The article popped up everywhere on social media yesterday. Alecia Simmonds’ piece for Daily Life describing the country as a "vast, sunny, intellectual gulag" clearly struck a nerve.
"In contrast to France," she argues, "where philosophers often grace the covers of Le Monde, and England where Slavoj Zizek writes regular columns in The Guardian Weekly. In Australia, we have Peter Hartcher on anti-Gillard autopilot and the bile-flecked bleating of shock-jocks like Alan Jones."
Now, it’s easy to idealise other cultures. In philosophy-loving France, a recent poll seeking the most popular woman in politics gave second place to Marine Le Pen, a fascist. Britain might have The Guardian but the paper carrying Zizek’s ideas and opinions claims about 10 per cent of the circulation of The Sun, the paper built around sports results and page three pin ups.
Nonetheless, the local media landscape does seem peculiarly barren and particularly hostile to theory. Most local pundits are highly educated (journalism’s well and truly a profession rather than a trade these days) but eschew aggressively any reference to books, theorists or intellectual traditions.
The disdain for overt intellectualism is, of course, codified in the cultural anti-elitism that has been a mainstay of Australian life since at least the nineties and that now seems on the cusp of a new iteration, exemplified by Nick Cater’s inane book The Lucky Culture. Hence the resonance of Simmonds’ piece, connecting with a generalised dread on the liberal Left as to what’s about to come: an incoming government, led by a Rhodes scholar, yet fostering a renewed contempt for scholarship.
As Simmonds suggests, in reality, academics earn much less and under considerably worse conditions than most of the pundits accusing them of elitism. We don’t know what Messrs Cater, Ackerman and Bolt earn but it’s safe to say they’re not slumming it on the salary paid to a contract lecturer. Simmonds writes: “In a bizarre twist of logic exemplified by the short-lived Rudd mining tax, Australians have come to see elite multinational companies as having the same interests as the everyday person and academics as haughty public menaces.”
How is this possible? Well, unfortunately Simmonds’ piece exemplifies precisely the hauteur that allows anti-intellectualism to build a popular base.
“My problem is not,” she writes, "that our public sphere harbours ill-educated members (like the imbecilic Andrew Bolt who never made it past first-year uni)."
Sorry? Anyone who doesn’t possess a university degree is an imbecile? That would be some 60 per cent of the working population, casually dismissed as moronic. Going to uni might not, in and of itself, make you a member of an elite. But class, ethnicity and geography still play a major role in determining access to higher education. It behoves progressives – particularly those in academia – to remember that there’s plenty of very, very bright people out there who never attended a university but who nonetheless might have something to say.
Yet throughout her article, Simmonds equates (implicitly and sometimes explicitly) "thinkers" with academics – as if anyone outside higher education were entirely incapable of abstract ideas.
Take the passage above. Andrew Bolt an imbecile? It might console those on the Left to think so but the notion’s entirely ludicrous.
In reality, Bolt’s a talented prose writer, adept in the tabloid genre. He’s a powerful speaker (as anyone who has seen him ruthlessly destroy academic critics in public debates would know) and an extraordinarily effective populariser of ideas. Andrew Bolt is conservative and many of his ideas are repellent. But it’s ridiculous to call him stupid on the basis of how many university degrees he does or doesn’t possess.
Now compare Simmonds’ description of Australian academics.
"Academics may also not want to enter public debate. And I can understand why. Firstly, they receive no rewards in terms of career advancement for writing for the public. And secondly, many may not want to engage with a knife-drawn public prone to Goldstein-style Two-Minute Twitter Hate Rituals. Academics are often timorous folk who specialise in showing the complexity of issues, not offering tweet-sized solutions. Social media doesn't democratise debate. It limits it to the resilient. Snark triumphs over insight, and commentary is reserved for those with voluminous folds of scar-tissue. Sensitive thinkers rarely fit this bill."
Academics don’t want to engage with public debate because it won’t advance their careers – and also because people might say mean things about them. They’re sensitive, don’t you know!
Does this not perfectly exemplify the problem with the liberal Left? Rather than fighting the Right, liberal academics want to be treated like philosopher kings: protected from snark and richly rewarded any time they deign to comment on public events.
Instead of dismissing polemicists like Bolt, the Left might do better to ask why we lack anyone of a similar calibre. Simmonds praises Slavoj Zizek. But, in the public sphere, what distinguishes Zizek is not his scholarship about Hegel and Badiou but his persona as a provocateur and his willingness to fight for his beliefs – in, dare we say it, a very Bolt-like fashion.
It’s a tradition that the Australian Left seems to have entirely lost. Think back to Hazlitt and his condemnation of "sensitive thinkers" who refuse to battle for ideas that matter. "They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked," he says, "tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse."
Zizek gets that. How many Australian academics do?
The problem’s not simply a matter of temperament. It’s also a question of ideas themselves.
In the late nineties, Mark Davis’ polemic Gangland identified the coterie that dominated opinion-making in Australia. Ten years later, he revisited the argument.
"Many of the figures who stood out in 1997 as playing a disproportionate role in Australian cultural life by and large continue to do so. Kerry O'Brien, Robert Manne, Peter Craven, Phillip Adams, Christopher Pearson, Anne Summers, Helen Garner, Richard Neville, Keith Windschuttle, Ray Martin, Clive James, P. P. McGuinness, Germaine Greer, Piers Akerman, John Laws, Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes, Alan Jones, Gerard Henderson and George Negus are still out there, setting agendas, demarcating standards, creating much of the intellectual and cultural climate. Whatever they breathe out becomes the oxygen of Australian cultural life."
While Davis’ argument was generally publicised in terms of generationalism, the "gang" he identified was best defined by age so much as by a shared insider sensibility: a collective commitment to a set of political, social and cultural ideals, so normalised as to be almost invisible. That is, then as now, mainstream opinion in Australia coheres around certain key points: an orientation to power and the powerful; an acceptance of the free market; a hostility to the extremes of the Left and the Right; and an enthusiasm for middlebrow culture (and a corresponding opposition to either the crassly commercial or the overtly high brow).
The insider mentality has remained largely stable, though perhaps trimming rightward with the general conservative drift of the last decades. Further, it has, contrary to what some expected, survived generational renewal, particularly through the digital revolution. Most media outlets have now added younger writers, who, by and large, share the unspoken assumptions of their older colleagues but occasionally swear and talk about Twitter.
Where do the "thinkers" identified by Simmonds stand in respect of this consensus?
They are, almost by definition, more open to cultural innovation. Furthermore, academics often retain a commitment to a liberal ideas abandoned outside the university, generally supporting, for instance, a multiculturalism that’s no longer as central to the insider identity as once was the case.
Other than that, though, it’s hard to see much of a difference between the consensus shared by respectable pundits and that espoused by respectable academics.
Again, consider Zizek. The communism he proselytises might not be fashionable in the media – but it’s scarcely hegemonic in the universities either. Not only does Zizek fight but he puts forward ideas to fight for. By contrast, too many intellectuals seem more interested in getting a place on the table than in struggling for a fundamentally different kind of menu. Where are the academics denouncing the neoliberal consensus or arguing for radical democratisation or a break with the US alliance?
Ideas don’t have to be unpopular. It’s perfectly possible for intellectuals to build public support, even for complicated theories. But if you want to do that, you need, first and foremost, an orientation to the public instead of the powerful. That means, rather than dismissing everyone without a degree as a moron, finding ways to present your ideas so that they resonate with the experiences of ordinary people. It also means – particularly in the context of an Abbott administration – accepting that your interventions will be met by hostility by the government and its media loyalists.
Above all, it means adopting a certain humility. The Abbott government is far more likely to be threatened by the actions of blue collar unionists, many of whom will never have attended a university, than by the fulminations of academics.
Progressive intellectuals have, in other words, as much to learn as they do to teach.
Trotsky once described the magazine Partisan Review as "small cultural monastery, guarding itself from the outside world by scepticism, agnosticism and respectability". Unfortunately, that’s the model embraced by too many academics: the university as a place where they can hide away from the public realm. Well, it’s not going to work. To butcher another Trotsky quote, academics might not be interested in public affairs but public affairs are interested in them – especially with a change of government. The intelligentsia spectacularly failed to mount much in the way of resistance during Howard’s long reign. Let’s not make the same mistakes in what lies ahead.
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