Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Public intellectuals, and other enemies of elitism

[In the aftermath of the debate about Eleanor Catton's criticisms of the Key government, the Christchurch Press has published a long and thoughtful article by Philip Matthews about public intellectuals and their place in New Zealand society. When he was researching his article, Matthews sent a short questionnaire to high-profile intellectuals like Nicky Hager and Jane Kelsey, as well as to dimmer lights like myself. Matthews has quoted a few of my responses in his article, but here they are in full.]

Do you consider yourself a public intellectual? 

I am a public intellectual because I do intellectual work that I try to relate to public issues. I research and write about the history of culture and ideas, but I don't want my research to be of merely historical interest. If I study New Zealand's nineteenth century, it's partly because I think that the events of that time, like the attempts of New Zealand to build a Pacific empire and the wars between Pakeha and Maori, are of relevance to the twenty-first century. In the same way, if I write about a great cultural figure of the past like George Orwell, it's because I think that figure has something to tell us today. 

What does the role involve? 
I admire many public intellectuals who have worked inside New Zealand's universities and museums, like the late Judith Binney and the late Roger Neich, but I also revere men and women like RAK Mason, Hone Tuwhare, and Elsie Locke, who worked for long periods in blue collar jobs, organised study groups inside their workplaces, gave lectures in trade union and community halls, and wrote important things about New Zealand society and its history during their free 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. 
What are the risks of the public role? 
The public intellectual risks being misunderstood by both intellectuals and the public. Intellectuals who are content to work within their chosen fields, without relating their research and writing to contemporary issues and debates, can sometimes consider public intellectuals a little vulgar, because of the way we try to popularise ideas and offer opinions about political issues. On the other hand, members of the public can perceive an intellectual who jumps into a public debate as some sort of elitist, who thinks his or her opinion is automatically more valid than those of ordinary mortals. 
In some ways both of these responses are understandable, even if mistaken. Specialised scholarship is very important - without it, we would not have the facts and theories that are raw material for informed discussion of our world. And the Kiwi suspicion of intellectuals is often related to an egalitarian irreverence - a refusal to consider that qualifications or wealth or bloodline makes one person's opinion automatically better than another's - that is preferable to any form of snobbery. 
I'd like to convince anti-intellectual Kiwis that public intellectuals are the enemies of elitism, rather than its exponents. Public intellectuals want to storm the palisades that separate intellectuals from the rest of society, and spread knowledge and debate. The way to defeat intellectual elitism is to create more public intellectuals and more public intellectual debate. 
It is unfortunate that Eleanor Catton has been condemned by some commentators as an elitist, because her own words show that she believes in the wide dissemination of knowledge and the democratisation of intellectual discussion. In an article published last year, for example, Catton celebrated public libraries as places where New Zealanders could, regardless of their class background or educational qualifications, encounter ideas and develop their understanding of the world. Catton called for New Zealand governments to build many new public libraries; an elitist would never make such a demand. 
Do you feel NZ supports its public intellectuals? Do our universities and media encourage them?
In New Zealand and elsewhere, intellectuals have to steer a course between marginalisation and cooption. New Zealand intellectuals know all about marginalisation. Censorship was widespread in New Zealand until the 1960s, with classics like Defoe's Moll Flanders as well as works of contemporary literature like Jean Devanny's bestselling novel The Butcher's Shop being targeted by the cops and courts. Our writers and artists were sometimes treated brutally, because of their failure to conform with cultural and mental mores. Frank Sargeson was prosecuted and sent to internal exile in the King Country; Janet Frame was almost lobotomised; Ian Hamilton was thrown into prison for years. 
The recent experiences of Nicky Hager and Catton show that New Zealand intellectuals can still suffer excoriation by the media and the government, and even persecution by the police. But intellectuals also face the danger of cooption. A desire to maintain access to universities and funding agencies can tempt us to pull our punches. The Key regime has been more or less at war with intellectuals, but the Clark government's relatively sympathetic attitude to the arts and to universities sometimes seemed to insulate it from criticism it deserved. 
I remember helping, as a member of an anti-war group, to organise a protest outside a meeting that Clark held with Auckland's art community in the city's main public gallery. It was a month or so after 9/11, and New Zealand troops were in Afghanistan, acting as spotters for George Bush's air force as it carried out an extraordinarily heavy and reckless bombing campaign - a campaign that has since been estimated to have killed five thousand civilians. My fellow anti-war activists and I found little enthusiasm for our placards and leaflets from the painters, art teachers, and curators who had come to see Clark: they were preoccupied with thanking her for the additional financial assistance she was giving the arts sector. Public intellectuals must guard against that sort of cooption. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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