Russell Brand and Miriam Margolyes: Don’t fall for the false charms of those two pantomime preachers

Little by little all argument evaporates, and soon what a fool thinks, we all think

Howard Jacobson
Friday 31 October 2014 17:57

When Russell Brand uses the word “hegemony” something dies in my soul. When Miriam Margolyes sees the word “Jew” something dies in hers. Such accomplished clowns, both of them, it’s a matter of regret to those of us who like to be amused that they don’t stick to clowning. It takes from their comedy to discover they are fools in earnest. But it’s also on behalf of seriousness that we ask them to stay with what they know. For neither has the first idea what serious thought is. And these are dangerous times, when what looks like an idea is more likely to be attended to than what actually is one.

One can’t put all the blame on Russell Brand for “hegemony”. The word has been the curse of the social sciences ever since that branch of knowledge thought of calling itself that. If the phrase “as Chomsky says” had one thinking of leaving any meeting addressed by a social scientist in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, it was “hegemony” that finally got one out of the door.

Brand is no more besotted with the word than the thousands of hegemenophobes who came before him; his sin is to think that being a comedian gives him a surprise advantage over them. In this he patronises himself: it’s not we who marvel that a funny man should know a word of more than three syllables. But he is astonished by his own gifts: must he not, with his looks and vocabulary, be equipped to save the world? Yes, says the perfidious voice of self-love; no, says everybody else save Owen Jones, late of this parish, who listens to similar voices.

(That Jones is the Orwell of our times you have only to glance at the cover of his latest book to learn. It’s Russell Brand who says so. What would I have given, reader, as I began my career, to have had Norman Wisdom compare my prose style to Proust’s! Jones, by way of returning the compliment, is now to be found playing Brand’s straight man in a comedy club nearest you. “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Bootsie and Snudge of the Proletarian Revolution.”)

Meanwhile, Miriam Margolyes – who could do with a few of Russell Brand’s words, since she has none of her own – is doing her giggly thing about the nature of contemporary anti-Semitism, which she calls “horrible”. “I don’t think people like Jews,” she has just rocked readers of Radio Times by telling them. A judgement she backs up with her usual long sense of history. “They never have. English literature, my great love, is full of greasy and treacherous Jews. I’m lucky they like me, and one always needs a Jewish accountant.”

Why greasy and treacherous should have been the terms she reached for, when it’s actually hard to think of many Jews in English literature who quite answer to that description and when there are countless writers in English from Shakespeare onwards for whom the Jew is a complex and even heroic figure, is perhaps a question for a psychiatrist. As for her joke about Jewish accountants – why make it if she is concerned about the spread of anti-Semitism, central to whose ideology is the nexus of Jews and money? Couldn’t she have left that one to the Liberal Democrats?

But if we allow Miriam Margolyes her eternally detested greasy Jew, it’s hard to follow her reasoning that it’s Israel that makes the world detest his greasiness. “Israel is stupid for allowing people to vent their anti-Semitism,” she reasons, which begs the question of the view of Israel which anti-Semitism itself begets, elides all distinctions between Israel as a country and Jews as a people, allows that anti-Semitism is OK until it’s “vented”, and assumes a nation is responsible for the irrational hatred others already bear its citizens. If it’s true that people didn’t like Jews long before there was an Israel – for confirmation of which see her brief history of English literature – then anti-Semitism, vented or otherwise, cannot be blamed on it. The implication of this daffy intervention into matters of serious concern is that they aren’t serious at all: anti-Semitism is simply something Jews bring on themselves.

Try that argument in cases of sexual abuse. Try saying you shouldn’t have given your assailant the opportunity to vent his violence against you. Try suggesting it’s your job to keep the lid on what arouses him.

Miriam Margolyes is not aiming to save the world. Not looking like a Pre-Raphaelite Messiah, she has no Messiah complex. But even thoughts as vapid as hers have their effect. Indeed, it’s their very vapidity, seemingly innocent and heartfelt, admitting no difficulty in the way of their expression, expecting no controversy, that allows what’s simplistic to prevail over what’s vexed. Little by little all argument evaporates, and soon what a fool thinks, we all think.

We ask if mosques are to blame for the radicalisation of young English Muslims. What’s the narrative they listen to, we wonder. Who’s inciting them. Reader, there’s no mystery. The narrative they are listening to is ours. Whatever the mosques teach, our own media is sufficiently inflammatory to account for violent disaffection. Self-inculpation has grown to be a habit with us. We ascribe malice and self-interest to our every military involvement. Paint ourselves as marauders, the Americans as imperialists, and the Israelis as medieval fiends gorging on the blood of Palestinian babies. While on Newsnight Russell Brand preaches pantomime insurgency to the impressionable.

You don’t have to order people to decapitate their enemies. Just rub the itch of their youthful alienation, enrage them with an egregious sense of wrong, remove those filters of uncertainty that should make for hesitancy and reflection, fill their minds with the pap of propaganda, phantom grievance and prompt remedy, and no one’s head is safe.

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