Likely most have run across the British comedian and political activist Russell Brand, whose movies include Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and Arthur, and whose books include Revolution (with the “L” rendered backwards so the reverse-spelling of the word “Love” can be noticed). His abundant YouTube rants are hard to miss, and once seen, rarely forgotten.
It is also likely that conservatives have concluded that the man is a nitwit. In his book he advocates the abolition of multinational corporations and the nation state, and has said in press interviews that people should not bother to vote in elections. Then, too, even if his Noam Chomsky-esque political positions did not undercut his seriousness, his Baroque fashion sense, laddish accented English, and peculiar stares that make him ideal to cast in a movie as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would certainly get the job done. His showbiz antics include stripping off his clothes at an anti-globalization rally, giving the Nazi salute at an awards ceremony, and touring the world with a comedy show called Messiah Complex.
And yet, if you tuned into his podcast series Under the Skin, your impression of him might well change. Advertised as substantive dialogues with leading intellectuals of the day, not only do these interviews not disappoint, they are the most open, frank, probing, and combative encounters you are likely to find in the ever-more-crowded podcast field.
As the music begins, you might think you’ve been tricked. It is portentous, NPR-esque stuff but Brand is a comedian and likely could not resist a nod and a wink. Do not be fooled, Under the Skin is nothing like what passes for serious discussion on NPR or the cable channels. The guests he invites are mostly people on the Left—but he has the kind of irreverence that makes him challenge people on his own side. There are plenty of interviews with “big picture” scientists, too, so it’s not always a political show. And it sometimes tackles the rewards and pitfalls of therapy.
Even when the subject is not therapy, Brand will (being Brand) bring the discussion around to his own recovery from drugs, drink, promiscuity, and egoistic meanness. He is not shy about his efforts at reforming himself; but, though his Id sometimes escapes, the interviews he conducts on his podcasts are about ideas. Like Jordan Peterson (whom he’s had on the show), Brand encourages listeners to read big, important books. His being well-read makes him rather unique amongst A-list celebrities. Many conservatives are sick of Hollywood types like George Clooney hectoring on about morality, but unlike Clooney, Brand wants people to read the books that make up our civilizational inheritance, and he is well aware that those books prohibit any trite moralism. One of the best features of his interviews is the resistance Brand puts up against lazy thinking and vaporing, and mostly successfully.
His interview with Al Gore revealed Gore’s incapacity to even understand some of Brand’s questions. The host asks the former Vice President to reflect on the fact that, with the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, vast numbers of people demanded change, convinced that government programs had done nothing to help them. Gore does not seem to grasp the point, only offering as an example of the desire for change his daughter’s being arrested at an environmental protest. When Gore adds that he is so proud of his daughter for being arrested, Brand pounces with an excellent question: What does it mean when people like you no longer believe in authority? Gore blusters on, never appearing to understand the gravity of the question.
As for Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist, Brand devoted two shows to him, the first of which is simply stellar. Unlike many in the media who have tried to ambush Peterson with a “Gotcha” moment, Brand has a deep conversation with him that covers books like Carl Jung’s 700-page commentary on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the two get along so well because they share an interest in religion. Brand is currently enrolled in a master’s program in world religions at SOAS, one of the University of London’s many colleges. Peterson’s interest in religion seems to be formal: it is a living principle structuring human psychology and must be studied by anyone who is analytically serious. Brand is a seeker, happy to point out he has all the major world religions’ symbols tattooed on his body.
His religious bent means Brand is a challenging interviewer for many of his leftist guests. He is quick to call out any who marshal weak arguments against religion. His podcast with atheist author Sam Harris is good for this reason. Harris reacts to Brand’s questions in a way that seems worthy of psychoanalytical study, and the two lose patience with one another. It is not just a slanging match, though, and Brand scores points. Harris argues as the heir to the Enlightenment: Since religion is dogma and cuts short conversation, religion is violence. Brand asks whether there is such a thing as secular violence. His reasoning is, believe it or not, very much like that found in Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg Address and it clearly discomfits Harris. Harris also has a habit of reducing all questions to thought experiments, narrowly confining the topic. Brand persuasively counters that assessing the standing of Islam or Christianity without recourse to anthropology, political theory, theology, and philosophy is hopeless.
While most leftists are committed to metaphysical deflation, thrilling to the disenchantment of the world wrought by modern science’s assumption of materialism, Brand is quite the opposite. He gets England’s leading science personality, Brian Cox, a member of Manchester University’s astrophysics department, to admit that the materialism assumed in modern science is just a preference with no evidence to support the assumption.
Brandian metaphysics also enables a fascinating conversation with science disruptor and former Cambridge professor, Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake’s is the only talk banned by TED for being scientifically inflammatory, which the anti-establishmentarian Brand only finds intriguing. Part of what makes this conversation so interesting is that you might expect the two not to care for each other. Brand’s scrappy, working-class Estuary English clashes with the extremely clipped Oxbridge English of Sheldrake. Yet Brand is especially taken with Sheldrake’s signature thesis of morphic resonance. That thesis, to quote from Professor Sheldrake’s 2012 book Presence of the Past, is that “Natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind, however far away they were and however long ago they existed.” Catnip to Brand.
A Host Who Demands Intellectual Honesty
Their conversation ends charmingly, with Sheldrake inviting Brand to go on a day’s pilgrimage to Salisbury Cathedral, stopping for tea along the way but getting there in time for evensong. I hope they have done so. What an astonishing sight that would make: Could Chaucer do it justice?
In fairness, not all the guests are great. Some whose books are really good, like Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2017), disappoint in person. The Guardian’s Luke Harding beclowns himself using the term “neoliberalism” and, when asked by Brand to help out the audience by explaining the term, stammers along until put out of his misery with Brand offering a spot-on definition. The British filmmaker Richard Curtis, who married into the famous Freud family, seems to be a particular friend of Brand’s. The repartee between the two of them makes for a hilarious episode. Curtis seems to be a father figure to Brand and the latter’s Id is out in full force. The episode is intellectually rich, though Brand’s psychodynamics spoil it a bit.
Russell Brand is mostly interviewing members of his own political tribe in this show. But others should listen in. It gives the temperature of the contemporary Left, and the comic’s demand for intellectual honesty delivers many illuminating results. If you come away with a higher opinion of the man who cavorted across the screen as the vapid rock star Aldous Snow, it will be because you learnt much from him.