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Shakespeare & Russell Brand: Guantánamo Bay’s banned books are pretty random…

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

While right-wingers clamor on about the insidiousness of Sharia Law and the threat of imminent Islamofascism, our own government is pretty set on keeping certain books away from certain people. Last week, The Guardian published a seemingly random list of books that have been banned from Guantánamo Bay. The incomplete list was supplied by Clive Stafford Smith, who directs Reprieve, a legal charity the provides free legal support to particularly disenfranchised prisoners.

Now actual journalists have done an amazing job exposing Guantánamo, so I won’t go into the multitude of illegal procedures they regularly execute, much less point out the countless absurd incarcerations (okay, maybe that 15 year old Canadian kid). I would, however, like to go over this list and attempt to divine exactly what is so objectionable about each book, leaving out the explicitly anti-Guantánamo non-fiction.

Let’s take a crack at it, shall we?

Martin Amis, Money: Actually, the complete title of this 1984 novel, with the post-script, is Money: A Suicide Note. The protagonist is a vulgar British hedonist who comes to America and embraces it fully. He eventually has a psychotic break and loses everything, and thought the “suicide” in the book is metaphorical, the book pretty clearly condemns Western decadence and warns of its pitfalls. Not too much of a a stretch to imagine why they’d ban this one.

R. Beckett, The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary: This is a humor book on Australian colloquialisms. No fuckin’ clue. Anybody know? Does it have a “Death to America” entry? 
Russell Brand, Booky Wook Two: I know Brand’s a leftist, but seriously?

Professor Alan Dershowitz, Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking the Declaration of Independence: A weird choice, since Dershowitz is speaking out against religious extremism, and he’s probably now most famous as an Israeli apologist and Islamophobe. Isn’t that what the US government wants prisoners to internalize? Perhaps it’s the denouncement of Christian extremism they wish to censor?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment: On the surface, it’s about a man who kills people, but it’s not really a pro-murder book. My only guess is that they read the title and panicked. 

Frederick Douglass, The African American Slave: Books about liberation probably raise a red flag. But seriously, if anti-slavery politics are too potentially subversive, you might not be running a wholesome operation.

Frederick Forsyth, The Kill List : This is a shitty suspense novel about top secret agents killing Muslim terrorists. It’s by a guy whose books are advertised on the subway. Again, don’t see why they don’ want to give them right-wing, Islamophobic propaganda.

John Grisham,The Innocent Man:Grisham’s first non-fiction book, about a man on death row for rape and murder, who was exonerated by DNA evidence after 11 years in prison. Grisham actually wrote an article in the New York Times and got this unbanned. I rarely have a chance to say this, but… hey, good job, John Grisham.

EM Naguib, Puss in Boots,  Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast: Can’t even find this, but Naguid is an Arabic name. Maybe they’re Arab interpretations of fairy tales?

Wilfred Owen, Futility: This is a 1918 poem about the death of a British soldier, and his fellow soldiers’ futile attempts to revive him. No idea on this one. If anything, this is a very “don’t get yourself killed for war” kind of poem. Is “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” banned on Guantánamo Bay’s in-house AM radio station?

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice: Maybe because of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender? Not sure exactly where they’re going with this one.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Gulag Archipelago : A book about a Soviet forced labor camp, by a guy who was interned in a forced labor camp. Decidedly anti-forced labor camp. Maybe that’s it.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Again, the abolition of slavery was apparently too risky a political concept for the prisoners.

Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent: A novel about a man accused of killing his lover. It’s a crime thriller/courtroom drama. It was made into a movie with Harrison Ford. I have no damned idea why it would be banned.

So there you have it. What counts as potentially incendiary literature in Guantánamo Bay? Apparently absolutely fucking anything.

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Hey Russell Brand: ‘Read some f*cking Orwell!’

With their recent Russell Brand-edited issue, The New Statesman probably got the most bang for their buck ever in the entire 100 year history of the venerable socialist journal. Brand is obviously a controversial figure and he pulled no punches during the—I thought totally amazing—interview he gave to BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman to promote the issue. Seen all over the world, I can’t think of a better advertisement for what the New Statesman is selling or radical ideas in general.

It was a worldwide mass media coup and Brand’s comments penetrated the normal noise. That people were talking about socialism, the capitalist oligarchy and the survival of the human species, well, great work for a comic. Even Fox Business News dipshit Neil Cavuto inadvertently opened the door to a brief discussion of socialism on his show in a segment critical of Brand’s comments. Anyone curious enough to follow up got exposed to something they’d never normally see on Fox.

Brand concluded his own epic “letter from the editor” exhorting his readers NOT to vote as it only lends legitimacy to politicians and the capitalist system, something which has now led comic actor Robert Webb, the self-described “other one” on the brilliant Peep Show series (watch it on Netflix, Americans) to respond to Brand in the pages of, where else, The New Statesman.

From Webb’s “Russell, choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is”:

... I thought you might want to hear from someone who a) really likes your work, b) takes you seriously as a thoughtful person and c) thinks you’re willfully talking through your arse about something very important.

It’s about influence and engagement. You have a theoretical 7.1 million (mostly young) followers on Twitter. They will have their own opinions about everything and I have no intention of patronising them. But what I will say is that when I was 15, if Stephen Fry had advised me to trim my eyebrows with a Flymo, I would have given it serious consideration. I don’t think it’s your job to tell young people that they should engage with the political process. But 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.

Why do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.

Webb, of course has a very good point here, but I can see where Brand is coming from as well. I used to think voting was futile myself, because no matter who I voted for, the government was always getting elected. In my defense, I was in my 20s and there was a thimble-full of difference between between Democrats and Republicans during the Clinton era. Now I vote, it’s insane not to until the Tea partiers die off en masse.

He continues:

You’re a wonderful talker but on the page you sometimes let your style get ahead of what you actually think. In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker,” with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.

That’s one way to look at it—mature, nuanced, something a Cambridge grad might argue—but as much as I respect what Webb has written, I don’t think his open letter will sway the adressee much one way or the other. If you look at the some of the other articles in Russell Brand’s New Statesman issue, it’s pretty clear where he’s coming from and it’s not a timid place. He might not be coming out and directly calling for a violent revolution—although he surely hints at it—but some of the pieces he selected for publication most certainly do a lot more than beat about that bush, notably Naomi Klein’s essay which asks aloud what a lot of people—including many scientists—have been wondering: Is waging revolution against the unsustainable capitalist Leviathan the unambiguous answer to climate change and survival of the human species?

Webb feels the most British form of revolution is precisely the one waged at the voting booth:

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? That we don’t die aged 27 because we can’t eat because nobody has invented fluoride toothpaste? That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small. Do I wake up every day and thank God that I live in 21st-century Britain? Of course not. But from time to time I recognise it as an unfathomable privilege. On Remembrance Sunday, for a start. And again when I read an intelligent fellow citizen ready to toss away the hard-won liberties of his brothers and sisters because he’s bored.

I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution. We tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder. In brief, and I say this with the greatest respect, please read some fucking Orwell


Left-of-center types not voting out of protest will only cede the government to the reichwingers, Webb’s right about that, but seriously dude, death camps and gulags are NOT the obvious consequences of a revolution against capitalism either. I winced when I read that. Reading a little Orwell can never be a bad thing, though.

What about voting AND some direct action so they know we’re fucking serious?

I think where both Robert Webb and Russell Brand might agree is that things seem to be coming to a head.

Billy Bragg posted the following to his Facebook page today:

Have to admire Robert Webb’s pro-active response to Russell Brand but it has also made me wonder, in a week when I’ve been protesting on the streets of London with Mark Thomas and Bill Bailey, why is it comedians who are willing to take a stand these days rather than musicians?

Below, a classic clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Russell Brand on The Revolution: ‘We no longer have the luxury of tradition’
07:55 am

Class War

Russell Brand

Shepard Fairey’s New Statesman cover

[TL;DR takeaway? Watch the video. Just watch it. Watch it all the way to the end because it builds towards an amazing climax in the final minute.]

Admittedly, upon my first exposure to British comedian Russell Brand, he did not win me over. He was a panelist on Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive sitcom, a Larry Sanders-esque pisstake of UK panel shows like Mock the Week or Nevermind the Buzzcocks. I asked a Scottish friend of mine who the arrogant prick with the long hair and the large vocabulary was and he told me that Brand was a “human punchline” who had something to do with Big Brother. Tabloid tales of his drug and sex exploits were a bore to me. And a comic who looks like a member of The Libertines? Not for sir.

But over the intervening seven years, I’ve grown from a grudging respect for Brand to something resembling outright admiration for the articulate way he expresses his disdain—even hatred—for the world’s ruling elites. He’s a bit of a sleazy dude, sure—that’s part of his smarmy charm—but he’s got a first rate mind and he’s fucking fearless, as only a man who has emerged from the very depths of drug addiction (and fucking one—if not actually several—of the world’s most desirable women) could be. I don’t think he’s a guy who ever thought he’d be living in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, let’s just say.

This morning everyone is talking about the absolutely smoking hot interview Brand gave to veteran BBC broadcaster Jeremy Paxman promoting the issue he guest-edited of The New Statesman, Britain’s long-running socialist journal. Paxman, a formidable man who has been the public undoing of many a politician, is nearly helpless at the barrage of words that Russell Brand sprays him with. It’s a riveting piece of television and everyone seems to be freaking out about it on Facebook this morning. It’s well worth your time, trust me.

And so is the Brand-edited issue of The New Statesman, which features contributions from Oliver Stone, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Judd Apatow, Graham Hancock, Noel Gallagher, Alec Baldwin, Rupert Everett, David Lynch and many others (you can buy a pdf of the issue at The New Statesman website)

Here’s an excerpt from Brand’s long, but beautifully composed letter from the editor:

I have never voted. Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites. Billy Connolly said: “Don’t vote, it encourages them,” and, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.”

I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.

Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot. Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?

The letter is a rambling thing of gorgeous beauty and power. Read the entire thing at The News Statesman.

Below, the full Paxman-Brand dust-up… it’s riveting television

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Excellent Russell Brand interview on celebrity culture by BBC’s Newsnight

I’m very curious to find out what my American cousins make of Russell Brand. Yes, I know you know he’s a comedian, and it’s pretty obvious that guy has the gift of the gab. His reboot of Arthur has just been released (to some pretty damning reviews) so we’re seeing a lot more of his promotional material at the moment. But have you seen him in a context like this? His mouth is off the leash here as usual, but the focus is not on wackiness and jokes but on serious conversation and in particular ruminations on celebrity culture, media narrative and his part in that.

Newsnight is the BBC’s nightly investigative news broadcast, and Jeremy Paxman is the BBC’s masthead “serious” anchorman (Chris Morris’ character in The Day Today is basically Paxman amped up). It’s safe to say they are taking this interview seriously, and it’s great that Paxman doesn’t patronise or talk down to Brand but speaks directly to his intelligence. 

Brand has been a well known TV personality in the UK for the best part of a decade now. He really hit his stride as the host of Big Brother’s Little Brother, a daily, live, audience-based re-cap show where he developed his motor-mouth dandy routine. To see him handle a large crowd of drunken, excited young-people with nothing but the power of words was very impressive. As with Andrew WK, it’s refreshing to see someone dropping their public persona and revealing themselves to be highly intelligent:

Thanks to Aylwyn Napier for the link!

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment