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 andÂ 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. Â 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 Â 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: Â http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html;Â 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.
Some examples of other societies where intellectuals play the role in public policy debates that you’re postulating, please?
France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Singapore, India–there a plenty of cases to choose from. I am surprised that you could not think of a case yourself.
Great post. This is one of the biggest problems for New Zealand politics in my view. I also agree that Laurence Simmons’ “Speaking Truth to Power” wonderfully deals with these issues. I blogged some extensive explorations of the chapters in the Simmons book, which can all be read here:
Rather thin on the ground in the Anglosphere – few `tele-dons’ in UK – AJP Taylor? can’t think off hand of any other particular names, some, surprisingly in Australia and in USA – Canada? anyone?
Anyway, stop writing interesting posts – I’m supposed to be working!
Good article. I wouldn’t say NZ has a tradition of intellectualism as such. Some parts of the country would probably shoot intellectuals on sight, seeing as they weren’t useful at pragmatic things like digging tunnels and shearing sheep.
However, there have been a few s**t-stirrers, which is as close as you’ll get to a tradition. The labour movement threw many of them up to public office, such as Savage and Fraser. Others stayed offside in their own tribe, such as John A Lee and Scrim on the wireless.
National has never had anything like an intellect or s**t-stirrer. Closest they get were bullies like Muldoon, who thought he knew more than he did. That’s why I’m so impressed with the profile given to Prof Sir Peter Gluckman by John Key.
We may not have a Bernard Henri Levy. We may be stuck with Bill Ralston and not John Ralston Saul. But for the first time ever, we have an influential independent brain getting some say in the media. It’s a start.
…for that matter, can anyone name a NZ philosopher? And yet every uni has a philosophy department (no, Popper dosent count)…
I also note that the Anglo-Saxon tradition, with its egalitarian bias, may in fact be the root cause of its anti-intellectualism. There is a certain irony in that.
In the interest of balance I was working hard to find a conservative public intellectual of stature, Morgan was the closest I could get. Perhaps Michael Bassett?
Who is the independent brain in the media you are referring to? Ralston? I am not sure if he qualifies.
Copeland and Dutton.
Although Leopold made a general query, I am focused exclusively on public intellectuals. There are plenty of academics, artists, writers and private sector folk who qualify as intellectuals but who do not have an impact on public life. In that regard Professor Copeland is clearly an asset to the country but his voice is not part of the public discourse (be it by choice, subject or popular ignorance of his work). Dutton appears closer to the mark, but then again, how has he influenced public debate?
Does Dennis Dutton count?
How depressing we can’t come up with a notable New Zealand born philosopher.
Meet the 21st century.
We have the Internet, mobile personal media, and we expect commentary to focus on what happened in the last few hours. Multiple media fight for our divided attention as we ( including us mere males ) multi-task.
We select media to match our opinions/desires.
We expect a commentator to be a bored expert talking jargon, accompanied by a media interviewer who translates the commentary into brief, digestible, media-bites.
We understand that human knowledge has grown, so we no longer trust any omniscient commentators.
Pablo – I was just responding to Leopold’s comment.
Why do we have no public intellectuals? I don’t know. Do I lament it? Certainly not.
Chomsky has some interesting ideas about intellectuals and he would be considered a public intellectual.
I pretty much agree with a lot of Chomsky on this. I detest the distinction between intellectuals and non-intellectuals.
It’s because New Zealand is a pretty conservative society. The Anglo societies are all like this to some degree or other, with Canada being the least worst off. The free market ethos extends to beliefs, which are to be evaluated as a matter of personal taste rather than any relation to reality. Take a survey of undergraduates and you will be shocked at how many of them believe in a shallow form of epistemic relativism (you would also be surprised, as I was, at how many elderly people believe similar things).
In New Zealand, if you aren’t following the line of the business round table, you are a “wrecker” or a “moaner”. Rational discourse has little place in New Zealand society and has been replaced by the invisible hand of the market, so it is no wonder that there are no intellectuals.
Look, if you tell people that they are individual snowflakes and that they are free to do whatever they want as long as they can get others to go along with them, you thereby create a society of sophists. That’s what we have. There’s no reasonable hope of changing it.
wasnt there a chap at NIWA?
You will just have to fill the role until we get a home grown one Pablo. ;)
From the Copeland link
\This biography of an British philosopher is a stub. \
Whilst obviously intelligent not sure he is prolific enough. Dutton whilst obviously prolific is not adding his own detailed opinions, simply regurgitating
imho Bassett qualifies, as does Trotter despite inconsistency. Ralston has commenced on the path.
Morgan and Hickey are both making money which highlights the difficulties for intellectuals these days and all through New Zealands short history, they need to earn their crust rather than get patronage.
btw From wiki
did not manage to embed that
Intellectual” can be used to mean, broadly, one of three classifications of human beings:
An individual who is deeply involved in abstract erudite ideas and theories.
An individual whose profession solely involves the dissemination and/or production of ideas, as opposed to producing products (e.g. a steel worker) or services (e.g. an electrician). For example, lawyers, management consultants, educators, politicians, and scientists.
An individual of notable expertise in culture and the arts, expertise which allows them some cultural authority, which they then use to speak in public on other matters.
To me the distinction between intellectual and non-intellectual is a division of labour, nothing more. Just as engineers play with notions of force, motion, energy etc., so do intellectuals play with ideas about the social order. In the latter measure they should be involved in public policy debates the way engineers should be heard on bridge-building.
I disagree with the notion that just because knowledge is more readily accessible to the average person it is no longer necessary to have “intellectuals” as leaders of social debate. It is true, as Gramsci noted, that there is a “little philosopher” inside all of us, and the dissemination of popular knowledge is, as Freire posited, a contested space in which status quo and counter-hegemonic ideas collide, but the current wave of knowledge dissemination is as much a vulgarisation as it is a refinement. It does not advance knowledge per se–it just spreads it more thinly across a wider human surface area.
Put it this way: Reading about a subject on wikipedia, for all of its pretensions, does not substitute for, say, reading de Touqueville, Machiavelli, Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, St, Augustine, Rosseau, Hobbes or even Gramsci (or Bobbio or Crocce, since I am partial to Italian political thought). Sure, you can get the gist of what they thought, but it is filtered by someone else’s interpretation. Just as reading in translation is not the real thing, so is reading short-hand sketches of different types of social thought, political theory and philosophical analysis no substitute for doing the hard yards and reading them directly. (And mind you, one does not have to go to University to do so. Just a little intellectual curiosity and a thirst for knowledge for its own sake is what makes for an organic, as opposed to a traditional, university-trained intellectual).
Hence, I still see a role for public intellectuals in the modern world, and as I mentioned in a comment above, there are societies in which this role is valued. NZ is just not one of them.
If it’s just a division of labour than that’s fine to me to some though it seems to be more.
You seem to have a low opinion of people Pablo. The dissemination of knowledge is not just a vulagarisation. It is genuine dissemination. If people are interested they will go from reading wiki to the original texts. I’ve read de Touqueville, Machiavelli, Rosseau, and Hobbes (horrible man). I was doing a political theory course at the time, but I’ve read lots of work unrelated to any particular course just through a desire for knowledge. And with my education both insitutional and self and my interaction with such people I’ve learnt not to have an elitist view, to question the opinion of any so-called intellectual and value the opinion of people who are not considered intellectuals.
The engineer should be heard on bridge building, the mechanic on car repair, but public policy is one of those areas where I think everyone should be heard.
You misread me if you believe that I have a low opinion of people. In fact the people I have a low opinion of are pseudo-academics and academic managers who trade favours and use old boy networks to advance themselves at the expense of real scholars.
I do agree with your last statement but again, the focus of the post is on whether there are public intellectuals in NZ, not whether other voices should be heard as well.
Yeah, I’d say there’s a lot of public intellectual in Michael Bassett and Denis Dutton. I’ll recant my Nat bashing and add Simon Upton to the list too, as well as Colin James. We’re a nation of part time tinkerers.
Apirata Ngata was pretty good in his day too.
Pablo – Fair enough. I can’t say that there are public intellectuals in the same manner as there are in the other places you mention. It depends on whether you consider the likes of Chris Trotter or Gareth Mogran public intellectuals. I don’t know that it matters. Maybe we should ask do we have public debate at a, I don’t know how to phrase this, high enough intellectual level? To which my answer would be; probably not. However, I wouldn’t ascribe that to a lack of public intellecutals.
Intellectuals are like the mafia; they only kill their own.
– Woody Allen, Stardust Memories
Pablo – a question. I’ve read that the pressure on tenured academics these days to publish is intense. Whereas once they taught, and maybe had time to talk to a wider audience, nowadays academics have also been sucked into the cult of managerialism and accountancy. Any truth to that, or is it just an excuse for inaction?
Denis Dutton is a public intellectual, but he’s not a New Zealander, isn’t anywhere near the mainstream of New Zealand politics, and constantly hectors New Zealanders to be more like Americans. I don’t agree with his politics, but he’s a hell of a nice guy in person (and his students tell me as a teacher) and an asset to public discourse.
But he’s not a New Zealander.
There is no such thing as tenure in NZ academia. They pay lip service to it, but as my situation illustrated, you have no job security if academic managers want you out (note the last round of forced redundancies and retirements announced a week ago). You can be a full professor and still be asked to leave.
Academia has always been a “publish or perish” business, so teaching has always been the unfavoured child in the equation. That got worse with the introduction of PBRF. Now university administrators want lecturers to do podcasts, use Powerpoint, do remote learning exercises and even, at last count, employ Skype to undertake teaching assignments, all the better to get them back quicker to the ‘real” business of securing external funding that will allow for research and writing. They prefer to reduce course (and disciplinary) offerings and make requirements easier at all levels in order to increase bums in seats in any given paper, and have worked hard to add a variety of administrative tasks and other bureaucratic exercises to the academic staff workload.
Note that academic bureaucrats are more interested in the external funding application success rate than the research product itself, because the success rate is attributed university-wide while the research product is attributed to the individual author. Thus academics find themselves embellishing their research credentials (heck, I was urged to include newspaper opinion pieces in my last PBRF report!) and minimizing their teaching commitments in order to satisfy managerial demands.
Moreover, academic managers are less interested in the quality of the educational experience than in the amount of revenue generated by it. Although there are exceptions in certain professional schools, the overall effect is to promote grade inflation rather than high standards.
What is ironic is that many of these academic managers have either never been in a teaching role themselves (and sometimes not even in academia prior to their appointments), or gave up teaching in favour of university administration because it was easier to do.
The ultimate irony is that, with the NZ salary structure being what it is, it is very hard to attract or keep serious intellectual talent in academia unless the person involved has a personal interest in Aotearoa. And even then, the managers have the last say on who and what is worthwhile in the academe, and that includes speaking out of turn on matters of public import. The impact on academic freedom has been chilling.
Thus public intellectuals, if there are any left, will have to be increasingly drawn from outside traditional academic ranks because the talent pool is diminishing or fearful of retribution.
Sorry for the long response–it is a touchy subject for me.
In many ways, the idea of a stratum here in NZ of public intellectuals akin to, say, the products of that complex of universities, ecoles, journals, salons, newspapers, parties and historical interplay thatt marks French intellectual life, is difficult to comprehend. Mass and history are important dimensions. In a population of 4 million, the incidence of people sufficiently unfettered by other concerns to be able to foster that public debate is likely to be constrained. It also makes sense to me to reflect on an intellectual dependence on the colonial power (in living memory sending exam scripts from universities here to the UK for marking) which has constrained domestic intellectual independence. Universities still, for example recruit about 50% of academics from overseas. Many of founding figures in debate here were from overseas (with mixed loyalties) whilst home-grown intellects – Rutherford, Phillips, Mulgan, Mansfield, etc etc – made their mark, often, overseas, with NZ almost an afterthought. One could go on, but it strikes me that part of this discussion should reflect positively on the domestic and international contribution made to intellectual debate, both ‘public’ and professional by NZers.
A second general thmes is to note that there is far greater engagement with, for example, Wellington policy-making than some understand. Where there is somethong usefulto say, public policy agencies will, generally listen and engage. Again, the olicture is somewhat more positive than presented above.
One could go on…..
What an excellent post. I would love to see this topic widely discussed.
Two things I think. First, the pressures on academics have changed since “the good old days”. While not as uniformly bleak, the academic in my whanau would certainly recognise the pressures that Pablo (at 9:05pm) describes. There seems to be little time for contemplation, and a top down “corporate” mentality that doesn’t encourage individuals to speak out (or heaven forbid use the wrong letterhead).
Second, there’s a particularly nasty streak that runs through NZ culture, and is in the ascendant right now, which is (among other things) vigourously anti academic. Consider how often the Labour party is pilloried for being made up of academics (and unionists and so on). While I think that more academics should be prepared to confront this head on in the forum of the traditional media, I can certainly understand why not many of them seem to engage on blogs. Any academic (of an opposing view!) is immediately written of as a useless out of touch ivory tower dweeb with no knowledge of the real world and sucking on the teat of a state funded salary. Substantive points are ignored in favour of attacking the messenger. Who needs it? There are always other calls on valuable time.
But anyway, I’d join the call for more academics to be speaking up on matters of public interest. As for blogs, I bet some do comment on them anonymously. But not many.
When trying to get more tuition from the same money increased workload is inevitable. If New Zealand is to raise its long term productivity it needs to raise its academic game.
This probably means formalising at a governmental level the sort of Google standard that has guaranteed 20% own projects/research per week. My guess is that 40% own research would be about the maximum realistic balance.
Psycho milt has an interesting post this week. There is dumbing down in the education system and if the aim is quality over quantity change needs to occur in funding with visible and informed discussion between academia, taxpayers via the government and business.
Framing the discussion on those lines rather than “poor overworked academics” is likely to be more fruitful.
On academic bashing there are a significant number of extremely vocal left/progressive voices. There are few if any vocal right supporting academics.
So dont take the bashing personally, it is just noise
Call me un-PC, but our attitude towards academics is the same attiude that the Red Gaurds had towards ‘counter revolutionary capitalist roaders’ during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
Yes, I agree there is no mass murder, no reeducation camps, no public humiliations, but the underlying attitudes are the same.
(mind you there are probably Fed Farmers members in Ekathuna who are chomping at the bit for the chance to have the heads of the Auckland University Women’s Studies department in the town square head shaven with defamatory placards round their necks.)
You’d have to be nuts to want to be a NZ academic. When I return to NZ I will not be applying for academic jobs because what’s the point? The pay is crap and the managers do nothing but meddle. At least where I am now I get left alone.
Marilyn Waring, although her contribution to public debate has been largely overseas.
Sorry to disappoint you, Pablo.
NZ tele- and radio-dons: Bob McCroskie, Larry Baldock, Michael Laws, Greg O’Connor and the bloke from the Road Transport Forum.
Seriously: Colin James is always worth a read
Kim Sterelny is one of the world’s leading philosophers of mind, and spends half his time in Wellington. Not born here, but that’s a petty distinction.
It genuinely saddens me that this is the case. I quite literally sit in a corridor in Australia with 5-6 leading public intellectuals, people called upon to speak on subjects of importance here and overseas. They do so without concern for the opinions of their employing university. It’ll take a while to get that back in New Zealand.
She definitely counts. She’s left for Canada, unfortunately.
I’d say Jane Kelsey also counts on that score. I am absolutely sure that Auckland University would nobble her if they could find a way to do so. If she wasn’t such a strong academic in her field of law, she would have been booted.
Marilyn Waring is based in the Institute of Public Policy, AUT University, Auckland. Although she seems to spend a lot of her time overseas…
I’m glad to hear she came back.
Only vaguely connected to all of the above, but what the hell archie
Chris Trotter – arguably our most important contemporary public intellectual – has entered the debate on his own blog by posting his own review of the Laurence Simmons book. see:
Great post Pablo,
Things are certainly a great deal better than they were in the late-1970s, when anti-intellectualism reigned supreme, in the form of the then Prime Minister. The idea of someone with Helen Clark’s background and obviously intellectual approach being a long-serving PM would have been unthinkable at that time.
Then, some of the most effective intellectuals such as Chris Beeby operated largely out of the public gaze. Bob Chapman is another one who comes to mind in this respect, much as he enjoyed the opportunity to have his soundbites aired. His influence on the thinking of a generation of labour politicians was and continues to be profound, if unremarked. Exceptions included Bill Sutch, and the Ritchies.
I don’t know whether we can discern a “tradition” of public intellectualism, though. In the 1890s W.P. Reeves, Edward Tregear et al. held sway, but to some extent they were enlightened amateurs and borrowed extensively from overseas. In this respect their recent successors arguably have been Gordon Dryden, Marilyn Waring and Mike Moore… On a higher plane, and more original, Bruce Jesson.
You can’t be serious!!!
Anyway, as regards public intellectuals, every pub has one. I was one at my old pub, replacing the much venerated Doc who eventually succumbed to his poison of choice (why do we hold our local drug barons, like the now expat Duggie Myers, in such esteem?) and ended up just rambling (and bouncing cheques).
Omigod, am I rambling?
Just how does one qualify as a public intellectual? I have heard Pablo, for example, on the radio waves – I used to make an effort to do so – but his views were so often, like Denis Dutton, so Usa-centric. One could ask why they left! I won’t.
Why don’t we start a Public Intellectual of the Day Award?
For today, I would nominate Michael Laws for an intellectually angry response to serious questioning of his understanding of Maori language by…a bunch a 11 year olds…So mature.
That’s not saying much. The days of “great philosophers” are long past us (not to say that Sterelny isn’t good at what he does â€“ philosophy of biology last I heard â€“ but the character of the discipline has changed).
But it would be a mistake to think that university professors are intellectuals. Most aren’t. Most I have known (and that is a lot) know a narrow subject quite well, but are all at sea if asked to make comments on general human life. Most of them aren’t particularly sophisticated people, truth be told. I’ve seen some horror record collections.
this is possibly an utterly irrelevant aside, but academic philosophy departments aren’t really where you’re going to find the great thinkers of the future. Academia is an industry these days, for the production of research into very narrow and arcane fields of knowledge. I still hold out hope (maybe a vain, romantic one) that our society will produce great thinkers in the future — but they won’t (probably) be academics; they will come from outside the academic world. Don’t forget that many of the greatest philosophers and intellectuals even of the past came from outside the hidebound institutionalised academic spheres of their own day — think Nietzsche, for example, who if he’d stuck to his career as a classical philologist would be long-forgotten today except perhaps among a few old academics in now-dying classics departments.
Perhaps academic institutions, rather than fostering interesting, original and challenging thought, are actually one of the most important ways in which it is stifled.
I think it’s become pretty clear that what this post is lacking is a definition of ‘intellectual’.
Reading between the lines for Pablo (if not for the rest of us) intellectual seems to simply mean ‘very smart and knowledgable person’.
Luc – There’s a good point in that ramble. If you want to get the opinion of an intellectual (and it’s just that an opinion one like any other which you should regard with a critical eye) just go talk to one. It’s not that hard in this country. Everyone knows someone who knows someone.
I am a bit surprised by the mileage this post is getting.
To me an intellectual is someone who works with ideas, whether or not they have commodified their labour in the institutional setting known as academia. A public intellectual is someone who uses ideas in the public space in order to help frame discussion about social issues, be they in the arts, sciences or politics. It is someone who can provide a reasoned overview of the pros and cons of any given issue area and, while perhaps siding with one or another interpretation at a given time, prefers to allow others to draw conclusions from his/her discussion of the issues.
As I have said before, and has been repeated by others in this thread, modern day academicians are not always intellectuals as much as they are technical specialists in a given subject area. I tend to side with the Gramscian view that there are traditional intellectuals–those schooled in academia and who uphold the social status quo, for which they receive material and social rewards–and organic intellectuals, who are those who, without the benefit of an elite education and formal studies in established disciplines, use their intellectual acumen to speak truth to power and reconfigure popular perceptions of the social order (the notions of an organic “good sense” versus an elite-driven “common sense” apply here). Of course, “black sheep” traditional intellectuals can turn on their academic and political masters in order to challenge the status quo (Jane Kelsey might be an example), but they are few and far between.
Luc: That was indeed a ramble. I would prefer not to be lumped in with professor Dutton for a number of reasons, but let it be noted that I left the US for 2 main reasons: 1) lifestyle choice; 2) I was fed up with the machine, having worked inside it for real change and seeing little during the course of three presidential administrations (Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton), at least with regards to my purported areas of expertise. The NZ experiment may have ended in a bit of tears for me, but it was still a good choice that I do not regret.
Oh, rubbish. Most of them, yes. But that has always been the case. My mentioning Sterelny was simply to reply to the claim that there are no high quality philosophers in NZ.
Take someone like Peter Singer, who has had a major public voice in Australia, and now the US, on a range of public issues. His contributions to the current US healthcare debate have been widespread and well received.
I have some sympathy for the argument that public intellectuals no longer exist in New Zealand, but that is because I feel that the ‘public’ part of that has been shut out to them, but to claim that thinking is dead is itself a very lazy conclusion.
That definition is hugely vague. It could, for any given meaning of ‘ideas’, include all film producers, journalists, novelists and of course professional politicians.
You now appear to be purposefully obdurate. Of course the definition could cover artists, poets, novelists, journalists or politicians (and many others). But it would not cover all of them, and of those that might be included, few will have an impact on public debate. Both the post and the thread have explicated the reasons for this at some length, so perhaps a re-read would clarify the issue for you.
I still wonder if many here are still living in the 20th century.
Some of those suggested above carried large agendas and were/are seldom impartial or balanced. Most of their pronouncements were irrelevant to my daily life.
People expect advice of specialist experts because of the complexity of their environment, and will wait for the disputing experts to agree on a course – eg climate change debate. A public intellectual will contribute little to that cut and thrust battle.
Peter Singer is not a great philosopher in the mold of Kant or Wittgenstein. I’ve met him, and he would be the first to admit that.
Not really. An intellectual is a lover of ideas, someone for whom ideas intrinsically matter much more than they do to most people (the western concept is essentially defined by the Platonic dialogues). Such an attitude is often not helpful in an academic career (although sometimes it is). When I first went to university I hoped to be taught by cultured, intellectual people with a genuine interest in ideas in the broadest sense, but most lecturers I had would have been indistinguishable from accountants if you took away their specializations. The broad and elevated interests and competence required to be a genuine intellectual are rare commodities.
Al Gore and his Nobel Prize disagree.
That Gramsican distiction is a good one. I must get around to reading Gramsci.
Ag – Is Al Gore an intellectual? Either way I think Al Gore’s done more harm than good to the environmental movement.
Following on from Chris Trotter republishing his review of “Speaking Truth to Power” on his blog, I’ve now republished the book review that I wrote for Political Science journal. It’s here:
That Nobel prize went to the IPCC and Al Gore.
The credible entity was the IPCC, Al Gore was tokenism.
He has contributed very little meaningful commentary, unless you happen to believe that ” Inconvenient Truth” was a useful contribution to climate change science.
Bruce and QtR,
I think Ag’s point is that An Inconvenient Truth, scientifically flawed as it might (?) be, was the thing which broke anthropogenic climate change into the political/intellectual mainstream and made it an issue ordinary people (and consequently, orthodox politicians) had to care about.
The thing about public intellectuals isn’t that they necessarily make a great difference to science or some other specialised field, it’s that they make a great difference to society, through their ideas. Gore did that. Even if you don’t think the difference he made was very good, it’d be ahistorical to think it was unimportant.
I don’t think thinking is dead; I never made that claim. But I do think there is something to the notions put about by Ag and others that modern academia tends towards the technocratic rather than an active participation in the public sphere. I still don’t think there’s an adequate definition of what constitutes a ‘public’ intellectual in this thread, but surely one part of the definition must be that they participate in public debate (and, to some degree or other, are listened to).
Whether or not Al Gore thrust climate change into the public spere is debatable. The inaccuracies of his pop doc, his egocentricity, the hypocrisy of his personal excess, and the environmental record of the Clinton administration have provided great fodder for climate change denialists and skeptics. The issue is mostly settled for scientists, but for the public it’s not and part of the blame for that can fall on the likes of Al Gore. Thankfully he’s become increasingly irrelevant to the climate change debate and a laughing stock.
I disagree, it’s no different to Gore “inventing the Internet”. Gore wasn’t discussing the difficult issues intellectually, he was promoting himself as a reborn saviour preventing a future apocalypse. When he had the power, he was ineffective in promoting climate change issues.
Will you also rate Keisha Castle-Hughes for the sterling equivalent work she recently performed in NZ, without the nauseous grandstanding of Gore? She tried to assimilate, and stick to, scientific truth.
I rate her activity as more honest, and people finally focussed on what she said, not who she is – despite the fact she was first chosen because she was a celebrity, but subsequently has shown personal integrity.
In this thread, I detect a lot of people who feel that we ( the hoi polloi ) don’t give intellectuals due respect, but it’s like trust – earned, and also usually associated with integrity.
QtR, it may not be settled for the public, but prior to AIT, the public didn’t even think about it. But I suppose you can argue the counterfactual that science would have prevailed if you like; I don’t buy it.
Bruce, if he didn’t invent the Internet, why are they called AlGor-ithms?
But seriously. The thing I’m getting from your comment is that you don’t want Gore admitted to the hallowed ranks of the Public Intellectuals because you disagree with and/or despise him and/or disagree with his motives. My essential argument, without wedding myself to Gore’s cause, is that those aren’t good enough reasons. Anyone who goes out on a limb is going to attract haters and people criticising their motives, but that mustn’t disqualify them.
As to Keisha Castle-Hughes – I posted on the topic recently. Summary in the context of this post: public, but not an intellectual. Conflating her and Gore on superficial grounds is unnecessarily obtuse.
Yes. He would be a good example of a public intellectual. His book “The Assault on Reason” demonstrates so. He is a terrifically smart guy, who believes he must stay informed, isn’t shy about remedying his own ignorance and who publicizes his findings in a way that most people can understand.
I think Al Gore has done more than any public figure (at least in the US) over the last 30 years to publicize the environment. I don’t buy all this Republican mudslinging. Gore has been promoting environmental issues for decades, and he actually was one of the politicians who helped promote the internet. People complain about Al Gore when he does exactly what politicians are supposed to do.
Lew – AIT only came out three years ago. It may be just my memory, but I seem to recall that climate change was in the public consciousness well before then. A cynic might say he merely capitalised on it.
Ag – You always characterise any dissent as Republican or neo-liberal. A lot of criticism has come from environmentalists as well. Al Gore has been an advocate for environmental issues, but the trick is trying to match the rhetoric to reality. You can’t say that the Clinton administration had a stellar record when it came to the environment, better then their successors no doubt, but not great.
I’m surprised how quickly my comments been characterised. Al Gore is a distraction…
I read the IPCC 1st Assessment in 1990, and 2nd in 1995, but have struggled with the sheer size of 3rd and 4th, reading only the Executive Summaries.
At least the last two are free, the earlier ones weren’t – more democratization of information in the 21st century. I admire anyone who knows climate change science is easy or simple, to me it isn’t.
Keisha Castle-Hughes may not have impressed you, and perhaps I’m easily impressed. Then again, Al Gore also authored An Inconvenient Truth – which severely tarnishes his lustre in my eyes.
The reason we should change is not because 100s of scientists, or even Al Gore, say we should, but because it’s sensible.
We don’t need fossil-fuelled 2000 kg vehicles to transport 100 kg people, or many of other accoutrements that we selfishly accumulate.
We don’t even need public intellectuals to advise or berate us, all we need are alternatives that work and match our resources and expectations. We would change.
This may sound like heresy, and I have already mentioned bloggers, but it strikes me that Peter Cresswell makes for a very good public intellectual. I do not agree with most of what he says (I do like the art and architecture), but he is is expansive and thorough in his coverage of a multitude of topics (even if her prefers to concentrate on a few). He likes to use vulgarity, which to me is a negative, but then again in NZ society that makes him even more palatable–plus he likes beer rather than that cheese eating surrender monkey drink of choice.
Now, if he would only get more public exposure–why see or hear DPF, Hooten or Cam Slater on the audio-visual media when you can get the real deal in PC? A public affairs show debate on TV or radio with PC and one of the Left intellects out there could be well worth watching/listening to, perhaps even worth paying for.
Pablo – I agree. I don’t always agree with PC, but I do agree with him on a range of issues and I don’t mind the vulgarity.
Before the election there was a good series of debates hosted by Oliver Driver between Matthew Hooten and Chris Trotter on Alt TV. We could certarianly do with more of that. Alas Driver’s sunken to morning television.
Vint Cerf — you know, Vint Cerf, Turing Award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Google CIE — and Robert Kahn — ditto ditto — supported Al Gore on that; the claim that Al Gore claimed to `invent the Internet’ was a complete lie peddled by a Wired reporter and the RNC; Al Gore did in fact take the lead in Congress promoting the Internet.
This is really quite an important point; the entire Gore/internet thing was just nonsense. And yet it keeps poisoning the discourse. And in this case it really is just lying Republican lies from a party that specialises in lying. I mean, I’m sorry Quoth, but the reason Ag is calling them Republican lies is because in fact, they really just are lies, from the Republican Party.
Keir – Did I even mention the internet thing?
You said that Ag kept on accusing everything of being Republican etc; it turns out that most of the attacks on Gore really are Republican etc. I didn’t think you brought that one up, but it is quite interesting just how much of this stuff comes from the RNC.
It was a digression from the Internet thing, which I mainly argued about because it really is all lies, and Bruce seemed to think that off-handedly mentioning it was anything other than very revealing.
Keir – I don’t care about Republocrat infighting :) I don’t care what the Republicans say I don’t read it. Gore has been criticised by people from all sorts of political backgrounds. Take for instance this piece in the socialist worker: Al Gore’s less-than-peaceful past. An excert:
So, in other words, when Ag pointed out those were Republican lies (which yeah, they really were) and you said `o you always say that’, you actually didn’t have a clue if they were right or not? Um, yeah.
Because in fact, `his personal excesses’? A Republican lie. His hypocrisy? A Republican lie. His `laughing-stock’ism? A Republican lie. Etc etc.
Cresswell is good friend of Lindsay Perigo and often quotes him – Perigo makes Glenn Beck look sane and he has openly suggested assassinating Obama. He runs a kind of Timothy McVeigh Finishing School at http://solopassion.com. Hence guilt by association comes into play.
Peter will never be on television or in the MSM.
It is because I did not read them from Republicans. So those at the socialist worker and those environmentalists I read they’re all just Republicans in disguise. His personal excesses are just a fact of reality (he does try very hard to be green about those excesses though). Environmentalists have criticised him on these very issues. His hypocrisy – do you know anything about his time as VP? Again environmentalists have made this point and the point is made in that socialist worker article. Him as a laughing stock – well I do have a television.
Can’t you just accept that criticisng Al Gore (a cottage industry) does not make you a Republican and that people from all manner of political view points criticise Gore. It’s the point I made in my last comment and why I provided a link to a socialist website. You actually don’t have an argument past don’t criticise Al Gore.
According to the interview transcript on Wikipedia, Gore said ” During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
It’s apparently unreasonable ( and “lying” ) to interpret that as “inventing the Internet”?.
I suppose immaculate conception probably is a good alternative theory for the Internet origin.
Look, my dear man, there’s you, and then there’s Vint Cerf. I do apologise, but I’ll go with the man who wrote TCP/IP.
I do have an argument: criticisms of Al Gore arise out of the Republican Party in the main — and note that in the case where the criticism has been utterly documented — the internet case — it really did arise out of the RNC — and that if you don’t know what the Republicans are saying, which you have yourself admitted to, you really shouldn’t try arguing about the Republican or otherwise nature of the criticisms. Admittedly, you may have an opinion on the truth of those claims, because that is independent of the origins of those claims, but in general they are false, and to be honest, if a collection of Leninists are willing to attack Gore I do rather incline to like Gore more.
Keir – Just because I don’t directly read the work of Republicans (do you?) doesn’t mean I don’t know what they’re saying. Socialists, environmentalists, pacifists, libertarians, etc would all have different reasons to criticise Gore than the reasons of Republicans. Their criticisms do not come from the Republicans. If you bothered to read that article you might see that they have very different criticisms of Gore. Lenin called my position the infantile left, but that doesn’t mean I’m dismissive of the views of Leninists (I don’t know that the writer is), but you seem to be automatically dismissive. At least we know you’re open to criticism and not a factionalist.
Look, again, there’s a difference between arguments that emerge from the RNC, which must be judged on their merits, and then again claims as relating to that which is the case. The first, I am quite open to; the second, well, look, Betsy McCaughey is not a reliable source. And it is that that you relying upon.
(And I think you are trying to have your cake and eat it for I think that you are utterly inconsistent unless you yourself are a saint.)
Keir, QtR – Are you giving us an example of intellectual discussion, endless argument over semantics?
Gore said it, the Republicans hyped it, the Earth is round.
Keir – I ask you Keir, do all the criticisms of Gore’s record on the environment as VP come straight from the RNC? It is as I said in my original comment you must match the rhetoric to the reality and the reality of Gore’s time as VP is nothing to admire.
I know very well that the Republicans have made all manner of spurious claims about Gore and made hypocritical criticisms of him, just like Labour and National here. But one makes judgements based on facts and arguments and I think if you look at Gore with a critical eye and not rose tinted glasses you’ll see he’s no hero.
I’m not a saint Keir, but I’ll tell you this it is difficult not to have a small carbon footprint when you have next to no money and I’m sure it is difficult for Gore not to have a large carbon footprint when he’s so fabulously wealthy.
There’s an obvious distinction between Al Gore’s values and political beliefs and his ability to promote those beliefs in the arena of US politics. The Vice President (and even the President) cannot simply wave a wand and make good environmental legislation happen. There are always other interests to accommodate. I’m sure he wished he had done more, but the US political system is silly and reactionary.
That does nothing to invalidate the claim that, among politicians in the English speaking world, Al Gore has no peer when it comes to promoting public awareness of the environment. He’s been doing it for over 30 years. No other politician has done so much for so long to promote awareness of climate change.
Good Lord! I just looked at that site. Perigo appears to have gone completely barmy. Mind you, most Randroids end up like that. It’s no wonder they can’t see through that sad woman’s excuse for philosophy.
I was going to write about how the Clinton-Gore administration was instrumental in watering down the Kyoto Protocol from a strong instrument with strong targets to something considerably weaker. But that’s beside the point.
What Keir and others have done to illustrate is how the range of intellectual debate in this country, like in the United States, is usually very narrow, and framed within limited bipolar parameters. That those parameters usually serve a particular capitalist view of what is good for society is no coincidence. You’ll rarely see any of the members of major parties or the opinion-making media deviate from this.
What a fascinating thread and thank you for kicking it off pablo. It would seem from this discussion alone that New Zealand is in no shortage of intellectuals, but that rather our problem is encouraging-or allowing-them to become public figures. As many have noted New Zealand, unfortunately, is a deeply conservative country whose egalitarianism (motivated by the praiseworthy desire to abandon the oppressive British class system and instead develop a jack is as good as his master society), has helped to shape a deeply anti-intellectual country which in turn encourages would-be-public-intellectuals to stick to their ivory towers, business ventures, or to go off shore.
One needs only turn to politicians, who try and appeal to the â€˜average voterâ€™ by mimicking their aspirations, to see this. Michael Cullen was derided as â€˜pompousâ€™ for engaging his brain, Labour are routinely lambasted for being a bunch of â€˜teachers, unionists and academicsâ€™, meanwhile John Key (an immensely successful businessman) has gone out of his way to not only suppress his financial success, but to be packaged as a keen â€˜averageâ€™ kiwi joker in many other respects â€“ his lack of command of the English language (Afghanistanians, textes, New Ziland, etc) helping, not hindering, his public image.
Finding the â€˜solutionâ€™ to NZâ€™s anti-intellectualism (which assumedly is the root cause of the lack of public intellectuals) is always going to be bloody difficult but it may well have something to do with keeping the focus on building the â€˜knowledge economyâ€™ (rather than relying exclusively on agricultural exports and tourism) so that knowledge gaining and sharing grows as a commodity of worth. How do we do that? Well for starters we donâ€™t scrap research and development funds and incentives, reduce university budgets and staffing, encourage â€˜publish or perishâ€™ academia, or drastically under fund government science.
Didn’t some bright spark once say something like we need the nutters to reassure ourselves of our sanity?
Look, the Al Gore thing isn’t that I think Al Gore is anything other than a proper paid up member of the imperial ruling class etc, which, by the way Mr. Darroch, you can take your patronising `oo you’re a tool of the capitalist etc’ and shove it where the sun don’t shine because you really don’t have a bloody clue about my rhetorical position here, but rather that the many of the particular allegations people make about Gore are basically lies. (Or parodically inconsistent. And that’s ignoring the hair-shirt voluntarist ones.)
And yet they still keep circulating; it seems to me that’s a reasonably big problem with the discourse in this country/anywhere, certainly as big as the fact that we have no public intellectuals.
(There’s a lot of Crooked Timber posts on the intellectuals problem & see especially John Quiggin’s latest & of course the Sciallaba seminar.)
Cheers All, for the good discussion (albeit with the tangent on Al Gore). I have been away for a few days and am pleased to see the thread prosper. I do have to laugh, though, at the fact that when I write about something of substrantive interest (to me anyway), I average a few dozen page hits and a couple of comments. When I ruminate on the state of NZ intelligensia, I get hundreds of hits and dozens of comments. Maybe I need to do a post on NZ’s community of closet intellectuals…
it seems to me thatâ€™s a reasonably big problem with the discourse in this country/anywhere,
Yep. Any argument about how we shouldn’t listen to/respect x because ‘x does y which is inconsistent with her statements about how society ought to be’ is anti-intellectual. Innit?
I mean, if someone is talking about and critiquing society, then why should we demand that they exclude themselves from that critique, or demand that they lead before we listen. Surely it’s the ideas that matter and our intellectuals should in fact be making critiques that apply to themselves as much as society. If they are apart from society, and speaking in the second person at society they get accused of being ivory tower elitist know it alls. Can’t win.
I think intellectuals speaking in a ‘we do this, and it’s pretty weird/strange/immoral/less-than-it-could-be’ fashion are actually better.
On the ‘jacks as good as his master stuff’, I think the idea’s been corrupted a bit. As I was taught it, it certainly never implied that any idea was as good as another, but rather that ideas shouldn’t be judged by the social/economic status of the speaker. Workingmen’s clubs used to have pretty good libraries and the right to a free public education was fought for precisely because jack deserved the opportunities of his master.
Please try to keep up with NZ science fads, “knowledge economy” is so passe, now we have “innovation”.
I know a billion NZ dollars isn’t much these days, but that’s roughly the amount taxpayers donate to research each year.
Other than ensuring unemployed scientists and researchers aren’t out on the streets unsuccessfully trying to mug little old ladies, there’s not many tangible benefits for taxpayers.
Competitive funding, introduced in early 1990s, was supposed to ensure research and development would align with NZ industries that valued R&D.
It would be nice if significant new industries had appeared, but they didn’t. However, the failure is fully accounted, there are more bureaucrats in science than ever before, and practical scientists have to keep feeding paper into their ravenous gobs.
The problem is not the allegedly-parsimonious government, but the blinkered leadership of the larger industries. This is not unique to NZ, when you set annual performance goals, strategies are written to maximise imminent renumeration for senior manager.
Innovation comes from smaller startups, but in NZ, many fail because the “managers” have grandiose visions and promise unrealistic deliverables. In the USA, venture capitalists keep a tight, well-informed, and controlling rein on their investments.
I don’t think we are anti-intellectual, what we dislike is well-paid people begging for, or taking, our hard-earned dosh, and spending it frivolously. We are selfish.
We buy imported goods, but still decry the collapse of local manufacturing – selfish yes, but also disparaging of anyone who points out the consequences our hypocrisy.
Another example, climate change is something other countries should address first, because NZ is a small country even though our per capita emissions are high.
Cullen was demonised by the opposition as an academic taker with no real world experience, and it stuck in the public consciousness – regardless of whether any of his policies were sensible/rational. People did not like his humourless, hectoring style, eg “rich pricks”.
There is no shortage of people with two braincells to rub together.
What is lacking is any public space within which to have any kind of debate. The media is a empty husk of what it was and can no longer provide the necessary platform.
I don’t know what will replace it. Blogs don’t really cut it.
This blog is doing a fine job of stimulating debate imho
If what you say is true than it goes to prove that there is room in the NZ blogosphere for informed opinion and civilised debate, as I mentioned in my post about blog etiquette. The point is, as Anita phrased it so nicely in our comments policy, that we can all sit down and calmly agree to disagree, as the case may be (sorry for the alliteration). We may believe that someone has his/her brain where the sun does not shine (thanks Keir), but a least we are not calling people F@#$ing A%^&holes or worse yet, bloody commies or fascists!
or worst of all – democrats ;^)
The sad thing is that many people who have attended university believe this. One wonders how they managed not to understand what universities were for, despite spending 3+ years at one.
To be honest, most left voting people I know have no problem with intellectualism, even those who would correctly be described as working class people. Anti-intellectualism in New Zealand is a right wing phenomenon, because the right know in their hearts that they will lose all the arguments (and they constantly whine about how left wing universities are), so the only thing to do is to stop arguments mattering.
I’m reminded of Ted Honderich writing in his biography about being asked to write a book on conservative political philosophy, and then finding, to his dismay, that nothing of substance existed. The Libertarians are about the only “conservatives” who have some decent stuff, and even Nozick ended up admitting that the welfare state was necessary IIRC.
Thats quite a nice touche to my democrats comment Ag and equally as jocular. Bait not taken.
How about Edmund Burke as a conservative philosopher? A pretty major thinker, I would have thought.
This post, and subsequent comments, say to me that various people â€œcoulda been a contender…â€ for the title; and that numbers of thoughtful bloggers think that we should indeed have public intellectuals despite the difficulties. Excellent.
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I have written two books (pub in America) on international human rights. They were written when I was in poverty and worse. No one has commented on my books and the mainstream media refuse to publish any of the hundreds of articles sent to them. I promote ethical human rights which is firmly based on universal human rights truth. As I see it academia is controlled by ideology. Whereas UDHR is meant to emphasise individual rights the ideology emphasises collectives which are concerned with crushing the potential of the independent people of New Zealand. I have exerised a duty to inform people of important human rights truths since I began promoting human rights in 1991 although I have slowed considerably over the past year. I am not sure whether I could been classified as a public intellectual – you can decide my blog is https://outsiderethicalhumanrights.home.blog.My second book which was very largely suppressed worldwide is provided for free (in sections) on my blog. In my view I found the human rights truth and my second book exposed truely major decisions made at the UN on 10/Dec/2008 which the mainstream media did not report.