Brand and Circuses
What's behind the media accusations against Russell Brand?
I don’t find it at all surprising to see the lurid allegations of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and rape made against Russell Brand by a consortium of UK media companies. The Sunday Times, The Times and Channel 4 Dispatches worked together over a span of four years on this in-depth investigation into Russell’s past (this definitely does not seem like they were out to get him at all). I was honestly surprised that he evaded this kind of scrutiny for so long. He was, after all, wildly promiscuous for a long time, proclaimed “Shagger of the Year” many times by The Sun, and bragged openly about sleeping with as many as eighty women a month while also being an infamous drug addict.
I think it is worthwhile to explore this situation in some depth, and from multiple angles, for what it reveals about our current cultural moment — and our deeper predicament. As some of you know, I have had different moments with Russell: He wrote about my ideas in his book Revolution, visited me at a retreat I organized in Utah, interviewed me for The Trews and so on. I interviewed him for my short-lived talk show, MindShift, on GaiaTV.
I just finished reading Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, where she seeks to work through her fascination with a century’s worth of male geniuses who are now discredited or utterly canceled due to their past sexual improprieties or sex crimes. The list includes Roman Polanski, Pablo Picasso, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Manson (not sure if he qualifies as “genius”) and Woody Allen. In my favorite part of the book, she notes that, both individually and collectively, we tend to have a love-hate relationship with the genius-monster or genius-asshole:
The sometimes-truth is that we are interested in and, yes, even attracted to bad people. When the latest news comes out and we’re all aflutter with outrage, we’re ignoring a truth: Part of the reason so much attention has been trained on men like Picasso and Hemingway is exactly because they’re assholes. …
We want the asshole to cross the line, to break the rules. We reward that rule-breaking, and then we go a step further, and see it as endemic to art-making itself. We reward and reward this bad behavior until it becomes synonymous with greatness. Not just because the gatekeepers and publishers and studio heads have traditionally been men, but also because we ourselves yearn for plot and action. We yearn for events!
And then we are furious when this eventful asshole commits a crime…
I myself have had any number of truly terrible boyfriends and paramours. Their terribleness was their calling card. Life is so dull. With a bad man around, something is very likely to happen.
One friend of mine in the indie rock world notes that almost all of his male musician friends who were in relatively successful bands over the last decades have been cancelled, at this point. While they were being celebrated and paparazzi'd, it seemed that the culture — the public — wanted them to act out, to perform rebellion against social and sexual norms. Then, later, they were torn down, punished and ostracized, for the same behavior which gained them notoriety and which society seemed to yearn for. (This, also, points to the daemonic power of sexuality, or what Freud called Eros, an amoral “superpower” swirling beneath all social relations, at times wreaking havoc.)
Philosopher Rene Girard has become very popular with the Alt Right crowd. The by-now archetypal ritual in the public sphere where famous men are brought down based on decades-old sexual misconduct accusations calls to mind Girard’s ideas on the scapegoat mechanism. He believed that humans are driven by what he called “mimetic desire:” We desire what others have or what others want. This causes “mimetic contagion,” eventually requiring a collective sacrifice of at least one member of the group to restore social order. To quote Wikipedia: “In his study of history, Girard formed the hypothesis that societies unify their imitative desires around the destruction of a collectively agreed-upon scapegoat.”
When we consider they undertook an expensive, extensive, multi-year investigation into Brand’s sexual history, it seems likely that the UK media company consortium was driven by different conscious and unconscious motivations.
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