Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?
Posted on 15:11, September 2nd, 2009 by Pablo
One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?
I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.
To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy. That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.
The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.
I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here: http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html; and here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/163908/Smart-thinking-NZs-public-intellectuals).>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<
The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?
I shall leave the answers to you.