Lindy West: the Zeitgeist personified

Lindy West

It’s a mark of how far the New York Times has fallen that one of its “contributing opinion writers” – since July of last year – is a silly gal named Lindy West. She’s the author of a 2016 essay collection entitled Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. The title, of course, places the book in a genre, or subgenre, that one might call “proudly obnoxious feminist” books, such as Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998) and Laurie Penny’s Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (2017). For many third-wave feminists, being proud of being obnoxious is, shall we say, a thing.

For a proudly obnoxious feminist, West’s career path has been pretty standard: a stint at Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger, a staff job at the feminist site Jezebel. And so on. Her Wikipedia page claims that she “has changed more minds…than you could count” using her humor, and lists several pieces of hers that have supposedly “helped shift mainstream attitudes about body image, comedy and online harassment over the past several years.” Not to question the veracity of Wikipedia, but we don’t know anyone whose opinions have been changed by her, and after reading her purported “greatest” works we not only can’t imagine any intelligent person being persuaded by them – we also can’t see why they’re considered humorous. West is not remotely funny, unless you think it’s funny to be, as she puts it, shrill. (And to use the F word in nearly every sentence.) 

Dave Attell, one of the comedians who would doubtless disappear in Lindy West’s perfect world

One of her supposed classics is a 2013 piece for Jezebel entitled “An Open Letter to White Male Comedians.” Her argument is that “comedy has a serious gender problem, and I really can’t stop complaining about it until it’s f***ing fixed. Comedy clubs are an overtly hostile space for women. Even just presuming we can talk about comedy gets women ripped to shreds by territorial dudes desperate to defend their authority over what’s funny.” Note how she uses the word “authority.” The fact here, as West goes on to make clear, is that she doesn’t like certain jokes about women, and she thinks women should have the right to tell men which jokes are out of bounds and to be listened to. In other words, she thinks female comics should be granted the authority to censor male comics.

Male comics, quite reasonably, reject this audacious proposal. And by doing so, in her cockeyed view, they’re the ones exercising authority. No, they’re exercising freedom. But in this “Open Letter,” as elsewhere, West makes it clear that she doesn’t have much respect for the concept of freedom – in particular, for freedom of speech.

Mel Brooks

Because speech, she claims, hurts.

In her “Open Letter,” she claims that “being a woman is a bitch,” that it “can be scary,” that “there’s always a small awareness that we are vulnerable simply because we are women,” that jokes “about domestic violence and rape…feed that aura of feeling unsafe and unwelcome.”

West doesn’t seem to realize that not just being a woman, but being human, can be scary, that we’re all vulnerable in certain ways, that life is tough for virtually all of us for a wide range of reasons, and is ultimately tragic for every last one of us, and that the whole point of truly great humor is to try to grapple with that. So it is that some of the very greatest humor goes into the very darkest of places. Just ask Mel Brooks.

But no, scratch that. West doesn’t want to hear from people like Mel Brooks – because he’s a straight white male, and is thus incapable of understanding any of this unless, perhaps, he reads West’s “Open Letter.” As she explains: “If you’re an able-bodied straight white male, you are by definition a member of the least number of systemically oppressed groups. It takes an entire blog post for me to make you feel diminished and misunderstood (my bad)—but you could do that to me or a gay person or a trans person or a person of color or a disabled person with just a word.”

This is what it comes down to with West – the claim that, because she is a member of an allegedly oppressed group, a single word can make her “feel diminished,” and that it’s therefore a noble act for her to hector and harass – at 3000 words’ length! – members of what she sees as non-oppressed groups about their use of words. Simply put, she’s the Zeitgeist personified. 

More on Thursday.

Calling for coups: Chelsea Handler’s activism

The political Chelsea

As we noted on Tuesday, Chelsea Handler has metamorphosed from clown into political pundit. Well, actually, she has become a political pundit while remaining every bit a clown. October saw the end of her snooze-worthy series, Chelsea, in which she conducted endless wonky interviews with the scintillating likes of David Axelrod and Gavin Newsome. That show was a deadly dull exercise in political shop talk, but after it was canceled, Chelsea, instead of trying to find her funny bone again, announced that she would be setting her show business career aside for the nonce and instead focus on political activism. “Like so many across the country,” she tweeted, “the past presidential election and the countless events that have unfolded since have galvanized me.”

Dana Rohrabacher

Only days later, she showed just how knowledgeable she was about politics with a tweet about Dana Rohrabacher, a member of Congress whose district centers on Huntington Beach, California. “So, Republican rep. Dana Rohrabacher from California is was the original person who received info from Russia, because she works w/ them,” wrote Chelsea. Savvy! Just one problem: Dana Rohrabacher, as tens of millions of Americans know, is not a “she” but a “he.” “Her stupidity knows no bounds,” marveled one fellow denizen of the Twitterverse.

Melania Trump

This was far from Chelsea’s first show of idiocy since her foray into politics. In the last weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, she sent out several tweets mocking Melania Trump’s English. On October 28: “Trump said Melania will give two or three more speeches….Hopefully an interpreter will be present.” November 5: “Tim Kaine delivered a speech entirely in Spanish. Still easier to understand than Melania.” After Trump’s election, Chelsea said she wouldn’t invite the First Lady on her show for an interview because “she can barely speak English.” As many observers noted at the time, Mrs. Trump speaks five languages; Chelsea, in her previous incarnation as a comedian, admitted more than once to being monolingual.

Donald Trump

Even the left is embarrassed by her. On August 11, the Daily Beast ran a piece headlined “Chelsea Handler’s Twitter Feed Has Officially Gone Off the Rails.” In it, Matt Wilstein cited a couple of Chelsea’s recent tweets. In one, she called for a U.S. military coup (“To all the generals surrounding our idiot-in-chief…the longer U wait to remove him, the longer UR name will appear negatively in history”); in another, she called for limits on the First Amendment (“2 Chinese guys were arrested in Berlin for making nazi salutes. Wouldn’t it be nice 2 have laws here for people who think racism is funny?”). As one person tweeted in response to her attack on free speech: “If we start arresting people for disgusting opinions you better call your lawyer.”

Sarah Sanders

In other tweets, she’s blamed the GOP for California’s rampant wildfires and for last November’s church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Of course, California wildfires and church shootings took place under Obama, too.) Despite her proclaimed feminism, she’s repeatedly made fun of the physical appearance of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. And notwithstanding her boasts of being pro-gay, she hasn’t been above “accusing” political opponents of homosexuality. Earlier this month, when she was displeased by a certain senator’s comments at a White House meeting, Chelsea wrote an obscene tweet suggesting that the only reason he could be so civil to President Trump must be that somebody in the Executive Branch has a gay porn video of him. The tweet, founded on a widespread rumor that the senator in question is gay, occasioned widespread criticism. “Keep being a voice for the Democrats while you use homosexuality as an insult,” one reader commented. Another wrote: “If a Republican said something like this, they’d be burning down the RNC.”

Chelsea Handler is an idiot, but for the far left, she’s a highly useful idiot, with 8.5 million Twitter followers who’ve hung in there with her despite the disastrous failure of her Netflix show. Let’s hope, for the sake of comedy and the Republic, that she gets tired of politics ASAP and returns to making people laugh on purpose.  

Chelsea Handler: from jokes to talking points

Chelsea Handler

We used to think Chelsea Handler was, at her best, funny. On her popular late-night talk show Chelsea Lately, which was carried on the E! Network for several years, her persona was that of a laid-back, know-nothing, hard-drinking, sex-happy narcissist who spread her wealth around to her chums and in return got to treat them like vassals. Whether it was an act or not (one had the impression that her persona was a somewhat exaggerated version of her actual self), she put it over well, and at its best, as we say, it could be quite amusing.

Chelsea Lately

Chelsea Lately had a simple format: she opened with a sort-of-monologue, in which she went on for a few minutes, in her self-absorbed way, about some recent experience or personal complaint or griped about one of her friends or crew members; she then proceeded to have a lighthearted roundtable with two or three other comedians, with whom she traded silly quips and personal barbs; and she concluded by chatting one-on-one with some celebrity who was there, in the usual fashion, to promote something, except that Chelsea, instead of feigning interest in the project being promoted, fixated on her guest’s shoes or clothes or breasts, or professed to find the guest sexually attractive, or expressed a lack of interest in whatever anecdote her guest was trying to put over. There was certainly not the slightest whiff of politics about any of it: the whole idea, the whole schtick, was that Chelsea was too childlike and egocentric to possibly give a moment’s thought to such lofty matters as statecraft or international affairs or the welfare of others. Indeed, the main appeal of the show was its casual political incorrectness. (50 Cent: “I had some free time….” Chelsea, interrupting: “Were you in prison?”)  

It was all terribly silly – but it was aware of being silly. It was even, you might say, wittily silly. But then something happened. Like many funny people, Chelsea decided that she was tired of getting laughs. She wanted to be taken seriously. Calling it quits with her successful late-night show, she moved over to Netflix, where she started doing a “serious” weekly interview program. Yes, there were showbiz celebrities, but they were, more often than not, politically engaged showbiz celebrities who were eager to talk with her about such subjects as global warming and DREAMers and Islamophobia. In addition, Chelsea had long, earnest conversations with the likes of Gloria Steinem, Chelsea Clinton, Jake Tapper, Trevor Noah, Keith Olbermann, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, former Mexico president Vincente Fox, and Democratic strategists David Alexrod and James Carville.

With Gavin Newsome

The premise was that Chelsea was “learning.” She was “educating herself.” This was how she described the show, and it was how Netflix promoted it: come along and watch Chelsea learn from the best and the brightest! But what really ended up happening on her Netflix show, as it turned out, was that Chelsea was sitting there exposing herself, and her viewers, to endless hours of Democratic Party rhetoric. It was pure brainwashing. Chelsea was not hearing both sides. She was not being taught how to use her mind to examine ideas critically. She was certainly not picking up any history lessons. On the contrary, she was being trained to spit back left-wing talking points. She thought she was thinking, but she wasn’t doing anything of the kind. Alas, she still doesn’t know what real thinking is.

When her show was canceled recently by Netflix, the news came as no surprise: American audiences had no interest in this new incarnation of Chelsea. They didn’t need to be lectured at by this woman who, until just the other day, was presenting herself as a bubblehead. But Chelsea lectured anyway. She lectured on her show – and, even after its cancellation, she continued lecturing on Twitter. We’ll get to that on Thursday.

 

Russell Brand, revolutionary hypocrite

Is anyone surprised?

brandcheDuring 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.”

che
Che Guevara

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.”

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Raul Castro blindfolds a prisoner who is about to be executed

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.”

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Following a one-minute trial, a corporal in Batista’s army is given last rites before being executed by Castro’s men

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.”

Russell Brand speaks at the opening of The Trew Era Cafe, a social enterprise community project on the New Era estate in east London, Thursday, 26 March, 2015. The opening of the cafe coincides with the trade paperback publication date of 'Revolution', and Brand will be donating 100% of his money for the book to the Cafe.(Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Brand outside his cafe at its opening in March

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.

Women work at a garment factory in Savar July 27, 2012. Women work for ten hours a day and earn about 3,000 taka ($37.5) per month. Bangladesh's $19 billion garments industry attracts some of the world's biggest clothing brands because of low costs, but many retailers say unrest over pay and delayed shipping schedules are eroding that advantage. Picture taken on July 27, 2012. To go with story BANGLADESH-GARMENTS/   REUTERS/Andrew Biraj (BANGLADESH - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - RTR37L3S
A garment factory in Bangladesh

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.

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Russell Brand and Paraic O’Brien at London housing rally

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.”

brandPerhaps 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.