(Credit: Creative Commons)

I am the first to admit that I am not one that has been able to appreciate the work of Russell Brand. I’ll further admit that the only thing I have seen him in was the re-make of Arthur, which should never have been remade. When you have a cast like Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, the late Sir John Gielgud, and the late Geraldine Fitzgerald what are the hopes of doing better than that, even with my beloved Helen Mirren? As it turns out, Russell Brand is a rather impressive young man with a keen awareness of homophobia, class, distribution of wealth, and history. Bravo, Mr. Brand!

Brand was just recently the recipient of a British GQ Oracle award, which is sponsored by Hugo Boss. Upon receiving his award, Brand took the opportunity to remind the audience of the deep ties Hugo Boss had to the Nazi Party during WWII. Hugo Boss not only supported the Third Reich, but also made an enormous amount of money making the uniforms for the Nazi soldiers. The uniforms were often made by prisoners of war – a truly horrific irony. Despite Boss’ prohibition from operating the business after the war, he transferred power to a relative and the business continued on its ill-gotten gains. During the push for reparations in the 1990s, the company paid lip service to the effort but refused to publicize any findings regarding their activities and contributed what adjudicators called “a bare minimum” to the reparation fund. What an awful example of soulless corporate greed.

In Brand’s most impressive speech, he also deftly addresses the persecution of gays during WWII – sadly we have a redux in Russia now. And with great aplomb, Brandon also gives a much needed smack down of classism and the inequitable distribution of wealth. I have to love Brand’s understanding of power dynamics and how corporations and governments are implicated. Note this portion of his speech as transcribed in the Guardian:

Now I’m aware that this was really no big deal; I’m not saying I’m an estuary [sic] Che Guevara. It was a daft joke by a daft comic at a daft event. It makes me wonder, though, how the relationships and power dynamics I witnessed on this relatively inconsequential context are replicated on a more significant scale.

For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers – he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor – influence the way he runs our capital?

Sadly, GQ editor Dylan Jones reprimanded Brand on Twitter, stating, “What you did was very offensive to Hugo Boss.” Brand responded aptly, sticking to his important thesis: “What Hugo Boss did was very offensive to the Jews.”

In 2010, when Danny Glover learned that Hugo Boss worked hard to stomp out any signs of unionization, he initiated a boycott of Hugo Boss. I certainly support a boycott of Hugo Boss and I would offer that for those of us committed to tikkun olam, we must interrupt all oppression when we witness it. We must stand in solidarity and unite all targeted populations to challenge the dominant discourse. It is not just the 1% we must challenge, but the top 20% as we look for more equitable ways to distribute wealth and resources.

Unfortunately, I still hear the word Jew being used as a verb. I still hear the word fag and a long list of other pejoratives that strip people of their dignity, while also stripping the speaker of theirs. Now is the time to stand united and remember the painful history of the world so that we may move forward and become agents of peace and social justice – honoring counter narratives. While most of us do not hold the position of power and privilege Russell Brand does, each of us, individually and collectively have the power to have our voices heard and to show resistance around corporate entities. We can expose the voices that silently collude with power structures, intentionally keeping targeted populations at bay- and we can ensure there is no censoring of our criticism.

Michael Hulshof-Schmidt teaches Social Justice at the Portland State University School of Social Work. He is the Executive Director of EqualityWorks, NW, a company that provides workshops on racial equity and how to stand in solidarity with targeted populations. You can read more of his work at http://hulshofschmidt.wordpress.com/.


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