Is anyone surprised?
During the last couple of years, the wealthy and successful British comedian Russell Brand has been amusing himself by posturing as a crusading champion of the downtrodden and a heroic enemy of The System. Last July, Sean McElwee wrote in Salon that “Russell Brand may be the most famous anti-capitalist in the world.” Last year, Brand toured with a stand-up show entitled Messiah Complex, in which, as he told Jimmy Fallon in an interview, he talked “about people like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Gandhi and Jesus and what made them such splendid fellows.” Che, Brand elaborated, “worked very hard and did some great things for ordinary people.” Fallon, disgracefully, agreed: “Absolutely, yes! You need more people like these people.”
Yes, more people like Che, who set up Cuba’s first forced-labor camp, ordered over 500 summary executions of ideological opponents, arranged with Khrushchev to bring nuclear missiles to Cuba, and was the person most responsible for the destruction of the formerly thriving Cuban economy.
Last year Brand also came out with a book, Revolution, in which he described himself as “a big fan of Castro and Che Guevara” and called Che “dear, beautiful, morally unimpeachable.” Michael Moynihan’s review of the book for The Daily Beast was aptly headlined “Russell Brand’s Revolution For Morons.” Revolution, Moynihan wrote, is “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism.”
Not long after Moynihan’s review, exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova weighed in on Brand’s Che-worship. Refuting the romantic notion of Che as a dedicated revolutionary who cared nothing for creature comforts or the products of capitalism, Fontova quoted a vivid description of Che’s beachfront mansion:
The mansion had a boat dock, a huge swimming pool, seven bathrooms, a sauna, a massage salon and several television sets….One TV had been specially designed in the U.S., and had a screen ten feet wide and was operated by remote control. This was thought to be the only TV of its kind in Latin America. The mansion’s garden had a veritable jungle of imported plants, a pool with a waterfall, ponds filled with exotic tropical fish and several bird houses filled with parrots and other exotic birds. The habitation was something out of A Thousand and One Nights.
Fontova said that he wouldn’t bother debunking “Brand’s idiocies on Cuba” except for one fact: those idiocies, as it happens, “perfectly mirror the ‘enlightened,’ even the mainstream, version of Cuban history, however amazing and asinine it sounds to actual Cubans who lived it or to any person who bothers to investigate the issue beyond what issues from Castro’s agents of influence, on the payroll and off.”
Among other things, Brand echoes the familiar line that Castro actually improved conditions in Cuba; on the contrary, writes Fontova, Cuba under Batista had “a higher per capita income than half of Europe, the lowest inflation rate in the Western Hemisphere, the 13th lowest infant-mortality on earth and a huge influx of immigrants.” Nor was the country anything like the wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government and/or U.S. corporations that Brand thinks it was (an image promoted for decades by the media, and by movies like Godfather II): “in 1959 U.S. investments in Cuba accounted for only 14 per cent the island’s GNP, and U.S. owned companies employed only 7 per cent of Cuba’s workforce.”
Part of Brand’s self-branding as a revolutionary on multiple fronts has been his clothing business. He sells his own line of sweatshirts, which, he has claimed, are made in the UK, with all profits going to charity. This now turns out to be untrue. On June 5, the Mail reported that the shirts are, in fact, made in Bangladesh by workers earning 25p an hour and working up to eleven hours a day, and that only £1.37 of the purchase price of a £65 sweatshirt goes to charity. And apparently what counts as “charity” in this case is the Trew Era, a “trendy East London cafe” owned by Brand himself that opened in March of this year. His lawyers, responding to the Mail‘s disclosures, describe the cafe as a “community social enterprise project.” Last year, noted the Mail, the website of Brand’s schmatta business “said the money from his merchandise would go to the Russell Brand Foundation”; this statement no longer appears on the site, and British authorities that oversee charitable enterprises have no record of the existence of any such foundation.
To be sure, it could be argued that Brand is actually doing his Bangladeshi sweatshirt-makers a service – he’s providing them with jobs, however menial and poorly paid, that are better than nothing and that may prove to be a stepping-stone to something better. And, on a larger level, the sweatshops they work in, which also produce apparel for major UK labels, may represent a step toward a stronger economy for Bangladesh. But that’s precisely the kind of argument that Brand has been shooting down for a couple of years now in his fatuous rants against capitalism and globalization.
Unsurprisingly, critics of Brand responded to the news of his Bangladesh sweatshop by calling him a hypocrite. And they’re right. If this isn’t hypocrisy, what is? Nor is this the first time he’s faced accusations of hypocrisy. Last December, for example, while taking part in a rally for more affordable housing in London, he “flew into a rage” when Channel 4 reporter Paraic O’Brien suggested that Brand himself “was part of the housing problem because the super-rich buying up property in London were driving up prices for everyone else.” His own £2 million home “in trendy Hoxton, east London,” it emerged, was “owned by a firm based in a tax haven.”
Perhaps it was British columnist Nick Cohen, writing in October 2013, who served up the definitive verdict on Russell Brand:
He writes as if he is a precocious prepubescent rather than an adolescent: a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of “consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system” – and does not want to know either.