when I’m conversing and the subject changes from me and moves on to another topic. I try to remain engaged but behind my eyes I am adrift in immediate nostalgia; “How happy I was earlier in this chat,” I instantly think.

So he’s a self-involved celebrity. Can we really hold it against him if he admits it?

I also respect the way Brand employs anecdotes of his rough and tumble upbringing and history of drug abuse without losing sight of his current privilege.

I don’t want to get all “Call me Dave, I was chatting to my plumber, man of the people” here, but the fact is I’m a recovering junkie so that means I have to hang out with a lot of other junkies to keep my head together, some of whom are clean, others who are using. Hear you this, regular New Statesman reader, browsing with irritation that the culture of celebrity has just banjoed the arse of another sacred cow and a Halloween-haired, Sachsgate-enacting, estuary-whining, glitter-lacquered, priapic berk has been undeservedly hoisted upon another cultural plinth, but – young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.

Anyway, reading Brand’s New Statesman article and watching the video that’s recently gone viral of him talking on BBC’s Newsnight, I felt something I don’t often feel: the vindication of having somebody whose views I actually identify with get their ideas heard en mass.

I never really thought about it this clearly before, but the reality is, I am a citizen of a country whose political and social leaders simply do not represent my interests. I’m a bit more left leaning, particularly socially, so I voted for Obama in 2008. I mainly liked his inclusive rhetoric, and though I knew better than to expect both Hope AND Change, I was happy to settle for a president who at least allowed for the possibility of Real Americans to be not always straight, white, economically privileged Christians. However, I have come to realize that not only (apart from maybe healthcare) do none of the American ruling class give a shit about my needs, I don’t think those issues are even on their radar!

The one issue I care about that I’ve seen positive progress on is marriage equality. Though it does not benefit me personally, I think it’s extremely important for the social fabric of our nation to make every family legal. I’m thrilled that one of my childhood friends has already taken advantage of this new opportunity to marry his partner! But guess what? I wasn’t even able to be there, because I can’t seem to earn a living wage in the United States while doing something meaningful and productive.

I have a bachelor’s degree from an excellent (not quite Ivy) university. I graduated summa cum laude with two internships, solid work-study experience, and some good old-fashioned summer job cred under my belt. My prospects upon graduation included an offer from a summer camp and an expenses-paid volunteer position in a failed state. OK. I chose the latter, correctly assuming that I would gain invaluable experience and maintain my financial independence. Two years later, I returned home totally burnt out but hopeful that I could find a decent nonprofit job while I recuperated. I worried that people wouldn’t believe what I was accurately stating on my resume. But otherwise, I (incorrectly) assumed that my challenging experiences and passionate cover letters would eventually generate interest.

Out of over thirty applications, only one responded to me. After a brief phone interview, they emailed their rejection: the previous young candidate had left for grad school after just one year, and they assumed I would too. Thanks guys!

Granted, my job searching strategy was probably a bit anemic. After my seasonal summer job ended, I tried hardcore networking. I did a free trial of LinkedIn Premium and cold-messaged interesting people. I drove 6 hours to Boston a few times to meet with several people in the interfaith field. Interesting chats, but still nothing materialized. I thought about just moving there and working any old job while volunteering, until I found out that Macy’s paid $8/hour in a city where you could live in a closet for $500/month. I started applying for PhD programs. Well, I thought, I could commit to academia for 6-8 years as long as my rent was paid. (Spoiler alert: 6 out of 6 applications were rejected.)

Meanwhile, I found a seasonal call center gig with decent pay but unreliable hours. It was sufficient as long as I lived with my mom, which I did. I love you and thank you so much, Mom, but please don’t let me live with you again. Even though I told myself it was temporary and tried to take advantage of the support of family and friends, I felt a huge hole. My job consisted of repeating, “Thank you for calling LL Bean, how may I help you?” 60-100 times per day and selling nice stuff to privileged people who usually didn’t need it. (Don’t get me wrong, I had really fulfilling interactions with some customers, but there was no denying that this was boring as hell and far below my abilities.) While I diligently distracted myself with exercise, language study, and application-writing, I also made a lot of mindless purchases at the mall and online. I started using OkCupid and went on lots of dates with random dudes. I regularly went driving around in a sobbing rage until I had to pull over. I was pretty sure that if something didn’t change drastically pretty soon, I was going to atrophy into a vegetable. Maybe I was being a little impatient and overly dramatic. But it sure as shit felt real at the time.

Then one day, a former coworker suggested that I apply to teach with him in Yemen. Another peanuts-paying job in a failed state? Was I that desperate? FUCK YEAH! A few weeks later I was happily leaving all my frustrations (and disappointed loved ones) behind.

Hope you enjoyed my first-world problems story.

But seriously. Is it really reasonable that I can’t make a decent living in my own country, the country that constantly claims to be the Very Best in the Whole Goddamn World? Doesn’t it seem a little odd that my “dream life” includes making about half the yearly cost of my alma mater, eating rice and beans in a shared apartment (or I could do ramen and a studio), and working to correct the shameful ignorance we as Americans still aren’t wise enough to overcome? Yes, that would be my dream life.

And while I am determined to make this modest dream come true some day, I know it’s not going to be as easy as I’ve been told things would be for me all my life. It won’t be as easy as it would have been for my parents. And it won’t be as easy as it would be if we had a sociopolitical system geared toward developing human beings rather than protecting the wealth and power of those who are already wealthy and powerful.

It goes without saying that I enjoy a higher standard of living than a vast number of people in the US and the rest of the world. That acknowledged, I feel entitled, as should Russell Brand with his even higher level of privilege, to criticize the current sociopolitical order in the West. I feel this way on the basis of two basic principles:

  1. My full productive potential is not being utilized under the current system. In fact, I am an example of “brain drain.”
  2. I have essentially no safety net, which in my opinion is unnecessary given the ample resources and technology of my nation.

I would like to continue this to discuss why I think we Americans are operating under a faulty and indeed damaging set of assumptions about society and government. For now, I will leave you with a few Russell Brand-related articles.

People are already elucidating actionable ideas in response to his ideas.

People are also catching on to the fact that Brand is voicing the concerns of a new generation, and the old guard may not yet understand why we are so fed up with the way things are.