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If you miss the goofball Will Smith of the Nineties, you’re in luck: he’s on Instagram

Via the app, Smith continues to offer the charismatic, wholesome silliness that catapulted him to fame in the 90s.

Remember the Fresh Prince Will Smith? Wicki-wicki-wild-wild-wild-west Will Smith? Goofball Will Smith?

That Will Smith was one of the greatest, and probably best-loved, comic actors of the Nineties and early Noughties. The multi-industry success achieved in his 20s and 30s – as a hip-hop artist, sitcom star and Hollywood leading man – was largely thanks to his guileless exuberance and larger-than-life physicality. A big kid in bright colours and baseball caps; he was family-friendly, but charismatic and self-assured. He offered an aspirational masculinity, but one grounded in wholesomeness and silliness. His was an irresistible charm. Well, that Will Smith is still here – on Instagram.

 

PHILLY IS IN THE BUILDING! #FlyEaglesFly #SBLII

A post shared by Will Smith (@willsmith) on

Smith made no secret of his ambition to be “the biggest movie star in the world”. But after earning Oscar noms for his biographical performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, something went wrong. In 2018, Smith comes off the back of a string of critical and commercial bombs: the overly earnest, roundly-mocked Collateral Beauty, crushingly puerile” meme-fodder Suicide Squad, and the “painfully derivative” Netflix film Bright. Just last month, Richard Brody in the New Yorker claimed “Smith is at risk of becoming the new Tom Cruise”: a once-charming star, burdened by too many terrible projects, now an embarrassment.

But just before Christmas, 49-year-old Smith joined Instagram and started posting videos. Some are vlogger-style inspirational videos, like the one where he quotes the poet Rumi (“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”) and adds, “The Philly translation of that is: don’t be hanging with no jank ass jokers that don’t help you shine.” Some show off his comedy skills full-force: like the parody recreation of his sincerely hipster son Jayden Smith’s flashy music video “Icon”. In one, he proves he can still solve the Rubik’s Cube. In Australia, he films himself feeding a crocodile, with the silly-voiced intro: “Uh, welcome to the Will Smith’s first episode of When Dumb People Get Bit”. Much of it verges on corny Dad territory – but that’s part of its charm: just as he did in the Nineties, Smith offers a wholesome joy that millennials call “pure”, or “too good for this earth”.

And just like that, Smith is ascendant once more. In the two months since joining, he has racked up over 8 million followers. Beyond Instagram, on other social networking sites, clips of his videos, along with fans' declarations of love for them, go viral. “Following Will Smith on Instagram restored my faith in silliness,” one user writes, with over 8,000 favourites. They’re already much-memed:  a video of a young man frantically taking notes is captioned, “Me as soon as Will Smith posts an Instagram video preaching life lessons and handing out keys.” Inkoo Kang writes in Slate, “Smith’s Instagram is so compelling because his photos and videos feel like behind-the-scenes images from a sitcom where the movie star is rewriting TV dad–dom.” British culture writer Bim Adewunmi observes that Smith’s “Instagram renaissance” is, fittingly, a “fulfilment of his true destiny: to be an internet-Uncle Phil for millennials.” If you miss the Will Smith of the Nineties – you’re in luck. He’s only a few taps away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist