Today, says James Marriott in The Times, “anybody can have a go at establishing themselves as a serious thinker”. Russell Brand is a perfect example – 10 years ago, half the bus stops in London advertised his “political treatise/extended brain fart”, Revolution. He guest-edited The New Statesman, interviewed Ed Miliband in his kitchen, and faced an exasperated Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. The revolution he was preaching never materialised, but Brand was still a “prophetic figure”: he was among the first symptoms of the “cheapening of modern public debate”. Now many comedians get lofty ideas. Australian comic Hannah Gadsby curated a “gratifyingly panned” exhibition on Picasso; Nish Kumar hosts a politics podcast; Ricky Gervais has “smugly installed himself as a partisan of enlightenment and reason”.
None of these figures have any claim to expertise other than fame, but “social media privileges personality over complex thought”. Meanwhile, true intellectuals have retreated from public debate. The likes of Mary Beard, John Carey and Richard Dawkins were once highly visible cultural figures, and experts in their field. All are now over 65. If no “younger generation of comparable influence” has replaced them, it is partly because of the “grisly influence of social media”, and partly because the spirit of “nervous consensus” on most university campuses, and the shocking job insecurity of lecturers, means few are willing to risk the rough and tumble of public debate. Dawkins was in his thirties when he published The Selfish Gene; his modern-day successor is almost certainly “drowning in grant applications and fretting about the rent”. So public discourse is left in the worst possible hands: “comedians, tweeters and assorted grifters”; the heirs of Russell Brand.