Catching up with Russell Brand, comedian turned socialist sage

How time flies! It was over two years ago that we wrote about Russell Brand, whom we were about to describe as a “British comedian” before we realized that it’s been a long time since we actually heard him say anything funny.

Russell Brand

No, Brand has long since transcended mere comedy. As we noted on June 8, 2015, he’s been more comfortable the last few years “posturing as a crusading champion of the downtrodden and a heroic enemy of The System.” His 2014 stand-up show was entitled Messiah Complex, for which this world-class egomaniac should at least get credit for truth in advertising. The show was a tribute to some of his heroes, among them Che Guevara. And the book he published the same year was called Revolution, in which he expanded upon his enthusiasm not only for the “morally unimpeachable” Che but also for Fidel Castro.

Sharing pearls of wisdom from his latest masterpiece at Carlton House Terrace, London, October 14, 2017

Lately Brand has been busy plugging a new book about his history of addiction. The book’s publisher describes it as a collection of lessons learned from “fourteen years of recovery” from addiction to “heroin, alcohol, sex, fame, food and eBay.” The author himself calls it a “manual for self-realization,” adding, with an uncharacteristic touch of what sounds like – can it be? – humility, that his “qualification” to offer up these life lessons “is not that I am better than you but I am worse.”

The Sermon on the Mount?

But don’t worry: that quote notwithstanding, Brand appears to be as much of a crusading know-it-all as ever, no less convinced than before that – despite his admitted inability, over a period of years, to stay on track and keep his own house in order – he takes a back seat to no one when it comes to diagnosing the planet’s ills. In other words, while he’s escaped dependency on booze and drugs, he’s still hooked on himself. And the media, perversely, can’t kick the habit of reporting on his every pearl of wisdom. On October 25, for example, the BBC’s website carried a story headlined “Russell Brand: Society is collapsing.” (It’s not every day you see a headline like that on any website’s “Entertainment” section.)

“People,” Brand told BBC scribe Steven McIntosh, “are starting to recognise that the reason they feel like they’re mentally ill is that they’re living in a system that’s not designed to suit the human spirit.” They’re frustrated over having to “work 12 hours a day,” over having to “live in an environment that is designed for human beings from one perspective but not from a holistic perspective,” over the fact that they’re “[b]reathing dirty air, eating dirty food, thinking dirty thoughts.”

The people Brand is apparently talking about are those who live in the Western world today; and the system in question is therefore democratic capitalism. Given Brand’s heavily documented enthusiasm for Castro, Che, and other Communists, we can only suppose that he is unfavorably comparing life in the West today with life under various Communist countries, past and present. Donald Trump’s recent speech to the South Korean parliament drew a striking contrast between the freedom, prosperity, and respect for the individual that characterize life below the DMZ with the deprivation, fear, and despair of life under the tyranny of the Kim family regime. Brand’s comments to the BBC are apparently a through-the-looking-glass version of Trump’s speech. Yes, the British funnyman appears to be saying, South Korea may look okay enough “from one perspective,” but life in places like Cuba and North Korea is better holistically. Got that?

Two Brand heroes: Corbyn and Chávez

Brand told McIntosh that he had no intention of going into politics, but that determination didn’t keep Brand from penning a Huffington Post paean last May to Labour Party chieftain Jeremy Corbyn. Now, Corbyn is a guy whom even many Labour stalwarts consider to be way over the line. Corbyn, an enemy of NATO and fan of Castro’s Cuban Revolution and Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, is a Communist in all but name; but for Brand, he’s a man who combines “principles” with “common sense and compassion,” who has kept his “integrity perfectly preserved,” and who is, all in all, a “caring socialist leader” who has kept it together despite being the target of a “hegemonic narrative singularity.” No, we don’t know what that means either.

Who is Kathy Dettwyler?

Kathy Dettwyler (center, in dress) with students, 2016

During the past few days we’ve been studying the responses of several ethically challenged commentators to the arrest and imprisonment of American student Otto Warmbier – who died on July 19 – by the brutal regime of North Korea, which accused him of removing a propaganda poster from a hotel corridor. Instead of recognizing Warmbier as a victim deserving of sympathy, writers at Salon and Huffington Post, and so-called comedian Larry Wilmore, either criticized him for his supposed disrespect for his totalitarian hosts or made fun of him for having gotten himself into trouble in the Hermit Kingdom in the first place. But worst of all was Kathy Dettwyler, an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, who on her Facebook page and in a reader comment posted at the website of National Review, actually tore into Warmbier after his death. To their credit, her bosses at the University of Delaware were quick to issue the following statement:

Otto Warmbier at his press conference in North Korea

The comments of Katherine Dettwyler do not reflect the values or position of the University of Delaware. We condemn any and all messages that endorse hatred and convey insensitivity toward a tragic event such as the one that Otto Warmbier and his family suffered.

The University of Delaware values respect and civility and we are committed to global education and study abroad; therefore we find these comments particularly distressing and inconsistent with our values. Our sympathies are with the Warmbier family.

This statement was soon followed by another one indicating that the university would not be rehiring Dettwyler after the present semester.

Kathy Dettwyler, breastfeeding expert

We were so disgusted by Dettwyler’s remarks about Warmbier that we decided to find out more about her. It turns out that Dettwyler is an “expert” on breastfeeding. She is sometimes described as a “breastfeeding advocate” – which means, basically, that she believes in breastfeeding babies until long after they have ceased to be babies. In one article she suggests that it is reasonable to keep breastfeeding a child until somewhere between the ages of three and eight. A brief career summary: after studying at UC Davis and Indiana University, she has bounced from one college faculty to another – the University of Southern Mississippi, Texas A&M, SUNY Plattsburgh, Millersville University.

University of Delaware

After her remarks about Warmbier made national news, The Review, a newspaper published at the University of Delaware, ran a piece about her stating that she had “earned a reputation” at the college “for incorporating her political beliefs into her teaching.” The article quoted junior Nicolas Diclaudio, who had taken two anthropology courses taught by Dettwyler. According to Diclaudio, Dettwyler “would routinely go on political tangents, oftentimes making derogatory remarks about President Donald Trump and his supporters….Dettwyler’s classroom activity became seriously unacceptable when she began to include her political beliefs in academic assessments, asking questions with intentional ideological bias.”

A question about Donald Trump and his supporters from a test by Dettwyler, along with the “correct” answer: true.

“I would always pick the answer that I knew she wanted because I didn’t want it to affect my grade,” Diclaudio told The Review. “Me and some of my friends would stop going to class and just read the textbook because her lectures got out of hand.” The Review noted that Diclaudio was not surprised by Dettwyler’s remarks about Warmbier; on the contrary, the student referred to Dettwyler’s Facebook post on Warmbier as “The most Kathy thing I’ve ever seen.” Student comments about Dettwyler at the website Rate My Professors confirm Diclaudio’s report: “It’s her opinion or no opinion…will give you attitude if you ask certain questions.” “She is very opinionated and blunt.” “Easily the rudest professor I have had at UD.” “She’s extremely rude.” “Way too opinionated to the point where she becomes unprofessional.” “Very opinionated and can be perceived as rude.” “Very opinionated and rude.” “Extremely strict and rude. She thinks she created Anthropology and hates America….She’s horrible and obnoxious.” “Insufferable. I’ve never experienced a professor who’s as self-important…one of the rudest people I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting.” “Unbelievably rude when students disagree with her but she tells us to question authority.”

While various national media failed to get any comment out of Dettwyler, she did respond to an inquiry by The Review, stating that “A couple of students complained about my comments in class about Trump, when what I did was talk about statements he himself had made, and lead the students through and analysis of the underlying cultural beliefs they reflected….This is part of my job as an anthropology professor.”

Kathy Dettwyler: spitting on Otto Warmbier’s corpse

Otto Warmbier

The last couple of days, we’ve been dwelling over the terrible story of Otto Warmbier, the American student held prisoner by North Korea and returned home last month in a coma. Our focus has not been on Warmbier, who died on June 19 in Cincinnati, but on the creeps at Salon, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere who chose to respond to Warmier’s arrest not by recognizing it as the act of a reprehensible totalitarian dictatorship but by denouncing – or ridiculing – Warmbier himself.

Kathy Dettwyler

To be sure, all these criticisms of Warmbier took place while he was still alive (and in a North Korean prison). Even worse was Kathy Dettwyler, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, who after Warmbier’s death, mind you, wrote a few breathtakingly callous things on her Facebook page and in a readers’ comments section at the website of National Review: “Is it wrong of me,” she asked, “to think that Otto Warmbier got exactly what he deserved?” She maintained that Warmbier was “typical of a mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueless males who come into my classes” and who “cry about their grades because they didn’t think they’d really have to read and study the material to get a good grade. They simple deserve a good grade for being who they are. Or instead of crying, they bluster and threaten their female professors.” There was no indication that Dettwyler had any knowledge about Warmbier’s academic conduct or performance: apparently the fact that he was a white male college student was enough for her to come to certain conclusions about him

Warmbier’s funeral

“These are the same kids,” wrote Dettwyler, “who cry about their grades because they didn’t think they’d really have to read and study the material to get a good grade….His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. Maybe in the US, where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea. And of course, it’s Ottos’ [sic] parents who will pay the price for the rest of their lives.”

Again, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Warmbier thought he could get away with anything; and there’s certainly no excuse to equate him with a rapist. His alleged crime wasn’t rape – it was ripping a piece of paper off of a wall. And there’s no way of knowing whether Warmbier even did that. All we really know about what happened to him in North Korea is that he was arrested, imprisoned, and obviously abused so brutally that it ended up killing him. All these people’s criticisms should be directed against the totalitarian monsters of Pyongyang who tyrannize their own people in the same way they tyrannized Warmbier.

We’re talking, after all, about a country where a couple of hundred thousand political prisoners are being held under primitive conditions, are forced to perform back-breaking slave work under dangerous circumstances, and are in constant danger of either starving or freezing to death. But no: certain people on the Western left are so drenched in postmodern cliches about identity-group-based power and victimhood that when they see a story of this kind, their first instinct is to empathize with the non-whites, however monstrous, and to come down hard on the white male, however innocent.

No, Warmbier should never have set in North Korea. But did he deserve to die for his naivete?

Otto Warmbier: Blaming the victim

Otto Warmbier under arrest

We wrote last year about Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who went on a tour of North Korea only to find himself sentenced to 15 years at hard labor for supposedly stealing a propaganda banner from a corridor in his Pyongyang hotel – and who, last month, in a horrific denouement, was returned to the U.S. in a coma only to die several days later. In our account of the Warmbier case last year, we took a look at the firm, Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), that arranged the group trip in which he took part – but that, in the aftermath of his tragic experience, has ceased organizing vacations to the Hermit Kingdom.

Warmbier in court

A quick recap on YPT: according to its own website, it was founded by Gareth Johnson, a Britisher who has a great “love for the people and culture” of North Korea. The site also quoted from a YPT official, Shane Horan: “I’m passionate about travel to so called ‘rogue nations’ and changing people’s often incorrect perceptions of them.” YPT’s promotional materials directly addressed potential vacationers’ concern about safety in North Korea: “How safe is it? Extremely safe! Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit. Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of.”

Warmbier and fellow tour members in Pyongyang, prior to his arrest

Far from being cherished and well taken of, however, Warmbier was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang when he was about to return home. He was put on trial and, on March 16 of last year, sent to prison. YPT issued a statement to the effect that it was “continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr Warmbier.” Well, that didn’t exactly work out. 

La Sha

Far from showing any remorse, YPT kept whitewashing North Korea. And meanwhile Warmbier was undergoing – well, no one outside of Kim Jong-un’s empire knows exactly what he underwent. It now seems clear that he was savagely abused. Nobody remotely familiar with the reality of North Korea should have been surprised at the thought that the incarcerated American was undergoing brutal treatment. But that thought didn’t stop many appalling people in the U.S. from blaming Warmbier for his own fate – and, in effect, taking the side of the North Korean regime. At the Huffington Post, for example, a writer named La Sha took palpable pleasure at the news of Warmbier’s prison sentence, writing that “the shield his cis white male identity provides here in America is not teflon abroad.” The “reckless gall” Warmbier had demonstrated in North Korea by supposedly snatching a propaganda poster, argued La Sha, was “an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country.”

As a “benefactor…of all privilege,” suggested La Sha (she later referred to his “alabaster American privilege”), Warmbier had developed an “arrogance,” a “subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable.” But there was more. As we’ll see tomorrow, La Sha actually compared Warmbier to the Aurora, Colorado, mass murderer. 

 

Daniel Tutt, Islamophobia salesman

Daniel Tutt

We’ve been looking at Daniel Tutt, who when he’s not teaching at Marymount University and publishing dense, pretentious academic papers celebrating postmodern Marxist philosophy is working hard trying to sell general audiences on Islam sometimes via films or lectures or interviews, sometimes via pieces for popular media, such as the Huffington Post and something called the Islamic Monthly.

In these pieces, one of his signature moves is to start out by briefly mentioning a recent act of terrorism, and then to pivot quickly to the supposed anti-Muslim backlash thereto. One 2013 essay, for example, began as follows: “While the dust has yet to settle on the horrific Boston Marathon bombings by the Tsarnaev brothers, Muslims have already felt the impact of their association with Islam. We have witnessed a rise in Islamophobic discourse in the popular media and blogosphere….” (And the rest of the article, of course, was entirely about “Islamophobia.”) Two years later, he published a piece that began as follows: “In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris and Beirut, Islamophobic rhetoric and hate crimes have already begun to surge. Across the country, we have politicians making calls to suspend refugee resettlement, hate crimes and mosque arsons have already begun to intensify…..”

Boston Marathon bombing

Islamophobia! Throughout his general-audience oeuvre, that’s Tutt’s favorite topic. In one essay, published shortly after the 2016 elections and entitled “Islamophobia and the Coming Trump Era,” Tutt charged that “incidents of bullying, discrimination, and hate crimes directed toward Muslims, and those perceived to be [Muslims],” had risen since Trump’s election. He provided no evidence to support this claim, and made no mention of the recent rise in acts of jihadist terror. On the contrary, instead of recognizing that there are legitimate reasons for concern about Islamic ideology, Tutt disparaged what he described as a “far right” and “highly conspiratorial and radically racist” view that “Islam is an exceptionally intolerant and violent religion.”

A fear of “the browning of America”?

He also offered up a bizarre theory – namely, that the presidency of Barack Obama, a black man, caused “white America” to experience “a climate of paranoia where Islamophobia functioned as the tip of the iceberg to a much wider fear over the ‘browning of America.’” This theory, of course, ignores the fact that Obama would never have been elected (and re-elected) president if millions of white Americans hadn’t voted for him. Nor does Tutt’s theory explain why a nationwide fear of the “browning of America” should manifest itself as Islamophobia rather than, say, as a fear of, or prejudice against, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’i, Jainists, or, for that matter, members of predominantly black Protestant denominations.

Theodor W. Adorno

In a January 2016 academic essay, “Elements of Islamophobia: The State, Class and Capital,” Tutt served up some more original thought, arguing that American voters’ concerns about unlimited and unvetted Muslim immigration was “reminiscent of the infamous ‘Jewish problem’ that stoked rampant anti-Semitism during the first half of the twentieth century.” Of course, anti-Semitism is an ancient and irrational phenomenon; “Islamophobia” is a term invented in modern times by the Muslim Brotherhood to dismiss legitimate fears about explicit threats to Western freedom and security.

None of this, however, kept Tutt from maintaining, absurdly, that “today’s intensification of Islamophobia must be understood and diagnosed primarily, but not exclusively, as the outcome of capitalist exploitation” – or from applying theories about the roots of anti-Semitism posited by Marxist philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to current Western attitudes about Islam. In Tutt’s essay, jihadist terror all but disappears from the picture – as, unsurprisingly, do the sundry horrors of life under sharia law.

Weisbrot’s friends

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Mark Weisbrot

We’ve devoted this week to Mark Weisbrot, who for years has served as an economic advisor to and ardent defender of the most notorious, incompetent, and corrupt regimes in South America. Since he’s the founder and grand poobah of something called the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), it’s not unreasonable to ask a few questions. For example: who, exactly, is providing the funds to pay Weisbrot’s salary and keep his “center” afloat? And who are the other powerhouses who make up this “center,” which represents itself as a hotbed of serious economic analysis?

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Walden Bello

Well, as it turns out, most of CEPR’s staffers and directors have more of a background in organized left-wing activism on issues like global warming and women’s rights than in economics. No fewer than three members of CEPR’s small staff (John Schmitt, Deborah James, and Alexander Main) used to work for the “Information Office” of the Venezuelan government – which isn’t exactly famous for its world-class economic acumen. As for CEPR’s “board of directors,” it includes Filipino congressman Walden Bello, a critic of capitalism and globalization who’s written such books as Capitalism’s Last Stand?: Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (2013). In a piece on free trade, Bello put the word “free” in scare quotes. In November 2010, Bello called Néstor Kirchner “remarkable,” “an exemplary figure in the Global South when it came to dealing with international financial institutions.” Pronounced Bello: “Along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Kirchner was one of several remarkable leaders that the crisis of neoliberalism produced in Latin America.”

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Danny Glover

Also on the CEPR’s board is Julian Bond, an activist and former NAACP head who’s compared the Tea Party to the Taliban. Neither Bello nor Bond is a trained economist. The most familiar name on the list is Danny Glover – yes, that Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, whose love for Hugo Chávez, for Fidel Castro, and for Communism generally we’ve already discussed on this site. Needless to say, Glover isn’t an economist either.

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Dan Beeton

Then there’s CEPR’s International Communications Director, Dan Beeton. In August 2014, he wrote a paean to Cristina Kirchner’s newly appointed Minister of the Economy that read less like the work of a sober economist than of an overly gushing publicist. Excerpt: “Alex Kicillof, the telegenic economy minister famous for his Elvis-style sideburns, has emerged on the international stage as a heroic figure championing the Argentine people. Kicillof is perhaps reminiscent of another bold, young economy minister in a different South American country: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, whose public sparring with the World Bank in 2005 helped to launch his political career.”

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Robert Naiman

Finally, check out CEPR staffer Robert Naiman, who, after Néstor Kirchner’s death, eulogized him at the Daily Kos website for “defying Washington and the International Monetary Fund.” Naiman also recommended Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border, which represented Kirchner as a hero – and which, as we’ve seen, was written by Weisbrot. Who’s Naiman? In addition to his work at CEPR and his writing for sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, he’s served as Policy Director for a website called “Just Foreign Policy,” and as head of the board of the “progressive” news website Truthout, as a member of the steering committee of Gaza’s Ark (which is all about repeatedly violating Israel’s sea blockade of the Palestinian territories).

Back to Weisbrot tomorrow for a wind-up.

“Beacon of hope”: Nick Dearden’s Venezuela delusion

Over the last year or so, as Venezuela’s economy has plummeted and the Venezuelan people have suffered increasingly from food shortages, electricity shutoffs, and the like, many longtime cheerleaders for chavismo have dummied up. Not Nick Dearden. In January, in a piece that read like some kind of twisted Onion-like attempt at a joke, he enthused over Venezuela’s “food revolution.”

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Nick Dearden

Food revolution? What? Dearden explained: just before the new, anti-socialist National Assembly was seated in January, supporters of the regime passed a new law that, in Dearden’s words, laid “the foundation for a truly democratic food system” by banning genetically modified seeds and setting up “democratic structures to ensure that seeds cannot be privatized and indigenous knowledge cannot be sold off to corporations.” The new law, Dearden maintained, would promote “a form of farming that works with nature” and that would “make the country independent of international food markets.” This, pronounced Dearden, was “hugely impressive…because it extends decision making deep down into Venezuelan society.” In sum: “Venezuela has lit a beacon of hope.”

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Venezuela’s “food revolution”

Yes, a beacon of hope. A curious way (to put it mildly) to describe a country where people are now storming grocery stores and eating cats and dogs. The lights have, quite literally, gone out: in late April, in yet another example of its sharp economic thinking, the government imposed a two-day work week to conserve electricity.  

But whacked-out judgments are par for the course for Nick Dearden. Currently the director of something called Global Justice Now (which describes itself as “a campaign group that mobilises people in the UK for change, and act[s] in solidarity with those fighting injustice, particularly in the global south”) and formerly director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign (a “coalition” of UK groups “calling for the unjust and unpayable debts of the poorest countries to be cancelled”), he’s a one-man storehouse of bad ideas, which he’s shared frequently over the years in op-eds for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere.

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

This is a guy who believes that capitalism ruins everything. When it comes to foreign aid, he’s a fervent supporter of the longstanding Western policy of throwing truckfuls of money at Africa, which has mainly served to enrich dictators and keep poor countries from getting off the ground. After a so-called “hunger summit” in 2013, Dearden decried the idea of trying to encourage the development of market economies in Africa, and mocked “the idea that ‘the market knows best.’” Instead, he supported land redistribution and collective farming. (After all, look how spectacularly successful that approach has been in Venezuela.)

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Mobutu

In a 2012 article, he pondered the phenomenon of poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). In real life, the principal villain in the story is Mobutu Sese Seko, who was the country’s dictator from 1965 to 1997, and who, like many another tyrant on that continent, soaked his nation’s treasury for all he could. But Dearden places the real blame on Western banks that loaned money to Mobutu and that have had the audacity to seek to have their loans repaid. Dearden actually put the word “repayment” in scare quotes, accused creditors of “draining the DRC of wealth,” and (of course) smeared those creditors as “vultures.”

As we’ll see tomorrow, the word vulture crops up a lot in Dearden’s writings.