By Matt Taibbi / Substack
Had a terrific and wide-ranging talk recently with someone I’ve long admired, the comedian, actor, and podcaster Russell Brand, for his podcast Under the Skin. I don’t often end an interview and think, “Wow, I actually like that guy,” but that happened in this case, which I hope is reflected in the show. The above is a just-posted excerpt.
Some of you may have seen, in recent days, a tweet that describes Brand and a ridiculous range of other Joe Rogan guests as “right-wing.” The list is full of people who clearly don’t fit that description, from Tulsi Gabbard to Steven Pinker and beyond:
This is exhibit A in a phenomenon that’s become ubiquitous in mainstream press, where “right-wing” has become a stand-in for “heterodox” or “dissenting” or even just “open-minded.” Brand’s show, which now has 4.9 million subscribers (it was 4.8 million when we spoke), has been the repeated subject of crude smear jobs describing him as an alt-right Pied Piper, with the most shameless example being a Daily Beast piece from October called, “Comedian Russell Brand Has Become a Powerful Voice for Conservatives and Anti-Vaxxers.”
That piece went off on Brand for having “vaccine-skeptic views” and running a “conspiracy theory-laden YouTube channel,” which led one to expect an avalanche of nuttery. Then you got into the piece and found the Beast’s complaints were things like questioning mandates and “pondering whether people could trust Bill Gates.” (That last line is such a perfect artifact of aristocratic cluelessness, it belongs in a museum). Worse, according to the Beast, Brand showed interviews of vaccine skeptics without mocking or denouncing them, almost like he was interested in hearing why they think what they think. Even more treacherously, he suggested people think for themselves:
A December 2020 video titled, “Covid Vaccine – Skepticism or Trust?,” released just as the vaccine was rolling out in the U.K., saw Brand airing a series of clips of vaccine skeptics being interviewed on the street, before sharing, “I’m certainly by no means saying ‘Don’t take a vaccine,’ neither am I saying ‘Do take a vaccine’” and railing against an increase in “government authority” and decrease in “personal liberties” that is “concerning.”
Much like the “NBC Verification Unit” that tried to get The Federalist in hot water with Google over supposed hate speech, and the reporters from The Guardian and The Washington Post who just pulled the same stunt with Substack over vaccine misinformation, The Beast bragged about its (ultimately failed) efforts to get Brand stuck in YouTube timeout over these offenses:
On Wednesday, YouTube announced it planned to crack down on content posted to its platform that spread medical misinformation, saying it had already removed more than 130,000 videos within the past year that violated its COVID-19 vaccine policies. YouTube said of Brand’s channel, “We’re reviewing the videos raised by The Daily Beast.”
Of course, Brand’s real crime is the basis of the show’s success: the welcoming, positive tone, the breezy lack of judgment, and a refusal to denounce anyone as enemies. The opening salutation — “Welcome, you 4.9 million shimmering wonders, you awakening souls, my brothers and sisters” — is a funnier, more exultant update on radioman Lowell Thomas’s legendary salutation from a century ago, “Good evening, everybody.” Thomas set the tone for generations of media outlets that saw their programs as places where the whole population could come together for discussion and debate, as opposed to being herded into warring camps. Brand is doing the same thing, just with more panache (saying a lot, since Thomas was also a storied stage performer).
This willingness to court all audiences is an affront to the basic formula of current commercial media, which relies upon a strategy of identifying out-groups and rallying audiences to escalating hatreds. Any show that sends an opposite message that people with differing views can and should coexist, or that people who cross conventional wisdom may be interviewed for any reason beyond being “called out,” must now themselves be considered reactionary. We’re seeing how intense the propaganda about this sort of thing can get with the Rogan situation. Make no mistake, if the Jim Acostas and Brian Stelters and Daily Beasts of the world succeed in chopping Rogan’s knees out, they will go looking for the next target, which could easily be Brand or anyone else on that list of “right wing” terrors.
I don’t want to get into this too much, as I’ve interviewed some other people on that list and want to share their takes on this as well later on. Still, this phenomenon has now reached points of absurdity, where being antiwar or supportive of free speech or even just sort of generally chill and forgiving — all part of the liberal’s basic toolkit, once — can inspire accusations of rightist treachery.
Transparently, this is a tactic by a political mainstream so desperate to control what people say and think that it refuses to concede there’s even a word for legitimate disagreement with its dictates. As stupid as mainstream press people are in general, this specific stratagem is clever. First, it provides a massive disincentive for left-liberal thinkers to step an inch outside conventional thinking. Secondly, while people are arguing over the superficial provocation — Hey, wait, I’m not a right-winger! — even more dubious notions are slipped in through the back door, like the idea that Joe Rogan isn’t allowed to interview conservatives, or that if he does, he must do so using some bizarre pre-approved mathematical ratio.
No matter what, it’s definitely true now that anyone who disagrees with the standard line on anything, from Russiagate to intervention in Syria or Ukraine to whether or not Anthony Fauci lied a time or five, can sooner or later expect to wake up wearing the wrongthink tag.
More later, but in the meantime, here’s Brand on what he thought, when he discovered that “Russ, me, the person that I live inside of,” was being described as “right-wing”: