Brand the Enemy

Russell Brand’s allegations as case study of how the Media deals with competition

Anonymous allegations of apparently criminal actions committed by the popular independent broadcaster Russell Brand more than ten years ago have dominated the news cycle all weekend and continue to dominate the news cycle this week. The facts of the story behind the story should be pointed out first. 

Acting in concert, the Sunday Times and Channel 4, have, according to Sunday Times itself, spent four years (!) interviewing hundreds of people in a systematic search for ammunition to use against him. All positive testimony has been disregarded and the most lurid and damaging claims have been emphasized. 

Brand has not yet been charged with any crimes and, with the media acting both as his judge and his prosecutor, there has been no independent assessment of the allegations against him. Nevertheless, the simple fact of the allegations has already been used to demonetize his extremely popular, highly critical independent YouTube channel. Here again the legal principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty no longer extends to people on the wrong side of the narrative.

There can be little doubt that openly sex-crazed libertine and former drug addict Brand used his position as a famous celebrity to engage in recklessly sleazy behavior around 2010: he has in fact openly admitted this himself. Nonetheless to take the claims being made by the new story uncritically, or to use Brand being placed in the stocks, now, as an occasion to reflect on broader cultural issues of sexual morality represents a major mistake. 

One does not have to like or trust Brand, or even believe in his innocence, to recognize why he is being attacked. We have now seen equivalent tactics repeated dozens of times over the past several years against a highly specific selection of political targets, starting with Assange. Meanwhile, we remain in the dark about Epstein and his celebrity client list.

Anonymous accusations of sexual impropriety work as a powerful smear tactic for multiple reasons. People are naturally sympathetic to women, and naturally jealous of promiscuous men. Through selective presentation of details and deliberately emotional language, it is possible to present almost any relationship as abusive, exploitative, or controlling. There are no clearly agreed-upon rules anymore for what is acceptable or unacceptable in sexual interactions, so the threat of infractions hangs in the air at all times. This disturbing reality leads to strenuous efforts to distance oneself from the prospect of facing equivalent claims. 

“We are nothing like him,” the world insists in unison. Yet we live in a culture in which prostitution (“sex work”) is normalized and encouraged on an industrial scale. Hundreds of millions of megabytes of pornography, almost by definition filmed sexual abuse, are being downloaded across the world every night. Did you watch any lately, Anon? One of the United Kingdom’s most commercially successful companies in recent years is an online brothel, named OnlyFans, profiting handsomely from desperation and degradation: this is treated as normal, OnlyFans issues dividends. Brand is a product of this culture, whose fissures run much deeper, and which implicate us all. As with Harvey Weinstein, the main point of his scapegoating is to deflect from our own guilt: that is why it works so well. 

In the period during which his alleged crimes took place, Brand was a good Leftist supporter of all the usual bullshit: videos of his media appearances from this time present a highly obnoxious persona broadcasting ideological views. Back then, of course, his behavior was accepted and perhaps even encouraged: nothing is as useful from the point of view of exerting control over someone as an obvious vice. But now that Brand has matured into a deeper and more critical thinker, all of his previous behavior is being used against him. These are tactics employed against the defectors from cults, and in its own way is enlightening. Here again we can see that the structure of power which dominates contemporary society, and not even just the elites, isn’t a council of conspiratorial elders, but a mutual blackmail ring, in which everybody has something on everyone else, so that defection is suicide.

The specific allegation that Brand is a rapist reveals its unseriousness by coming to light in this form. Important to emphasize here, against ongoing efforts to blur this distinction, is that highly regrettable and unpleasant sexual experiences are not necessarily criminal or abusive. Young women (and men) can be naive, and have bad ideas about many things, but to claim they are powerless is risible and infantilizing. It is possible for two consenting adults to engage in sexual activity which leaves one of them (or both of them) feeling used, and even sick. People, perhaps especially women but above all victims of childhood sexual abuse, can also use sex to abuse themselves, and for this reason will actively, if unconsciously, seek out, and attempt to engineer their own abuse. Examples of this today are sadly everywhere to see.

The specific details of Brand’s sexual behavior ten years ago have no public interest except insofar as they could help to illuminate these dynamics: the prominence afforded to this story and also the voyeuristic angle encouraged by it is itself a form of propaganda and abuse. What we are seeing is the production of a kind of artificial gravity leveraging collective pathology for political ends. If somebody believes Brand has committed a crime against them they can tell the police and show them their evidence. The proposition that it is somehow less traumatizing to speak to a group of journalists and see their story splashed around the world to millions is insane.

Should Brand’s voice now be silenced because of unproven allegations, concerning events that took place more than ten years ago, now being litigated in the public sphere by a hostile media in a situation in which presumption of innocence is being withheld? This is the intention of this story. An amoral media is operating like the Stasi in a transparent attempt to eliminate a competitor because he is asking the sort of questions that they won’t dare to touch. It was already clear that Brand is an extremely flawed man, but today he is not being attacked for his flaws, but for his virtues.

Daniel Miller is a writer, critic, and IM—1776’s literary editor.

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