Monday, July 30, 2007

'Media Republics: Intellectuals Strike Back'

To be or not to be a Republic? Until the election of a Liberal government in Australia early in 1996, this question seemed indissolubly linked to the fortunes of a Labor government and to former Prime Minister Paul Keating. But the Howard government, realising the issue would not just simply vanish and that it was not the exclusive preserve of politicians and political parties proposed the establishment of People's Convention in 1997 to deliberate on the matter.

If the motives of politicians in having a debate about our political system are reasonably obvious, far less so are the motives of another group in the community with an arguably even stronger vested interest in the matter. This group are the intellectuals. More than any other group perhaps, intellectuals have the most to gain from current discussions.

The image of intellectuals in the media in this country has long been a poor one. Most writings on intellectuals in Australia make it a point of honour to comment at length on the phenomenon of Australian 'anti-intellectualism' and the difficulties intellectuals face. Indeed, it has been a noble tradition since the early days of the colony to lament the barbaric lack of refinement, lack of culture, lack of respect and concern for ideas, and to top it all off, there is that one overwhelming presence: a general and deplorable political apathy. A cynical observer might be moved to remark that some at least of these complaints could be explained by a frustration with the manifest lack of power and prestige granted those of an intellectual persuasion in Australia. In recent years, however, there has been evidence of a slight thaw in hostilities, to the extent that on rare occasions the word 'intellectual' appears in an almost favourable light in the print media. Unfortunately for those concerned this thaw has come too late, as elsewhere in the Western world that intellectual party whose distant glory has been so coveted by their Australian counterparts has been declared not only guilty but positively moribund. Numerous articles and even books have appeared on the 'death' of the intellectual and on the question of guilt, nowhere is this described so well as by Michel Foucault in an interview published anonymously in 1980. He says:

I have met many people who talk about the intellectual. And from listening to them I have come up with an idea of what this animal might be. It is not difficult, the intellectual is guilty. Guilty of practically everything - of speaking, of remaining silent, of doing nothing, of meddling in everything. In short the intellectual is prize material for a verdict, sentencing, condemnation, exclusion. (Foucault 1980: 1)
An examination of the now substantial international literature on intellectuals reveals that they have indeed committed multiple crimes. First and foremost, they have abandoned politics. As one Australian commentator, Dennis Altman, remarks for example: 'One of the areas where depoliticisation is most marked is in intellectual life; the old concept of an intellectual responsibility to engage in social and political issues had been largely replaced by a kind of super academicism reminiscent of mediaeval scholasticism'. (Altman, 1992: 24) Secondly and no less culpably, having spoken so abundantly on political matters in the past, intellectuals are now taxed with the gravest errors of political judgment, as the Marxist odyssey demonstrates to one and all (after the fact of course!) The third crime of which intellectuals are guilty is the obscurity of their language. Their shortcomings on this front have been much attacked in recent times and unfortunately often with good reason. Altman quotes Robert Hughes (from an article published in June 1989 in the New York Review of Books) writing of intellectual faddism.