A couple of weeks ago I posted about a set of lessons I was planning to deliver based on the debate in the news between Russell Brand and Robert Webb (the post can be found here). In it I said I was interested to see what the outcome of the discussions and writing was. As a class we read the Brand piece, looking and what he said and how he said it. It is a dense piece but the crux of the argument came through to the class (Year 11 Mixed Ability). We then compared it to Robert Webb’s piece. We looked at the counter points and again how he, as a writer, put across his argument. At the end of the second lesson I asked the class who they thought had won. In summary it was clear: Webb wins for content and debate but Brand would win the wider public sphere because of his name and persona.
The next stage was to use the articles as a springboard for comment and their personal writing. We brainstormed ideas on why Russell Brand was wrong, why people should vote. In particular it was the girls who got most passionate about it, drawn hugely from the fact that women have only relatively recently won the vote. However, wider than that the whole class saw reasons why voting was so fundamental to our society. The lesson where we discussed these ideas was one of my most interesting in a long time.
The third stage was to write a letter in response. I asked them to write to Brand to tell him why he was wrong. They had the ideas and went off for homework to do it. Crucially, I said that we would send the letters to him (via “his people”) when they were done. This gave them a real audience.
I have just marked some of the letter and in them, alongside some of the better examples of their writing over the past 18 months are some fantastic ideas that show that young people do have a voice, do care about democracy and are worth caring about.
Let me quote some phrases of some of them:
“Voting is in place to allow everybody to have their own say. If you actually thought about it properly, what effect is your lost vote going to have on the millions of other votes. None. Fundamentally, you couldn’t be more correct about the problem, but your solution is stupendously deluded.”
“Now you are thinking that all you did was convey your opinion on the matter of the government, however, what you may not have taken into account is the fact that most people that like you are in their teens and have yet to make their decisions on politics and the government.”
“Within a week of your interview on Newsnight, the video was showing up on my Facebook and Twitter news feed as well as making it to the Youtube homepage with 9 millions views. Reaching millions of young people, your statement “I will never note and I don’t’ think you should either” could easily influence them”
These are just three of the great passages written. Sometimes I get despondent that my class are not working hard enough or don’t ‘get’ what they need to do. It was clear that they did get this piece and found enough passion to write in such as way. The next step I am going to get them to tidy the letters up before I send them off to Mr Brand. One wonders is I get a response but the whole process is worth it.
While I was way in Poland I bought the New Statesman to read on the plane. I like to buy magazines when I am travelling because I find them easier to dip into than a novel. The reason I chose the New Statesman was because it was trailed in the media because of Russell Brand’s involvement, his editorship on the edition on Revolution. I found it fascinating; loads of articles on the theme of change and revolt across culture. Naomi Klein’s piece on Science was great and mostly went over my head; Rupert Everett’s piece of being gay was superbly written; Gary Lineker’s on football was perfect.
The big thing that got the headlines was Brand’s central manifesto piece (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution). In it he discusses lyrically about the state of world politics and weaves in the ideas of revolution. The idea that got the headlines and the back chat was his statement “I will never vote and I don’t think you should either”. When I read it, I mostly passed it off and mostly disagreed. In tomorrow’s New Statesman Robert Webb penned his response (http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/russell-choosing-vote-most-british-kind-revolution-there) which fantastically answers Brand’s thesis.
The piece that got me thinking even more was when he says:
“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. “
He is completely correct. I try my hardest sometimes not to be party political with students, it is not my place to sway them, but I will always be political. If students say they will not vote, I will challenge them. If Russell Brand is saying ‘don’t vote’ we lose that battle even more. Politicians ignore young people because they do not vote; if they continue to be ignored they cannot help shape their future. When I first read Brand’s piece I shrugged because of the absurdity of this posturing, having read Webb’s retort, I am upset: Brand is wrong. We must vote and encourage others who ask to consider it themselves.
The other issue that Webb highlights with Brand’s piece is the language (more in an implied manner than explicitly). He says:
“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.”
I love the way he uses the phrase “do keep and eye on that”. But more than sounding teacherly, he is again right. As an English teacher, Webb’s pieces is so much better written than Brand’s. He is simple and measured where Brand seems like he has eaten a thesaurus and vomited it up on the page. There are terms, references and words in Brand’s piece I don’t fully understand and therein lies the problem. From Brand’s piece the less focused reader (regardless of age or intelligence) it is very easy to pull out the aforementioned sound-bite because it is otherwise so dense. Webb on the other hand is readable from any age. It gives me a lesson idea I am going to explore, compare the way Brand writes to the way Webb does. It will also be interesting to see who the class thinks wins the debate (I have my guess and I think Brand will need to go back to promoting his tour in other ways). Yet in the world of 140 characters, maybe Brand will get the headlines. I don’t see Webb getting the same exposure on Newsnight for his piece (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGxFJ5nL9gg) (but I also know he only wrote one piece and didn’t guess edit).
With young people, we have to be careful what we say. I do believe we need role models in politics that don’t wear grey suits and are called Ed or Dave but at the same time these people do have to be careful what they say.