Smart thinking: NZ's public intellectuals

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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A new book wonders why we have so few public intellectuals. But who are these pointy heads, asks Mark Broatch, and do we need them?

Apparently, we don't care very much why we are who we are.
"New Zealanders have for too long been indifferent to the sources of ideas about their own society and historical experience," says Dr Laurence Simmons.
Simmons, a media studies lecturer at the University of Auckland, is the editor of Speaking Truth to Power, a book due out this month in which "public intellectuals rethink New Zealand". These public intellectuals, most of whose names will be familiar to thoughtful readers, rethink by way of essays, interviews and roundtables.
I'm not sure we are indifferent to our ontological origins; more we've had the difference beaten out of us. Different is dangerous. Bill Pearson wrote in his famous Fretful Sleepers essay in 1952 of those who go to university that "`Being different' in New Zealand means `trying to be superior'. I know of no other country where this is so."
Articulacy is also a dubious skill.
"The New Zealander suspects anyone who is sure with words; he thinks it is either glibness or showing off."
We have never been particularly good at criticism, either. In a hand- wringing book from 1992, New Zealand in Crisis, philosopher David Novitz felt that rationalism itself was under attack as a result of recent societal and political changes. An "openness to informed criticism and a willingness to adapt one's policies in the light of criticism are a mark, not of weakness, but of rationality". And despite what is apparently a visceral dislike of relativistic notions being taught in our schools and universities, we often believe our truth is as valid as anyone else's.
We are anti-intellectual. Gordon McLauchlan, in his 1976 lightly satirical portrait of us, The Passionless People, says "what saddens me is that our society is so strongly anti-intellectual and particularly anti-academic that no progress is being made towards excellence, quality". Our anti- intellectualism was around in 1952, in 1976 and it's alive and kicking intellectuals as we speak. Simmons, synthesising a body of earlier thought, attributes it to pioneers "favouring pragmatic action over thought and imagination". The development of a richer public culture has been further denied, he suggests, by the corporatisation of our tertiary institutions, the financial challenges of intellectuals working freelance, and the reduction of serious forums for debate.
Yet in 2003, McLauchlan wrote in a newspaper column that an anti- intellectual attitude among New Zealanders might be no bad thing because it reflects our "historical reverence for common sense".
A good thing, you might agree, but, as Antonio Gramsci - an intellectual by many people's estimations and one who had much to say about their role in society - said, common sense changes.
"Common sense is not something rigid and stationary, but is in continuous transformation, becoming enriched with scientific notions and philosophical opinions that have entered into common circulation."
We may be anti-intellectual, but are we anti intellectuals? And what is a public intellectual? The names in Simmons' book are there to be argued: James Belich, Sandra Coney, Brian Easton, Bruce Jesson, Marilyn Waring, Nicky Hager, Lloyd Geering, Ian Wedde, Roger Horrocks, Ranginui Walker, Andrew Sharp, Michael King, Stephen Turner, Jane Kelsey. For Auckland academic Turner, the public intellectual is "not passive, received or reactive", rather the work that is done is "activity of questioning and reflection without limit". Public intellectuals clearly confront dogma and orthodoxy. Drawing a ring around smart, articulate iconoclasts is no easy matter, however. If PJ O'Rourke is one, as I read last week, then John "Fred Dagg" Clarke definitely is.
We may be too late in trying to circle our intellectual wagons anyway. Simmons notes that the age of the public intellectual might have passed. He's backed up by books such as US judge Richard Posner's recent Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline, and UK professor Frank Furedi's Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? They would suggest we have missed both the rise and fall of this elusive species.
Have we missed much? There has been something of a sea-change in our broader culture in recent times. Whereas once on the rugby field we were dutiful destroyers, unsmiling assassins, trotting back from the tryline with barely a glance to our team-mates, now every try is celebrated by a passionate embrace. We used to dislike show-offs, but that was before reality TV. We were once a society of reluctant talkers, grudging mumblers. Now you cannot shut us up. It has been said that we will bend over backwards to allow an opposing point of view, but not give an inch on the roads. Perhaps our cars are real-world avatars for the aggressive, overconfident, thin-skinned people we are underneath.
But if we accept that we are emotionally more open on the sports field, more able to show our glories and failures, should we not be able to argue as passionately for the ideas we believe in?
The book notes our abiding cultural cringe, our continuing genuflection in the presence of overseas experts, our tall poppy syndrome. The latter, I feel, is too often used as a smokescreen by the marginally talented to avoid criticism, but the first two are still clearly visible in our debut-de-siecle cultural life. We dislike theory, the book argues, yet we are often swept away by the first new idea that comes to town. Hence our acceptance of Rogernomics, a second-hand theory that might have been better challenged and modified had we a more rigorous critical culture and more public intellectuals, the book suggests.
Despite our reluctance to talk, New Zealanders have a strong desire for plain speaking. Perhaps our anti- intellectualism is partly fuelled by the dual notions that intellectuals have things to say, but speak in impenetrable cant, or that the gobbledygook hides a paucity of real or useful thinking. The whole intellectual enterprise wasn't helped a decade ago when an article written in the densest po-mo prose was printed in a serious journal. It was called Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The author later revealed that the article was a complete fabrication, and wrote a book, Intellectual Imposteurs, which claimed that postmodern theorists had performed many dangerous scientific sleights of hand.
Few would mourn the loss of unreadable, irrelevant theoretical works. This book, which is written in quite readable language, is as it turns out a trojan horse for the real problem: the minuteness and diluted nature of public intellectual life in this country. For sure, it is present, and it is sophisticated. We read a lot of books, go to cultural events, fill literary festivals, listen to NatRad and Concert. We read serious papers and websites. Some of our popular culture has depth and real meaning. But we largely do this in isolation. And we are swamped by cheap foreign material, from the high and the low. And too much local culture is debased by the commerciality it needs to survive with such a small population. How much compromise is too much when we subsidise the creation of culture, through grants bodies and NZ on Air, for instance? The book argues that our insistence on work that is "accessible" ensures almost everything we produce is middlebrow.
As the ad says, it's good to talk. Just getting these thoughts out there has value. But the book's weakness, apart from its overdramatic title, lies in its selection of candidates. Most of its contributors are pale, middle-class liberals from Auckland's academia. A few are from Wellington. Where are the right-wing intellectuals? The South Islanders? The non-Pakeha? The poets such as CK Stead and Brian Turner? The artists? Simmons says he asked far more people than appear. They declined, for various reasons.
If there is real desire for debate on the subject, Simmons should tell us who he asked. And he should ask his contributors if he can put the videos of the interviews he conducted on YouTube, or at least on the University of Auckland website. That might connect a few more lonely dots on our intellectual landscape.
* Speaking Truth to Power, edited by Laurence Simmons (Auckland University Press).

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EIGHT REINFORCERS OF ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM

1 SMALL POPULATION. In larger countries intellectuals may be "a beleaguered minority but still have enough critical mass to be a force to be reckoned with".
2 ISOLATION. Air travel and the media help here, but NZ is a long way from the main centres of intellectual and artistic life.
3 EXODUS. The brain drain of some of our most talented individuals may have eased of late, but awareness of opportunities has probably increased.
4 RURALISM. We are probably prouder of our nature than our culture.
5 PIONEER SOCIETY. There is more respect for things rather than ideas, the practical over the intellectual, than in the countries from which our ancestors came.
6 COLONIAL ATTITUDES. Side-effects of consuming far more culture than we produce include cultural cringe and excessive respect for overseas experts.
7 PURITANISM. The battle against censorship had many implications, not least for the gay and lesbian communities.
8 EGALITARIANISM. Its traditional strain here lends itself easily to anti-intellectualism.
(This is an edited list from Roger Horrocks' chapter in Speaking Truth to Power.)

- Sunday Star Times

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