While browsing Twitter the other day, I chanced upon this tweet from the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)…

Climate change brings out the weirdest things. The event seems to have been a joint venture between Prospect magazine and the DECC, and hosted by Channel 4 news anchor, Jon Snow (who you may remember got himself in a flap about whether the weather last year was caused by climate change). It is unsurprising that two of the speakers were Matthew Pencharz, a Senior Advisor on Environment & Energy to the Mayor of London and Dr Tom Counsell from the DECC. But what caught my eye was the presence of Shappi Khorsandi, who is a comedian, and Jay Rayner, who is the Guardian’s food critic.

So, the weirdness…

Prospect magazine claims to be ‘the leading magazine of ideas’…

ProspectLogo

But the magazine’s ‘energy’ section does not reveal much evidence of an editorial commitment to the idea of bringing ideas to the energy debate. There are a few articles, notably from DECC Secretary of State, Ed Davey, and his shadow, Caroline Flint. But given the un-diametric mutual opposition between Davey and Flint’s parties on the climate issue, this hardly counts as a battle of ideas, and barely even a disagreement about policy beyond the superficialities of inter-party politics. There is a short debate between the GWPF’s Benny Peiser and the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Shaun Spiers on the issue of fracking. Otherwise, Prospect magazine has run just a handful of articles on this topic over the last year, most of which seem to represent the orthodox position, espoused by the government, or its orthodox critics, such as Dieter Helm.

But the weirdest thing is… What do a comedian and a food critic have to say about energy policy? Why would a magazine, which sells itself on the virtues of exchanging ideas in the public realm, host an event, apparently on behalf of the government, unopposed, with a minister, two bureaucrats a comedian and a food critic?

Clearly an evening of discussion between a DECC minister and the London Mayor’s chief climate bureaucrat would be boring. Not even the events team at Prospect believed that their chin-stroking readers would drag themselves through the cold mid-January streets of London without some celebrity endorsement. DECC, for its part, take as condescending a view of the public as Prospect. Where the event needed a celebrity, DECC felt the campaign needed an animated video to arouse interest in London’s energy future.

I’m not going to say too much about Shappi Khorsandi — partly because there doesn’t appear to be much comment about the event itself, and because she doesn’t seem to have said very much in the past about either energy policy or climate change. Her stand-up act instead usually trades on her ethnicity and identity. But as I have suggested before here, the graveyard for one-time satirists is to ditch the standing-up for something for finger-wagging.

There is probably some kind of law, somewhere, which states that as a comedian’s product becomes less funny, the more likely he or she will be to attempt some kind of political posturing. NB: I do not mean political satire here. I mean comedians, seemingly eschewing comedy, to use their profile to instead tell the world how it ought to be. The previous post mentioned two such comedians — Stewart Lee and Robin Ince (who is discussed again shortly) — who were perhaps funny in the 1990s, but have been reduced to grumpy old men, ranting at the world about how stupid it is. Ince and Lee follow in the wake of two other has-been stand-ups that have chosen to save the planet rather than make people laugh: Marcus Brigstoke and Rob Newman.

The point about satire is worth repeating and updating. A comedian cannot do a gig with a Secretary of State and pretend to be a satirist. She is now on new territory.

Since I wrote that post, Russell Brand, who was mentioned in it, has become more famous for his shallow and incoherent revolutionary politics than his stand up comedy, having penned a book laying out his manifesto — ‘Revolution’ — with the help of plagiarist, fraudster and Wikipedia editor, Johan Hari. The cosy milieu of liberal-left comedians has expanded. And is now part of the political establishment, as much as Brand seemingly rails against it. There is Khorsandi, who appears with Davey, to urge Londoners to get with the coalition’s energy policy…

… And there is this, from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) — “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative and creative practical solutions to today’s social challenges“…

Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change

Climate change is no laughing matter, but when all else fails, perhaps it’s time to take humour a bit more seriously?

With the climate clock ticking we witness a seemingly endless cycle of public talks, journalistic comment pieces and debates on old turf, mostly reinforcing what we already know and fear.

In a bid to generate a new dialogue that sparks enduring change, the RSA is embarking on a series of climate events with a difference, starting with a comedy night.

Humour has long been a powerful tool in the social-change arsenal, but is it powerful enough to help us break through the static on this colossal issue? Is ‘laughing-it-off’ just about evasion, or is it the key to transforming public perspective at scale, in time?

Working alongside BBC comedian and Sunday Assembly founder Pippa Evans, we have gathered a group of talented comics to inject fresh life and verve into what is often a technocratic debate.

Marcus Brigstocke, Steve Punt, The Showstoppers, Rob Auton, Jessica Fostekew, Holly Burn and Pappy’s will help us think through how to reimagine the climate challenge, loosely based on RSA’s Seven Dimensions of Climate Change framework.

Seven comedians tackle one of the seven dimensions each. And here’s the punchline: “The seven dimensions of climate change project seeks to turn a scientific fact into a social fact by clarifying what it really means to ‘act’ through the complementary and competing perspectives of Science, Behaviour, Technology, Culture, Law, Economy and Democracy.”

And this is the result:

As you will have discovered, it is funnier with the sound off. And it is probably even funnier if you don’t watch it at all. This event was far more painful than it was funny. I shall spare you a blow-by-blow account because there really isn’t much to say about the content other than to highlight its failure. The real issue here is what kind of thinking produced this phenomenon.

But let’s discuss briefly the first of the seven skits. Steve Punt is allegedly a satirist, and one of the team behind BBC Radio 4’s ongoing lefty satire, The Now Show, which is also home to pompous climate-change activist and comedian, Marcus Brigstocke, who also does a turn at the RSA event. Punt reads unconvincingly from a script, lampooning an imaginary climate change denier’s understanding of “so-called science”. The putative joke being that the denier takes issue with science itself.

Hilarious stuff. But in this hilarity, Punt, like so many before him, doesn’t get to the substance of the phenomenon of denial to satirise it. Sure, by being so stuffed full of the zombie canards, it’s a comedy version of what people like Punt and his colleague, Brigstocke imagine denial to be. But it is a reflection more of their own ignorance of the debate than their masterful understanding of it, so as to satirise it: the skill of satire. As such, the vulgar satire says more about the satirist than the object of it.

If this were just a ticketed event, or half an hour of BBC radio that one could easily switch off, it would not really be worthy of much comment. But the intention here was to ‘turn a scientific fact into a social fact’. Like some kind of social alchemy, the conceit is that getting famous comedians to tell jokes about the ‘them’ will encourage people to become one of ‘us’.

The presupposition here is rooted in the logic of political correctness. The predominantly middle-class, public school and Oxbridge alternative comedians that emerged in the 1980s, and became established in the 1990s ousted (from the broadcast media, at least, and latterly the circuits), a bawdier, rougher, tougher and working class tradition, which became deeply unfashionable and itself the object of much ridicule. The belief was that the crass homophobia and racial and sexual stereotypes that (on the emergent view) were the stock-in-trade of the stand-up comic in a working mens’ club transmitted values to the audience… Life imitates art. Accordingly, the RSA hoped to reproduce in the wider public the appropriate values and norms — social facts.

There are several problems, of course. The first being Punt’s own grasp of the science he wanted to turn into social fact, and the confusion about what it was he was satirising. As observed here at length, the comedian who dips into politics or campaigning risks proceeding from his ignorance, not his knowledge, and so invents what ‘science says’ (or what ‘so-called science says’) from merely his knowledge that a consensus exists. He improvises from the consensus without an object. Second, his skit was not funny. I don’t say it out of humbug; it really wasn’t funny. The audience barely laughs at all. Which is remarkable, because, and thirdly, this audience is already cemented into the RSA’s framework of ‘social facts’. Not being funny, Punt’s skit is worse than a bad or misleading lecture. Not being an event the wider public are at all interested in, it is a lecture to the choir. And the RSA being the establishment, with a mandate from the Queen, the whole event looks about as promising a prospect for satire as the government abandoning its daily business to instead mock comedians.

So the irony, which ought to be the subject of satire, is that the RSA — which exists by Royal Charter — has sought to engineer social values, but instead reveals that it has little grasp of the science or that the scientific facts aren’t as important to it as the control it seeks. And it reveals its own isolation from the minds in which it desires to reproduce its values.

The consequences for ‘satire’ then — and with apologies to Charlie, and for my French — can be summed up thus: Je Suis un Changement Climatique Denier. The point of the RSA comedy night was to shut down other opinions, to close down debate. The Great and the Good assembled at the RSA were there to giggle at deniers as proxies for the stupid and little people. And much of this performance self-consciously reflected on the inadequacies of democracy — in particular Marcus Brigstocke’s sketch. Said Brigstocke,

That’s the problem, isn’t it. The elitist slow nods that happen in rooms like this where people all gather somewhere nice, where clever people come together and go, hmmm. We are very off-putting. I mean, I’m not, I’m on the telly, but… We are, we’re fantastically off-putting. People find idiots much more appealing than us. You see. So I don’t know how you do it, I don’t know how you make it sexy. The breasts from page three have gone from The Sun today, maybe we replace them with some sustainability solutions. Obviously I don’t have a conclusion, I don’t have a solution to the issues that are thrown up by existing within a democracy where fundamentally everybody’s opinion on polling day is of equal value.

But it would be hard to satirise the smug, self-importance of the RSA and its funny men and women. Don’t be fooled by Brigstocke’s apparent self-awareness — he really does think that he is above the rest of the world — the idiots. There’s nothing that could be brought out of his act which would tell us anything new. He admits he is arrogant. He is aware of the problem caused by the gulf between the elite that has appointed itself to engineer and police public values. The only thing he doesn’t understand is the possibility that he and the audience have embraced climate change whereas the broader public aren’t interested, not because he and the RSA have a better grasp of the science than the people on the other side of that gulf, but because the gulf creates an existential problem for the elite. After all, the RSA was mandated to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce”… The elite now turns its back on such filthy things as enterprise and manufacture — so many consumer trinkets will destroy the planet. And it uses science and the arts to sneer at plebs, to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi. Having failed in its duty, it now problematises that failure, not as a consequence of its own divorce from reality and the public, but as a “social challenge”, to which it seeks to “innovative practical solutions”. Climate change rescues the RSA from its irrelevance. It gives it mission, importance. And it justifies the smug.

Comedy, then, isn’t just a fun night out any more. It is an instrument that social engineers believe they can use to get the public to conform. Never mind the melting ice caps and polar bears; climate change is killing jokes.

Even Adam Corner, the climate change activist-academic-psychologist anticipated the failure of the event.

But while online ridicule directed towards climate ‘deniers’ (generally portrayed as either too stupid to understand the science, or as conspiracy theorists) may appeal to the usual crowd, its hard to see how this kind of approach will breach the political divide. After all, the feeling of being laughed at by a sneering, left-leaning elite is not appealing. One notorious attempt by the 10:10 campaign and director Richard Curtis at ‘humorously’ marginalising opposition towards environmentalism backfired completely. It turns out that most people don’t find graphic depictions of children’s heads exploding all that hilarious after all…

But his own punchline equally fails to raise a chuckle…

What’s required is for climate change to seep into the fabric of satirical and humourous TV programming, in the same way that other ‘current affairs’ often provide the backdrop and context for creative output. Jokes ‘about’ climate change can in fact be ‘about’ any of the dozens of subjects – family disputes over energy bills, travel and tourism, or changing consumer habits – that are directly impacted by climate change.

Just as explaining a joke denies its humour, if comedy is instrumental, it ceases to be spontaneous. So Corner moves the climate change issue to the stage backdrop, in front of which people repeat gags about mothers-in-law who keep leaving the lights on.

Or here’s a better idea… A sitcom in which a BBC executive is trying to squeeze the subject of climate change into a sit-com he is commissioning. But the problem is, the sit-com isn’t very funny. And there’s the problem… It’s all so postmodern. Everyone is so self aware, self-conscious they are forced to explain the joke, and the purpose of making the joke, because not even jokes can be told for the sake of telling jokes — they have to have higher purpose, sanctioned by academic psychologists at the University of Cardiff who double-up as climate change activists for the Climate Outreach & Information Network and Guardian eco-bloggers. All spontaneity has been expunged from the schedule. Comedy, in the hands of people who take themselves far, far, far too seriously.

And it doesn’t stop at comedy, either. The desire to colonise the cultural sphere — and in particular popular culture — knows no limits. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Al Gore and Pharrall Williams declared that they would ‘literally’ have ‘humanity harmonised all at once’.

The unlikely combination of Pharrell Williams and Al Gore have announced what they hope to be the largest global campaign in history, in the form of a second round of Live Earth concerts to promote awareness of climate change. The concerts will take place across all seven continents – including Antarctica – on 18 June.

But the real satirists were quick off the mark…

Williams’ words aren’t just hypocrisy… This is eight-mile-high-in-a-private-jet green hypocrisy. It compares to Will.I.Am’s turning up to an Oxford conference on climate change in a helicopter. Said the rapper,

Climate change should be the thing that we are all worried and concerned about as humans on this planet, how we affect the planet, our consumption, and how we treat the place that we live in.

The Telegraph goes on to quote climate scientist Myles Allen, “The irony didn’t escape everybody. But he’s committed to the issues and he’s written songs about it.”

So just as we can ask what Shappi Khorsandi was doing at an event intended to get Londoners to ‘think’ about their energy supply, to the exclusion of any contrary ideas, we might wonder what Oxford — the second oldest University in the world — needed from Will.I.Am, and what Will.I.Am really needed to speak to Myles Allen about. Will Will.I.Am be rapping Myles Allen’s next paper? It sounds about as entertaining — not to say spontaneous — a gig as the RSA’s night of uninterrupted laughter.

The point, of course, is that celebrities, be they has-been comedians or stratospheric rappers, prostitute their status. And its not hard to work out what they’re whoring themselves out for

Celebrities and campaigners including Matt Damon, Bill Gates, Jody Williams and Malala Yousafzai are joining forces to launch an international campaign to persuade the planet’s leaders to make 2015 the defining year in the fight against world poverty and climate change.

The campaign action/2015 – which launches on Thursday backed by more than 1,000 organisations across 50 countries – is focused on securing successful outcomes for two pivotal UN summits, one in September on remodelled development goals, and the other in December in Paris on a new international agreement on climate change.

The harder question to answer is why. One answer might be that they believe in the causes they seem to champion. In which case, they really should butt out. Because what they reveal is not only their own ignorance of the ‘issues’ they want to ‘raise awareness’ of, but their rank hypocrisy.

But a more likely answer is that celebs have an insatiable need to be flattered. It must, after all, be hard to account for the luxury you enjoy when you sit in your private jet or in a helicopter. It’s not enough to say “I wrote a few songs and it made me $millions”. Self importance is incompatible with such ephemera as topical jokes and pop songs. There must be more to it, that justifies pop-singers and funny men’s sense of self-importance, that they can preach austerity from a jet-powered pulpit or rotary-winged lectern. It is the same with the fellows of the RSA as it is with the pop stars. A pathological narcissism in search of endless self-justification.

12 Responses to Celebs, Comedians, Pop Stars… Climate Whores

  • Just as it used to be said (of popular music) that “the Devil has all the best tunes”, so it is also true that in comedy, “the Devil has all the best jokes.”

    In other words, sucking up to the Establishment rarely produces good, let alone great, art.

    Avoiding controversial topics can produce decent art. Giving the Great and the Good one in the eye, ditto. But as the painful examples you have cited demonstrate, becoming a mere propagandist is the antithesis of it.

    That doesn’t mean that it has to be content-free in terms of current issues, just that comedy requires irreverence, not respect for a pre-ordained agenda set by others. So, even though Tom Lehrer was a lefty, he had plenty of shots as shibboleths, like New Math and various types of pretentiousness and stupidity, no matter who was espousing them. And therefore, he’s still funny decades later. Same goes for The Life of Brian and its creators.

    A lot of the degradation of artforms like comedy and the visual arts is a product of government funding. Want to do a project on climate change (bad!), “sustainability” or racism? You zoom into the shortlist for funding courtesy of taxpayers, whose views are never sought.

    How many of these publicly funded exercises have produced anything worthwhile or lasting? No need to please the audience when all your costs are covered anyway.

  • johanna, there’s also something I sometimes call the “curse of climate change”. CC can provide a perfectly adequate backdrop for a story – there’s some decent SF that happens to be set in a world stricken by runaway global warming – but if it’s all about the message, then the tendency is towards something that’s awkward, preachy, shrill, long-winded, unfunny (or unintentionally funny) or just plain dull.

    It’s interesting to look at the RSA’s “The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change” document, which is linked to from this page:
    http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/learning,-cognition-and-creativity/social-brain/the-seven-dimensions-of-climate-change

    The problem is always the same – they’re fiddling about, trying to hit upon ways to make the masses see climate change the way they see it, and never getting very far. What they are trying to sell is (managed) radical societal change, and this is not high on most people’s to-do lists. (The believers would, I suppose, argue that radical societal change will be happening anyway, because of AGW and related planetary woes, hence the need for a managed transition.)

    The “Seven Dimensions” document mentions “reimagining economic models and purposes”, “the need for ‘a new social contract'”, “new societal institutions” (“where the science and politics of climate change can co-exist”), how the “global economic engine” can be “constrained” and “promoting and nurturing forums for collective thinking”.

    It says “… the consumption-based growth that shapes the global economy is not going anywhere fast, and there is no long-term solution that doesn’t factor in a new economic vision. There is little hope of that kind of transformative change happening unless we can mobilise and channel civic and political will in ways that allow us to take sound collective decisions, which means democracy has to deliver. But where will such will and conviction come from if not from media, social media, art, music; the ideas, ideals and visions of culture? And who is going to really ‘act’ to make all this happen if not people in all these dimensions of their own lives, through changes in their behaviour?”

    The problem for them, I think, is that most people aren’t very interested in vague “transformative change” and don’t feel a particular need for it. Also I suspect that most people don’t identify themselves with this “we” (who would that be, kemo sabe?) that “can mobilise and channel civic and political will”.

    This is a bit of an extreme comparison, but it’s as if a group of people had convinced themselves the Earth was about to be eaten by an enormous mutant star goat and set about persuading everyone in the world to relocate to an unspecified other planet. They’d have their work cut out for them (to put it mildly) and it seems unlikely that campaigns which centred around a few star goat knock-knock jokes, poetry contests or an evacuating Earth-themed sitcom would make much headway.

  • Alex, the destruction of our world as we know it by various means is a sci-fi staple – and a good one, IMO. But using it to push some ideological barrow is usually deleterious, and sometimes fatal, to the art.

    As far as the whole “transforming the world” thing is concerned, I agree that most sane, grounded folks with families and jobs and interests of their own view it with suspicion, and rightly so. Most people do not want their lives in the hands of mystics and futurologists. They certainly don’t want it to be accomplished by main force.

    That is why the creeping, relentless incursions of the State into our lives are so perfidious. The same thing is being accomplished without it being apparent to people who have (quite reasonably) little interest in the minutiae of politics and policy.

  • “The harder question to answer is why.”
    Partly, I think, because they are running out of sources for new material.
    And partly because their previous success has fed their sense of self-importance to the point where they can now move and shake the world as politicians do.

    They want both to continue, but as Johanna suggests, this often leads down an artistic cul-se-sac.

  • I had a look at your second link to the DECC’s “Power of London” animation. I was the 203rd viewer on Youtube. Since the film’s inception three weeks ago. Given that each writer, animator and technician involved in the project must have at least one proud parent who will have watched it, that doesn’t leave a big audience of would-be converts to its message, whatever that might be.
    The film ends with the question: “How will London help to tackle the British energy challenge?” over a map of England with three icons placed at random apparently signifying Nuclear, Windpower, and Carbon Capture and Storage (though only a climate denial freak like me would know that).
    Talking to yourself is supposedly the first sign of madness. But what about hiring expensive advertising/PR and animation outfits to do the talking for you? Anyone fancy doing an FOI request to ask the DECC how much they spent on this?

  • geoff points out something interesting: The climate hypesters are actually not popular at all. Climate is one of the lowest priority items in nearly every poll ever produced ranking issues of importance.
    yet the money and effort the climate hypesters put into their obsession is amazing. And their policies as we see in the reactionary push against fracking that is led by climate hypesters are winning.
    They win despite the lack of science, despite the lack of facts, despite the lack of popular support.
    In Texas just this week a government funded media outlet in Houston put out a report where they assert that Texas is now getting up to 40% of its electricity from wind. Yet the facts are that this assertion is untrue. One can briefly read the Texas agency responsible for grid management and see that wind only produces at best a tiny fraction of the state’s need, and when it does peak out at something close to 10% of need, it is during offpeak hours and for a minutes or hours at most at a time.
    Yet this media outlet, KUHF, has not feedback mechanism much less comment ability to offer facts to their poor reporting.
    Which is the point: The climate hypesters depend implicitly on silencing their critics and then using that silence as evidence of their correctness. Which seems to be much the case in the situation this essay describes. They do not care that no one believes or even watches. They want the silence of the masses, not their vocal support. The comedians etc. who perform for the climatocrats are just party diversions, trained talking dog acts as it were as far as those profiting financially and socially from cliamte are concerned.

  • The comedians etc. who perform for the climatocrats are just party diversions, trained talking dog acts as it were as far as those profiting financially and socially from cliamte are concerned.
    ———————————————————–
    Good point, and I love the “talking dog act” comparison.

    I’ve said this elsewhere, but will repeat it – on the Myers-Briggs personality spectrum, the vast majority of performers are diametrically opposite to proper scientists and policy analysts. And while I don’t claim that M-B is the be-all and end-all of personality analysis, as a rough metric it isn’t too bad.

    Of course we need all types to make a world. But, just as I do not take artistic advice from scientists, I don’t take scientific or policy advice from actors and singers.

  • johanna,
    What interests me is how artists tend to rally around so-called progressive ideas, despite the experiences of what happened to free spirits under progressive leaders like Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. In the west, popular artists are frequently among the richest people in their respective societies. Why do they tend to cluster around political leaders who either form cleptocracies or support the destruction of artistic freedom?

  • hunter – … artists tend to rally around so-called progressive ideas, despite the experiences of what happened to free spirits under progressive leaders like Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot,

    I’m not sure that’s a particularly useful way of looking at things. The category of ‘progressive’ is broader than the term ‘communism’, which is in turn broader than the terms ‘Maoism’, ‘Stalinism’, and whatever doctrine Pol Pot embodied. It’s best not to argue in nouns.

    Like them or loathe them now, if it were not for progressive movements — including progressive left movements — liberal, secular democracy would not look so liberal, secular or democratic.

  • hunter – I think it’s more a matter of artists being very susceptible to emotionally based propaganda. They tend to experience the world through feelings rather than analysis or thought.

    Of course, this doesn’t apply to all of them, but having worked with actors and musicians (and also having some as friends), I find that more often than not it is the case. It doesn’t mean that they are stupid, just that they perceive the world differently to people who enjoy reading blogs about science or policy.

  • I thought of transcribing the Punt sketch as part of my ritual self-flagellation for Lent. If anyone’s watched the whole thing and has seen anything worse, I’m open to suggestions.

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