School of thought: On the dangers of intellectualism

Eleanor Catton receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Victoria University of Wellington.
Kent Blechynden/Fairfax NZ

Eleanor Catton receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Victoria University of Wellington.

The recent uproar over comments by writer Eleanor Catton showed that there are still dangers in being a public intellectual in New Zealand. Some Kiwi thinkers talk about their experiences with Philip Matthews.

What happens when you lift your head above the parapet? You must be prepared for the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

"Public intellectuals need to be as tough as Special Olympics athletes," says David Rutherford, chief commissioner of the Human Rights Commission.

He should know. Not because he considers himself a public intellectual - in fact, he does not - but because he came to the commission after running Special Olympics in Asia Pacific.

Yet he knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of official opprobrium for speaking his mind. Despite being government-appointed, by then justice minister Simon Power, he has taken public flak from Prime Minister John Key and MPs Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee for his commission's stance on spying, Christchurch red zones and democracy.

Rutherford is in a rare, sometimes difficult position as a state-funded fly in the ointment. Critical public intellectuals? Despite excusing himself, he sees the need.

"While New Zealanders are pragmatists who value common sense I also think most of us know we need people who challenge our thinking and the status quo."

This need has become enormously topical in the wake of the response to writer Eleanor Catton's comments at a literary festival in India last month. Catton talked about New Zealand's "neoliberal" orthodoxy, the reluctance of our authors to pen manifestos, the general underfunding of the cultural sector and the tensions that come when individual artistic success is somehow "owned" by the rest of the country.

Key did not like it and criticised her tenuous Green Party affiliations. In an infamous segment on Radio Live, broadcaster Sean Plunket attacked Catton as "ungrateful" and suggested that state funding, whether it comes from arts body Creative NZ or a job at a tertiary institution, should buy the New Zealand government unquestioning promotion abroad.

Everyone with an opinion waded into the debate. Which was good and healthy.

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But a greater issue went mostly unexplored. Do we have public intellectuals? If so, who are they and how do they feel now about what they do?

So we set about identifying a dozen public intellectuals, some established and some lesser-known.

They were sent standard questions about whether they considered themselves public intellectuals, what the role involves, the risks of being public and their assessment of support from universities, media companies and the general public.

Only one declined. Psychologist and broadcaster Nigel Latta resisted applying the label to himself and opted not to join the discussion, as "I think this whole incident has been completely overcooked so I'll politely decline the offer rather than contribute to the already overboiled pot".

Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci defined intellectuals as those whose work is based on the possession and exercise of knowledge.

New Zealand writer Bruce Jesson said that the role of an intellectual is to be a critic of society as well as a servant of it and saw no difference between being a servant and a critic.

Gramsci and Jesson's lines appear in the introduction to Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, which is almost 10 years old but highly relevant to the Catton debate.

The anti-intellectual strategies of former prime minister Robert Muldoon, who mocked intellectuals as "snobs" and "ivory tower types", are close to those practised by Key and Plunket.

And when academic Laurence Simmons wrote in the introduction that "while we revel in the global branding of our sporting heroes, our adventurers or our show-business successes, we shrink from acknowledging the influence and legacy of our thinkers who question the way things are", he all but predicted the Catton story.

If the Catton furore had a prequel it was the art and media controversy around New Zealand's installation at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

The exhibition by the et al collective was repeatedly misrepresented in the media and as it was part of et al's art practice to not speak directly to media, misunderstandings accumulated.

Stung by the bad publicity, Creative NZ commissioned a major report and opted not to return to Venice until 2009. From now on, the "creative team" should include people with "recognised public relations skills", the report said.

The Venice report found that "one prominent New Zealander stated that the 'deliberately obtuse manifesto was hard to understand' and went on to explain that the New Zealand public like it straight up and down and are impatient with things that are perceived as too hard to understand". Anti-intellectualism was taken as gospel and applied as a marketing strategy.

As in the Catton story there was an idea that if the government has funded art, the artist is obliged to do positive tourism promotion abroad. Was Venice about art or New Zealand Inc networking?

That was under Helen Clark's Labour government but belittling of academics and experts has also been a feature of Key's government. Besides Rutherford and Catton, there was the time architecture writer and presenter Kevin McCloud was dismissed as "a tourist" by Brownlee when he offered opinions on the Christchurch rebuild. Leading academic Dame Anne Salmond was attacked as "shrill and unprofessional" and "high and mighty" by Attorney-General Chris Finlayson when she opposed spying legislation in 2013.

Even Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes was told to "stick to acting" by Key when she voiced an opinion on climate change in 2009.

But none of the previous criticisms generated anything like the coverage accorded to Catton. Partly this was because of Catton's international status as a Man Booker Prize winner, partly because she responded so calmly to her critics on her blog and partly because the conversation raised deep issues about intellectual discourse in New Zealand.

University of Otago politics lecturer Bryce Edwards thinks that Catton emerged with more fortitude than ever and that it was Sean Plunket who lost face. He sees the Catton story as a lightning rod for wider discontent about politics and the media.

Salmond, in her response to our questions, says: "Some fundamental matters act as flashpoints, where debate spirals out of control.

"This is partly because some groups with vested interests do not welcome public scrutiny of their activities and actively seek to suppress it. This happened in the Dirty Politics saga, for example."

Salmond believes that "the tone is set from the top". In attacks on Catton and some journalists, "the responses have been quite vicious and designed to damage people's lives and careers. The quality of public debate in New Zealand is increasingly nasty and that's a matter for concern."

Some of our media is courageous and some is obsequious to those with wealth and power. As for our universities, "they are increasingly required to dance to the tune of vested interests, from politicians to corporate funders". This is dangerous for democracy and works against creativity, innovation and the free flow of ideas, Salmond adds.

Economist Gareth Morgan dislikes the term "public intellectual" but concedes that he has been working in the public eye since 1982 and has lately enjoyed the luxury of applying his research skills and resources to subjects ranging from climate change, public health, fisheries management, tax and welfare, and obesity to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Morgan has estimated that five years of work on his Treaty book will have personally cost him $600,000 by the end of 2015.

"In order to educate myself I research and write a book and then share those learnings with the public at large, often starting a national conversation on the topic."

One great example was the national conversation Morgan started about the threat of cats to native birdlife.

And while others must wear criticism from politicians, media or the public, Morgan seems immune. He believes his experience as a public thinker has been largely positive.

"My experience is that the public love the conversation. Further, I find that when we become well-informed, the public is incredibly rational and balanced. Eventually it steers our politicians in the right direction."

Writer and investigative journalist Nicky Hager generously opened his discussion by listing others he would name as public intellectuals. The Dirty Politics author rates political scientists Bryce Edwards and Jon Johansson, economists Rod Oram, Bill Rosenberg, Brian Easton and Marilyn Waring and science lecturers Mike Joy and Nicola Gaston.

"There are plenty of people who will defend those in power," Hager says.

"My picture of a public intellectual is someone who is willing to challenge established interests and ideas on behalf of the public, and provide a counter narrative."

When Dirty Politics appeared, Hager was attacked as "a screaming Left-wing conspiracy theorist" by no less than the prime minister.

He says it is "sadly common" for those who speak on public issues and are attacked to then bow out of public life.

"Large numbers of people in New Zealand are pushed out of public roles and effectively lose their freedom of speech in this way. That is a large part of what Dirty Politics is about."

In Speaking Truth to Power, Hager argued that the "tall poppy syndrome" is the establishment's way of cutting down critics rather than the authentic response of the man or woman on the street. Not anti-intellectualism but "a punishment of alternative views".

He believes that New Zealanders are open to and appreciate the work of public intellectuals, even if they might not use the term.

"There is a wide appetite for intelligent discussion and ideas. But there seems to be little active support and the media in particular should do more to encourage them. The media could start using thoughtful and informed people for commentary instead of people offering celebrity and ignorant controversy."

Remember the incest gaffe?

Former ACT leader Jamie Whyte knows how it feels to be personally attacked for dissenting views.

Within weeks of assuming the party leadership, Whyte was ridiculed for his belief that the state should not intervene if adult siblings wish to marry. He quickly learned that what is acceptable for rational but politically naive philosophers is taboo for politicians.

Attracting ridicule is an inevitable risk, he says. Sometimes it is deserved, he adds.

Even the public intellectual label "rightly attracts ridicule because it is pompous and suggests that some kind of authority comes with it. None does. No one's opinions are worth any more than the arguments or evidence that supports them," he says.

"Vilification is also a risk. If you discuss sensitive topics, such as race, sex and religion, you are likely to upset people. Some will accuse you not only of being wrong but of being wicked. I notice a trend towards arguing not about what people have said but about whether they should have said it.

"Many people seem to believe they have a right to go through life undisturbed by being confronted with views contrary to their own."

So is New Zealand hostile to intellectuals? Not especially. Whyte sees that English-speaking countries generally have a healthy scepticism about public intellectuals compared to continental Europe.

"Politics is no more intellectually downmarket here than in the UK, US or Australia. Perhaps there is less commentary from intellectuals on TV but that mainly results from the lack of think tanks and similar organisations that aim to push ideas into the media.

"The lack of these organisations results from our small population. To put the matter in perspective, you might ask whether life is better for a public intellectual in New Zealand or in Kentucky, which has the same population."

Economist Eric Crampton is head of research at the New Zealand Initiative, one of the few local think tanks to push ideas into the public realm. Until last year he was in the Economics Department at the University of Canterbury.

As a graduate student in the US, the Canadian-born Crampton had consumed the work of the late Denis Dutton, one of Canterbury's best-known public thinkers who founded and edited the Arts & Letters Daily website. But when Crampton got to the university, he saw that Dutton's site seemed underappreciated "and even unknown to a lot of the people who worked there".

Like Salmond, Crampton feels that New Zealand universities often fail to fulfil a public role.

"Academia should serve as a repository of knowledge, a generator of new knowledge and transmitter of both of those to students and the broader public, " he says. "The current funding model, through the Performance Based Research Fund, can do a decent job in encouraging the generation of new knowledge, but I think that has come at the expense of the other two functions. A lot of what we have known about the world is being forgotten as academics specialise ever more deeply into their particular niches."

University of Auckland law professor Jane Kelsey has a pessimistic view of public debate.

"Commercialisation of the universities, the replacement of academic collegiality and governance with corporate management and performance incentives based on raising research funds have made it hard for critical academics who are not already well established."

Proposed laws to tighten government control over university councils will only make that worse.

Both Hager and Kelsey worry about where the next generation of Left-leaning public intellectuals will come from and what will support them. Hager looks to those writing on blogs rather than in the mainstream and names Mark Rickerby, who wrote an online essay "Land of the Wrong White Clowns" in response to the attacks on Catton.

Giovanni Tiso, Morgan Godfery and Scott Hamilton made their names as bloggers at Bat, Bean, Beam, Maui Street and Reading the Maps respectively and have turned that into punditry on Twitter, in the mainstream media or in international journals, such as Australia's Overland.

The theoretical barriers to contributing to debates are almost non-existent, Tiso says. Anyone can start a blog or open a social media account and get immediate access to the public sphere.

"I am fortunate to be in a position to talk freely about most things, as I don't have to fear for my personal safety or my employment, " says Tiso, a self- employed writer and translator. "The rewards of having a public voice have so far outweighed the risks. It may not always be that way."

Like Hager, Tiso sees Dirty Politics as a valuable record of how critics can be silenced or attacked by those in power. And if there is anti-intellectualism in this country, it is probably institutional and cultural as "both our university sector and our media are small and highly corporatised, and therefore struggle to express critical, independent voices".

Or as Morgan Godfery puts it: "Local universities spend their time fussing over the publishing record of their academics. It's a narrow-minded measure and excludes a proper assessment of an academic's public impact. The puzzling thing is that while universities are educating more students than ever they're also becoming more insular than ever."

Godfery has personal doubts about the public intellectual label. Edward Said? Susan Sontag? They were public intellectuals. He settles for the more humble "public thinker".

But whether an intellectual or just a thinker, he or she must act as an engaged citizen.

"That means acting as the critic and conscience of society, but outside of the privileged realms of the literary festival or the lecture theatre, " he says. "Public intellectuals should engage with the public on the mediums and in the language the public use. That doesn't mean moderating your ideas, it merely means presenting them for public consideration."

Scott Hamilton says that while "the Key regime has been more or less at war with intellectuals", the Clark government's relatively sympathetic attitude to the arts and universities sometimes insulated it from the criticism it deserved.

He admires earlier public intellectuals like Judith Binney and Roger Neich and also reveres working-class intellectuals like RAK Mason, Hone Tuwhare and Elsie Locke who had blue collar jobs, organised study groups in workplaces, lectured in trade union and community halls and wrote in their spare time.

"These working class public intellectuals believed that in a democratic society every citizen should take an interest in and contribute to intellectual debate. I agree with them.

"As the great Tongan public intellectual Futa Helu said, a democratic society is a society where everyone minds everyone else's business."

 - The Dominion Post

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