Tag Archives: politics

Short story: A Warmer Future

A cloudy sunset with a bright streak of yellow and two narrow streaks of red merging with black on either side

A WARMER FUTURE

The four lilting chords of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major drifted upwards from Gary’s pocket. It was the legislated time – seven p.m. – but to Gary, it felt court-appointed, a sentence. His heart beat a little faster as he reached into his shorts, pulled out his phone, and hit ‘Dismiss’ on the display. Pachelbel stopped mid-bar.

I am Oppenheimer, thought Gary. I am Nietzsche, Galston, and Kalashnikov. When they all realise what they’ve done, will they, too, feel their will to live crackle and evaporate, like water in an untended pan? Will they also carry my weight?

*

Gary’s particular flash of Earth-shattering inspiration came during a morning meditation. Keep breathing, said the voice in his head whenever his mind wandered. But when it wandered to the subject of work, he would often let it run for a while. A lot of his best policy ideas came when he was seated in lotus pose.

Get a woman out there – a nice woman – mother of the nation type – loves nice weather – loves climate change – longer summers – kids running around outside – drives a great brute of a thing – happy to tell her story – imagine the outcry – they’d have to do something then – if they didn’t we’d cruise the next election – put climate change on the front page for good – I’d get on the List –maybe even front bench – Jesus, keep breathing –

As Gary brushed his teeth and dressed for work, he imagined how it would go with the Leader of the Opposition. He would ask him to just hear him out for a minute, to at least listen to the whole idea before dismissing it, to think about how this idea could reverse the appalling slide in the polls. Then he’d explain how Jane Harvey would capture the imagination, and the ire, of the nation.

My car makes summer longer, says Jane Harvey, pictured in front of her four-wheel drive gas guzzler. I do the school run twice a day and leave it running in the garage at home, says Jane. I’m doing my bit to speed up climate change, because if it’s going to happen anyway, let’s get on with it.

She’d go out in the Timaru Herald, carefully selected as the paper most likely to send a story viral. And she would go viral, and the social networks would tear her to pieces, and the commentariat – not to mention the Opposition Leader – would demand action from the government to do something about climate change. Enough is enough, Mr Prime Minister! We can’t have the Jane Harveys of the world spoiling our magnificent country and ruining this planet for her children, and everyone else’s children.

And just like that, for the first time in years, the Opposition Leader would take control of the political narrative, leading to a prolonged spike in the polls and, ultimately, glory on election night.

Never mind that Jane Harvey doesn’t exist, thought Gary as he climbed into his beloved red Audi. No one needs to know that. Maybe one day they will, when Gary releases a tell-all memoir of his long and storied political career. And he’d be lauded, both for coming clean and for an end that justified his slightly underhanded means. Yes, I did manufacture Jane Harvey to stop climate change. And, looking at the results, you’re damn right I’d do it again.

Gary turned the key. The Audi spluttered into life before settling into a clean rhythm. He noticed the gas light was on, and made a mental note to stop off at the service station on the way to work. High octane, of course – 91 put too much carbon on the inner workings.

*

With the revs up in the 6000s, the track shot away behind the Audi. Lotus pose was best for settling the mind, true, but sometimes circumstances called for a more aggressive form of meditation.

That bastard, he thought. That stupid bastard. Doing the government’s dirty work. He’ll write whatever’s politically expedient to keep his mates on the right side of the House. And people think he speaks truth to power! What a laugh. They’re just as stupid as he is.

– Pedal to the floor – hundred metres straight to hard left –

At first the people had hated Jane Harvey, just as Gary intended. She’s a mother, for God’s sake! Doesn’t she understand how she’s sabotaging her children’s future?

The backlash ensured she hit every front page across the country, and in the vacuum of climate change leadership offered by the Government, the Opposition Leader took centre stage. He began to look positively Prime Ministerial. He wouldn’t admit it out loud, but it was all thanks to Gary.

– Revs down – hard left into easy right –

Then, just as suddenly, the people loved Jane Harvey. That bastard columnist, the millionaire businessman and noted advisor to the Prime Minister, went in to bat for her. She’s onto something, he reckoned. After all, who doesn’t love long summers? Isn’t running the car for another half hour a bit like putting the clocks forward in September?

A couple of TV and radio appearances later, the columnist had started a movement. It’s common sense, they all said, all repeating the refrain until it became an ideology: Who doesn’t love long summers? And there was all this money behind it, full page ads in the paper calling for a new perspective on climate change.

– Quick boost on the revs – then hairpin left –

And that was when the Government finally responded. The Prime Minister did his usual shtick. My job is to listen to the people, and they can rest assured that when it comes to climate change, I’m listening. It made Gary sick. It also made the Opposition Leader sick, and with his bilious green tinge, he managed to get thrown out of Parliament three days in a row. His last action before being shunted to the back bench was to fire Gary.

It looked as though the two of them would be the only casualties of Jane Harvey’s legacy. But then the Government changed the narrative for good. The Emissions Trading Scheme was scrapped entirely, and with the money saved, a new, planet-busting incentive was announced: run your vehicle at home for 30 minutes a day and your petrol bills are free. It’s spending more time outside with the kids. It’s saving on heating bills in the winter. It’s a Warmer Future.

– Keep breathing – keep breathing – keep breathing –

The take-up was like nothing ever before seen for a government scheme. People were given special EFTPOS cards to use at the petrol station: Swipe for a Warmer Future. God knows where Treasury got the money. There were rumours of un-calendared meetings at oil company headquarters. But it was hard to argue with free petrol.

– Long straight now – floor the bastard –

Gary always felt like the Audi took over at this point in the circuit. His role involved extending his right ankle and gripping on tight to the steering wheel, while the complex array of pistons and pipes under the hood worked its magic. He could be anyone, or no one; the Audi and its incredible mechanics were all that mattered.

No, there was one other human contribution: the gas in the tank. This was the final irony. My savings are dwindling so fast, thought Gary, and I’ll never work in politics again. I don’t really have a choice. So, when the Warmer Future sign-up form arrived in his mailbox, he suppressed a gag and filled it out.

*

Gary shoved the phone back in his pocket, forced himself up out of his armchair, and walked out the front door, grabbing his car keys on the way. The sunset was extraordinary: fat stripes of apricot and amber, like a desert oil well ablaze, lighting up the sky to the west. When he opened the garage door, revealing his prized red Audi, the sunset turned it orange.

He picked a long rubber hose up off the ground and walked around to the back of the Audi, where he massaged one end of the hose over the exhaust pipe. He then took the other end of the pipe around to the right-hand side of the car, opened the driver’s door, and sat down in front of the steering wheel.

Just keep breathing in and out, he told himself. Stay in the moment. In the end, the moment is all there is.

Gary inserted the keys into the ignition and turned them. It always amazed him, the cough and grind in that first second before the Audi settled into a hum of whirring white noise. He tried to think of the last time it had failed to start, but couldn’t remember it ever happening. Apart from the brief convulsions upon ignition, the Audi was perfect.

He looked at the end of the hose and saw the air around it shimmer with fumes, then grow dark with smoke.

Keep breathing. As ever, the mantra soothed him. Keep breathing.

Then he stood, walked over to the high windows along the side of the garage, and pushed the hose out. He walked back out the door he’d come in and around the garage so he could admire the sunset from the front of his yard.

His neighbours on either side — Karen, a truck driver, and a banker whose name he’d never caught –were doing the same. Gary nodded hello and glanced at Karen’s enormous truck. It spewed out thick, dark smoke, even when idling. The machines are bigger than us, he thought, as he turned back to the brilliant flashes across the sky. And they’re breathing into life a bright, beautiful, barren world where we don’t belong. And we’ll willingly help them do it.

The exhaust trail from Gary’s Audi snaked off into the atmosphere. He followed it up as far as he could with his eyes until it became indistinct, inseparable from the yellows and oranges above.

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Things of 2016

Front Page

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Crocodile stone

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I’ve never understood the need to ceremoniously dismiss a calendar year from sight. Every December you hear the same, from so many people: this year was shit and it can fuck off. Bring on next year. Bad things happen, and people grasp at the opportunity to sweep them aside, but I considered myself above raging against an arbitrary construct wholly unrelated to the actual sources of one’s bitterness. I thought myself level-headed when it came to apportioning my annual misgivings. And then came 2016.

There was a failed overseas adventure that ended in frustration and debt. There was an assault, one that I sort of saw coming but was no less upsetting for it in the aftermath. There was a shocking death in the family, and the grief and support that followed. These three shunts spun me around and brought unfamiliar feelings to the surface. There is a thrill in learning from new experiences, for sure, and I have learned a lot: about what is really important to me, what I want to do with my time, how I respond to trauma, and how capable I am of carrying others. But the negative effects of these events linger, regardless of what they have taught me.

I am being deliberately vague here. At this early stage, I can’t articulate all of the lessons and wounds and how I have changed, other than that I know want to have kids as soon as possible. A phrase I’ve returned to again and again in the last couple of years, both in relation to my own life and to global current events, is ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know’; perhaps this is how I sweep the bad things aside.

Then there were all the jolts in the obituary pages. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Prince. Anton Yelchin. Muhammad Ali. Leonard Cohen. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Et cetera.

And, in June and November, the United Kingdom and the United States of America voted to turn the tide away from global citizenship and toward isolationism. They washed their hands of the various crises on their doorsteps and further afield in favour of looking out for number one — but with no clear or functional plan even to improve their own lot.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. It never is. I got a new job — after some months of trying — and so did Tara. We moved into a new flat two minutes’ walk from a Sunday fruit and veg market. I was in better touch with my parents than I have been years. Nothing was easy, but it could all have been a lot harder.

Still, as 2016 disappears over the horizon, I find myself filled with trepidation for the year to come. 2017 promises at least one great boon: I will get married. Pretty much everything else is up in the air, both at home and in the global sphere. Eighteen months ago, Tara and I upended our lives in the hope of improving them out of sight. It could be another eighteen before we manage to settle back down to Earth.

Sports & Leisure

 

There was a lot more watching than doing this year. No tramping. No indoor football. A few hikes. A few jogs, the longest stretching to an easy eight kilometres. A couple of hits at the beach with a cricket bat. I attended a full Australia vs New Zealand cricket Test and watched us get absolutely hammered. There was also the World Twenty20, which started so well and ended in disappointment. There was EURO 2016, which promised a surprise champion and delivered the worst surprise champion possible: Portugal, every neutral’s least favourite team.

The one thing I did more than any other year was swim in rivers. Around these parts, rivers are very cold in summer and icy cold in winter, and believe me, there is nothing quite like the rush of endorphins you get from immersing yourself in cold water. Back in July, at the end of the Five Mile Track south of the Wainuiomata, I swam in the Orongorongo River and it was so cold that I found myself literally unable to think after about ten seconds in the water. Survival instinct kicked in and I hauled myself back to the riverbank. There is video of this — I’m not going to show you — but I appear to have aged ten years between hitting the water and emerging from it.

Music

The solemn mood and darkly glorious lyrics made Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ my song of 2016. As a species, we did in fact seem to want it darker.

As a valedictory statement, You Want It Darker (the album) was as complete as they come, rich with memorable tunes and words to sum up Cohen’s life and the times in which he left us. I group it with David Bowie’s Blackstar, which was followed, two days later, by the artist’s death, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, so pregnant with the aftershocks of Cave’s son plummeting from a cliff on the South Coast of England. Mortality hung heavy over this year, and in confronting death head on, these three great musicians bestowed dark gifts.

The Field brought out a new record, The Follower, and I eventually fought past its repetitiveness — normally so comforting — to find the beauty within. He is a genius. Radiohead are geniuses, too: A Moon Shaped Pool was perhaps the most cohesive album they’ve ever done, but it was also their saddest, with Thom Yorke’s previously bitter voice stepping over into resignation.

Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a tight country masterpiece accessible even to the likes of me. Two easily digestible pop albums, Kaytranada’s 99.9% and Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite!, got me tapping my feet under the desk at work and dancing around the house. And Solange’s A Seat at the Table spoke brightly and angrily for black women in America, linking the past to the dire present but still finding joy in one’s skin. (I didn’t hear Lemonade but it sounds like Solange’s superstar older sister tackled similarly weighty issues in 2016.)

My biggest new discovery of the year was Angel Olsen, whose My Woman showcased an artist reaching the peak of her considerable powers. It isn’t just that she’s good; she knows she’s good, and if you are lucky enough to see her perform in the flesh, you get the feeling she could destroy or exalt any of you with a single look. With the backing of her outstanding, blue-suited band, Olsen delivered one of the best gigs I’ve seen.

But if there was one single musical highlight I had to pick out, it would be from WOMAD, where, after walking Cathy back to the motel at about 10pm, I bounded back down the hill to the sound of Calexico filling the valley with the sweet, wistful strains of ‘Falling from the Sky’. I was alone, but I was dashing toward the light, where I would be enveloped once more in the pleasure of performance — a performance that was everything I hoped it would be and more, but still not as special as the exquisite promise of being able to hear it before I could yet see it. It was like nostalgia in real time.

Film

Film posters of 2016 Film posters of 2016

Film holds less and less importance in my life with each passing year, which is to say that where film was once my brightest, fiercest passion, it is now an essential but occasional diversion from the everyday lists of tasks. In 2016, I managed to see about 40 films I hadn’t seen before, and a solid handful of new releases that impressed me. Here we go:

45 YEARS felt like a lesson in how not to go about my impending marriage, and its haunting final shot is worth all the attention it has received. THE BIG SHORT came from nowhere and demanded my attention and admiration by being terrifically entertaining and desperately depressing. Micro-budget Wellington pic CHRONESTHESIA offered a high-concept vehicle for well-written and performed character interactions, and was one of the more enjoyable films of 2016. I relished the brutal thrills of GREEN ROOM, roared at the Warriors reference in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, and jigged about in my seat at SING STREET, which did teenagers the service of presenting them as real people with real problems. SPOTLIGHT was a work of outstanding focus and importance, much like the work of the reporters it chronicled; in particular, Liev Schreiber’s performance as editor Marty Baron was perfect, laden with power and prestige but never showy. No film of 2016 was sadder than TONI ERDMANN, which was billed as a comedy and made me laugh (a lot) but not without horrible cringing at the deep cracks in its characters’ lives. And YOUR NAME allowed me to bask in the distinctly Japanese state of natsukashii, which is some untranslatable combination of cherishing and yearning.

films-of-2016-3

Now, you may not believe this, and I still have doubts myself, but I think ZOOTOPIA was my favourite film of 2016. I remember blundering around Queensgate Mall one day back in February or whatever and seeing a poster for another stupid computer-animated film in which animals walk on their hind legs and crack wise. Then I went and saw it, and I found it to be funny, touching, well-plotted, visually spectacular, and thematically rich. Its subplots of political puppetry and migration/segregation seem almost prophetic in hindsight. I can’t wait to see it again.

Books

 

The only new book I read in 2016 was Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh is a friend but she also happens to be one of the best writers in New Zealand today, although I would say that. It’s been wonderful to see more people discover her writing, which broaches difficult subjects in a way that is gentle and curious but doesn’t flinch from the hard bits. She makes no excuse for the fact that she is still figuring all this stuff out, too.

Of the 45 other books I read over the 12 months, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville and (in particular) Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen were a joy to after so many years of keeping meaning to getting around to reading Dylan Horrocks. Even more satisfying: I neared completion of Rupert Thomson’s oeuvre, knocking off Death of a Murderer, Katherine Carlyle, and This Party’s Got to Stop. Only The Five Gates of Hell remains unread. Thomson is my favourite author, an unclassifiable literary force whose work exists in a slightly off-kilter universe, both familiar and disorienting in the details. His talent for pithy description is pretty much unrivalled. I find myself often re-reading a sentence, looking up from the book to reflect on it, then carrying on.

From a Thomson profile a few years ago: “I do build quite a lot into the words and I’m often trying to slow the reader down”. 2016 was the year I started setting myself reading targets and greedily racing through pages with one eye on the tally, but Rupert Thomson’s writing is a reminder that the pleasures of reading are more numerous than just the numbers.

Politics

 

After the 2014 New Zealand general election, in which the Greens and Labour got smashed by a surging, John Key-led National, I attempted to mitigate my shock by engaging the other side. I wrote a Facebook post inviting National voters to message me with their reasons for voting that way. The aim was to understand their perspective, whether I agreed with it or not, because the election had acutely demonstrated that I lived in an ideological bubble divorced from the concerns of the majority. The only response came in person, a friend, who was happy to elucidate his vote over beers. ‘Lack of a credible alternative’ was the key phrase he used. It was hard to argue with that, regardless of the whole Dirty Politics palaver.

After Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump, I decided I needed to go deeper down the conservative route. There was a whole world of media out there that I never gave a second thought because I didn’t believe it could offer genuine facts or considered opinion. Clearly, a lot of people found that appealing in 2016, so if I wanted to understand their side better, I had to engage more directly. I watched some panel discussions on Fox News, which were invariably confusing and boring, laden as they were with impenetrable policy speak, although at least people listened to one another. I read through the top stories on Breitbart, which included a heartfelt endorsement of Trump by prominent Dutch racist Geert Wilders. And I subscribed to The Weekly Standard Podcast, on which white, middle-class men put the boot into ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ and performed backflips to find the silver linings in Trump’s repurposing of the Republican Party as his own plaything.

This broadening of heard opinions has changed my thinking somewhat. I appreciate the messages Trump voters were sold, and I understand why they voted that way, if they believed what he was saying. And even if they didn’t believe him, their desperation (in many, if not all, cases) seemed a reasonable catalyst to vote for change. The folks that actually produce the hogwash they read, though — the titles listed above, but also the cynical opportunists parlaying credulity into clicks and cash — deserve fiery contempt. I mentally pick holes in their arguments as I listen/read, throwing in the occasional profanity, and hope for some cataclysm to jolt them out of their plush comfort zone.

All this turned John Key’s resignation into a bit of an anticlimax. After eight years of complaining about the guy, I’m almost going to miss him. But we have an election coming in New Zealand in 2017, with more potential for change, and for shit-throwing from all sides. National will do what it’s been doing for years — steady hand on the tiller, can’t trust the other mob — and they will probably win again, but not without some mad interference from your Dotcoms and Morgans and whoever else decides they’ve got what it takes to be the Kiwi Trump.

All I hope is that more people vote than last time. A lower vote count helps no one.

Tech

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still get angry at things. The hinges on my pleasing little Medion laptop gave way in a minor tantrum back in July; poor bugger didn’t deserve it. If I spend any time in the kitchen at all, I am best avoided as there is a likelihood of swearing and thumping on the bench. Funny, because I love cooking. And people think I’m so calm.

The other tech note is that my social media use declined further in 2016. I remember a time when I craved likes and retweets to the extent that they effectively sustained my continued existence. Nowadays, I post whatever I feel like whenever I feel like and am thrilled if even one person interacts with it. I live in a warm cocoon of my own nonsense.

Travel

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In the queue for free hours at the Prado.

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Tara and I cut our European sojourn dramatically short at the six-month mark, hurrying back to New Zealand as our finances reached into the red just in time to avoid a student loan repayment. It was devastating to give up on the dream of living and working abroad, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had done it before and we had tried to do it together, and this obviously wasn’t the time. We had felt a pull back to NZ ever since we left, anyway. There’s so much to love about being here.

Best new travel discovery of 2016 was Castlepoint. More specifically, the $120-a-night bach ten minutes up the coast in Sandy Bay, with its big lawn, ocean views, and soothing quiet. I can’t wait to go there again.

People

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Christmas is better in the Hutt.

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2016 was the year Tara and I were engaged, all 366 days of it. We took two steps forward and one step back, over and over, in pretty much every aspect of our lives — except in our relationship. Together, we took on the enormous logistical challenge of planning a wedding, moved back to NZ, changed both of our careers, moved house, felt the earth shake, and grieved, but we kept talking and listening and hugging and have come out the other end with as strong a bond as ever. This time next year, we’ll be married. (Gosh, in a little over a month we’ll be married. Getting exciting now.)

Otherwise, apart from regular Skypes and lunch dates with my parents, and board game sessions with Tara’s family, I was more absent from the lives of those I care about it than I would prefer. Part of this is just drawing inward during a rough year. Part of it is the continued renegotiation of friendships as my live-in relationship takes precedence. Part of it is the cult of busyness, convincing myself I’m unable to go and meet people because I have too much on.

These are all excuses. I intend to be a better friend in 2017. If you’re reading this and thinking the same, let’s go for a beer sometime.

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A new Brand of democracy, the unfocused revolution

In the last month or so, British comedian and writer Russell Brand has called for a revolution against a political establishment that, in his view, serves the wants of corporations and those who wield political power while casting aside the needs of a majority of the general public. Brand has been speaking and writing passionately and eloquently around this topic for some time, particularly in The Guardian, and he’s gained plenty of notice on social media for it, but his interview with the famously hard-hitting political journalist Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight brought him into a new realm of Facebook and Twitter shares:

If you don’t see yourself as part of the powerful establishment in Westminster-based society – and very few do – then it’s easy to climb aboard Brand’s revolutionary bandwagon. We live in a world in which legislation is passed with a purported mandate from a slim majority of the population, whether or not they all understood what they were voting for; if you are part of the 40-something percent that didn’t vote for the mob in power, your opinion is discarded. Then there are cases such as the GCSB Bill in New Zealand, which allows the government to spy on its own citizens, and which was not part of any political agenda at the 2011 election but is now law by governmental decree, whether the electorate wants it or not. A lot of the political process appears to me, looking in from the outside, to be tied up with balancing the desires of powerful lobby groups that often represent large corporations. Meantime, poor folks in UK council estates or state housing in South Auckland struggle from paycheck to paycheck without anything approaching an equal voice in the democracy.

Brand followed up his rant on Paxman with an editorial in The New Statesman titled ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’. As far as I can tell, Brand’s revolution starts in the mind but veers off disconcertingly into whatever you care to make of it:

“To genuinely make a difference, we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power. Revolt in whatever way we want, with the spontaneity of the London rioters, with the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists or with the twinkling mischief of the trickster. We should include everyone, judging no one, without harming anyone.”

Notice that he condones the London rioters – who destroyed hundreds of small businesses and made life hell for the people living in the streets they pillaged – on account of their spontaneity, then pleads vaguely for a lack of judgment or harm. The rest of the editorial is similarly rambling, unfocused, and inconsistent; certainly eloquent, brilliant in places, but amounting to what? Is Brand’s voice that of the disenfranchised, venting a scream of raw frustration? It can’t be: in the same piece, Brand relates a story about attending a Reclaim the Streets march while working for MTV and getting called out by someone clearly lower on the ladder of wealth and entitlement than he was. How can he speak for the disenfranchised when he is such a prominent citizen? And he is even helping?

Robert Webb, best known for his collaborations with David Mitchell on Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look and a contemporary of Brand in British comedy, responded in The New Statesman with a rebuttal to Brand’s apparent cry from the heart. Webb reminded Brand that effective democracy demands engagement, with particular condemnation of Brand’s call to abstain from voting:

“I do think that when you end a piece about politics with the injunction “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”, then you’re actively telling a lot of people that engagement with our democracy is a bad idea. That just gives politicians the green light to neglect the concerns of young people because they’ve been relieved of the responsibility of courting their vote.”

Webb went on to strongly criticise Brand’s call for revolution, reminding him of the death and destruction wrought by revolution in the past. Indeed, for a recent example, Brand need only look back as far as those ‘spontaneous’ London riots. Webb’s practical response was to rejoin the Labour Party and helping the UK’s main opposition party fight a Conservative government he believes “scapegoats and punishes unlucky people”; to actively engage with politics in an effort to further legitimise it by adding his voice as a paid-up member; to literally buy into democracy. In response to Webb’s response, Brand invited Webb to check his privilege: “If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids. They’re not coming for you if you’re from Oxbridge. That’s my open letter to Robert.”

It was about this time that Russell Brand offered up, for me at least, the final straw:

Russell Brand | V for Vendetta | Protest | Smartphone

When it spills from the pages of The New Statesman and The Guardian into the town square, Brand’s revolution looks the same as every other impractical anti-establishment protest of the last few years: a V for Vendetta mask and a smartphone, both manufactured on production lines in East Asia by workers paid a pittance. Brand was presumably tweeting to his ~7.3m Twitter followers about the power and collective energy of the occasion, rather than scrolling idly through BuzzFeed listicles, but it hardly looks inspiring after all the promise of his language.

I posted the above photo on Facebook with the sarcastic and cynical caption ‘This is what revolution looks like’, which many seemed to take in earnest. It led to a debate with a friend, who wrote the following:

Brand’s response to Webb is better than Webb’s response to Brand. It’s about disillusionment with a system that repeatedly fails a group of people and repeatedly serves another, with some minor variation for those in a privileged position (such as Webb).

To which I replied:

I think Webb’s view is considerably more coherent and practical than Brand’s. The Westminster system of democracy, which seems to inevitably lead to two parties exchanging power, seems far from ideal but I can’t think of anything better; certainly not revolution, whether through violence or apathy. Brand may articulate the views of the disenfranchised eloquently and compellingly, but as this photo shows, his cries (so far at least) don’t add up to anything more than V masks and smartphones for all.

After some more back-and-forth, my friend later came back with this, with which I agree:

I think Brand’s disillusionment with the results of the current system is pretty much spot-on, but beyond that it’s hard to see what kind of system would produce better results while still being morally acceptable. It’s a dilemma. Disillusionment is easier than the search for a solution, but it doesn’t change the fact that disillusionment may well be justified. Some form of democracy obviously remains the ideal, but presumably Brand wishes rednecks didn’t vote (we’ve all been there). My dissatisfaction comes from how certain groups have power to distort the system (i.e. media influences voters, corporates have access to lobby politicians well beyond the influence of poorer people etc.), and I think it’s entirely reasonable to pursue reform in that direction. Just a thought.

For that reform to be pursued, Webb’s Labour partisanship still seems more effective and meaningful to me than Brand’s outright dismissal of the establishment. Brand’s great trick is to paint all politicians with the same grubby brush: a self-obsessed, money-hungry, cronyish lot with zero interest in the lives of those who struggle. This is true in some cases, but it is not the whole truth; many politicians enter public life with the express goal of making a positive difference and helping people to have their voices heard, and they work hard for decades to pursue those goals. And just so you know, I went to an expensive private school as well. Does this mean that like Paxman and Webb before me, Brand can cast my opinion aside in a single line?

Genuine democratic change, which remains the best option available to us, demands an electorate that is well-read and politically engaged enough to understand what is wrong, vigilant enough to call out those who do wrong, and optimistic enough to see a future that is more right. Then you have to keep reading, and stay politically engaged, and stay vigilant, and stay optimistic – in as much of your life as possible and for as long as possible – to promote what you consider a better society.

You also have to be realistic enough to acknowledge that not everyone will agree with you. Here’s what another friend said in the same Facebook thread about Brand:

But he has at least started a debate. And a smartphone gives him an audience. Can’t just stand in the town square and ring a bell anymore. And you can’t send pictures via Milo tins and a piece of string. I’m sure when they develop a vegan, biodegradable, solar powered, decaf phone made under good working conditions, he’ll be into it. Or not. Maybe he doesn’t give a shit about a bit of hypocrisy to get his point across.

If one thing’s for sure, we’re all hypocrites in some way or another. I’m no exception. Neither is Robert Webb, and neither is Russell Brand. And my friend is right: Brand has started a debate that has helped clarify some of my ideas about democracy, and mobilised me to engage more in effecting social and political change. I’ll just be moving in a different direction, away from the messiah.

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