15 May 2013

Why Andrew Bolt Is Not An Imbecile

By Jeff Sparrow

What allows anti-intellectualism to build a popular base? Forgetting that plenty of bright people never attended university. Jeff Sparrow on what it takes for a culture of ideas to thrive

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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CanDoh
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 14:35

"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.'

I think you're missing the change in Australian public life that has happened since Abbott knifed Turnbull.

The Coalition, led by Cory Bernardi, in partnership with the IPA and the Murdoch press, have imported the tactics of the Tea Party. In a nutshell, their process is simple: every single time you open your mouth you must say something aggressively disparaging about your opposition. It doesn't matter what it is, it doesn't even have to have the faintest hint of reality about it. You simply attack, attack, attack.

It's effective, but the damage it has done to public life in this country is horrific.

The question now is what do we do about it. Do we accept this is how public life is now in Australia and get in the gutter with them to fight it out? Do we choose another tactic? Or do we withdraw, horrified by the nature of the battle?

I think that's the question many people are grappling with at the moment.

Enjoyed your article, thanks.

aaron
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 14:47

It is not that Australian's dislike intellectuals it is more so that they dislike stupid ideas. For example Australians most likely opposed the mining tax because they thought it was a stupid idea to have a tax with no revenue certainty and put all the projected receipts of that tax into general spending. They also understood that the tax would discourage growth in the sector and that while you can have too little tax you can also have too much tax. As the budget and recent cancellation of mining projects shows both points were proven correct.

Australians also see through other liberal left ideas like the human rights act, carbon tax, excessive welfare as just pointless symbolism not required, ineffective and harmful. But when smart, logical ideas are proposed like disability insurance or even perhaps gay marrigage Australians are prepared to support. Though I wouldn't say the liberal left has ownership of either of these ideas.

It is also annoying that some think that to be intellectual you have to be of the liberal left. There are plenty of intellectuals on the right who command much more respect and produce much better ideas. Sometimes being stuck in academia results in you loosing touch with the real world. Maybe these intellectuals should ask themselves whether they can learn something from the real world.

alecias
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 15:55

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for this very thoughtful and interesting response. I have a few things to say in return:

1. My argument was not that France is progressive. I never stated this. I simply said that they have more academics involved in public debate, evidenced in France Culture (a state funded radio station devoted to intellectual debate) their newspapers like Le Monde and Liberation and their television, seen in Arte.  I make no claims to their popularity, simply their existence - which I see as a good thing. Progressive social change is going to require more than having researchers involved in public debate, but it's a good start.

2. You were right to point out the snobbery in me linking Bolt's stupidity with his level of education. It was an unnecessary swipe. But I remain convinced that he's an imbecile and as evidence I could offer you the multitudinous instances where he has racially vilified indigenous people or simply gotten his facts wrong because he doesn't research his arguments. I would not deny that he's a good media strategist. But this does not make him a good thinker and I disagree with you lumping him in with academics in this regard. They are two different forms of cleverness and I am simply worried that the laborious, painstaking research that academics do doesn't get the attention it deserves. And I think Australia needs it. Also, you took that line out of context. Straight after I said that we need people from all walks of life involved in public debate - so I agree with your comment about the bright non-university educated people out there who have something to say. Of course.

3. As for academics not engaging in public debate because they're too self-interested... well, I think this is true of some. However, you should note that in the recent round of forced redundancies at Sydney University numerous academics who wrote mostly for popular publications were fired as these publications did not count as legitimate publications. To this extent,  I think that it is completely understandable for an academic with a family to feed to shy away from writing popular works. Blue collar workers are not the only ones who suffer because of poor labour conditions.

4. I focused on academics because of Gonski and then I broadened this out to discuss our culture of anti-intellectualism in general. To suggest that I say that only academics are capable of thought is wilful misreading.

5. Finally, academics didn't offer any resistance to Howard? Really? What about the black armband debate (which in many ways defined the culture wars of the Howard era) where academics from Anne Curthoys to Henry Reynolds to Dirk Moses spent years fighting against racist imbeciles like Bolt and Windschuttle?

Thanks once again though for your response - and you were completely right to pull me up on the implied causal connection between Bolt's imbecility and his education. But really, polemic aside, he IS a hateful moron of breathtaking proportions. I stand by the word 'imbecile'.

Dr Dog
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 16:00

Thanks Jeff for reminding me what is missing from my adult life. For years I could get a taste of informed philospohical debate at the pub just by engaging with any of the older gents hanging around. It appears that the working class intellectual has fled the scene.

These people weren't academics, yet they were well read and informed, and had an agenda that went well beyond an interest in advancing themsleves and their families. These are the wartime folk, the community minded and self sacrificing generation that set the middle class platform for the comfortable self interest of the Baby Boomers and their offspring.

I sympathise in your call for a progressive Andrew Bolt, although they would have to be prepared to maintain conservative-strength distain for others which seems counter to the standard progressive stance. They also would have to be anti-science and pro-rhetoric, just like Bolt himself. (In this sense at least Bolt actually is an imbecile, regardless of his clever and self important posturing.)

Aaron I think your opinion of what is stupid is a further victory of wind over substance and echoes the thoughts of Bolt himself. Your red herring about academics learning something from the 'real world' is a hackneyed regurgitation from your so called 'better thinkers' of the right. An example or two of these right wing thinkers that have apparently produced so much quality would be appreciated, if just as grist to my mill when replying.

CanDoh has it right when he talks about the horror felt by engaging in this war of hate, unleashed by the Coalition and supported by the mostly right wing commentariat. One of the most laughable things about Bolt's position is alluded to in Jeff's article, which is that Bolt tries to deride the left as elitists while engaging in the most appalling triumphalism.

What a turd.

Hythloday
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 16:15

What a great article. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.

I'm a bit disheartened by the continuation in the comments box of personal insults directed at Andrew Bolt. Charity and truth need not be opposed. But never mind. Apart from that, even the comments are thought-provoking. That's a pretty good way to measure an article!

jeff sparrow
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 16:17

Hi Alecia,

And thank you for the generosity of spirit in that response.

Best regards,

Jeff Sparrow

Homerjunior
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 17:22

The problem is most people "pick a team" rather than debate ideas. Tony for PM!

The Skeptic
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 19:05

Hi Alecia,

Over many years, I have learned that any sentence which is structured as "A but B", means you can safely ignore "A" and focus only on "B".

Hence your statement "It as an unnecessary swipe but I remain convinced he is an imbecile" indicates that your rage at Andrew Bolt is entirely the focus of your thinking.

What is the evidence? You say he has "racially vilified indigenous people".  When?  I've read the articles on which he was prosecuted and cannot see any racial vilification.  He has argued that people should be treated simply according to their own character and behaviour - and that race should not come into it.

What is so "imbecilic" about that?  I will be most interested to read your response!

Skeptically yours!

aaron
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 22:17

Dr Dog it is easy to name many ideas that originate from right wing thinking that have succeeded and improved Australia. For example free trade, floating the currency, GST, lower taxation, deregulation, the intervention, work for the dole, an independent reserve bank, privatization of Telstra, Qantas and the CBA etc etc.

Interesting these ideas have been introduced by both the Coalition and Labor, and both parties now support these ideas, they have become mainstream. The ideas proposed by the liberal left are generally recycled ideas from the past which have time and again proven ineffective, such as welfare without responsibility, keynesian economics and over regulation or they are feel good policies that will do harm but won't achieve their aims like carbon trading scheme taking into account only Australia but not the world.

I would say the word intellectual is used very loosely to describe much of the thinking of the liberal left. The majority generally get things right and I think the majority of Australians rejecting the ideas of the liberal left is defiantly the right move.

 

 

Stripling
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 22:25

Hi Jeff; As somebody who was a blue collar unionist and went to University I can totally identify with your artice.

Whilst in the workforce I heard the best rendition of "The man from snowy river"one rainy afternoon huddled about a fire tin from a Blacksmith who had his original trade and not one other piece of paper. He was also "Shorty Oneil's Flagbearer and his political understanding was better than anything I encountered in the University system.

I discovered for myself [the hard way] that every argument that was being had was merely a rerun of all the arguments that constructed the Original Federation-That is the Federation that Vadlimir Lenin looked at and scratched his head because he couldn't put a label on it, instead calling it "A union of farmers, industrialists, trade unionists and libertarian thinkers"

The 1930's were the turning point for Australia, the crucifixion of Jack Lang [who among ather things initiated Child Endowment] was soon forgotten when WW2 broke out.

Since then it has been some underlying premise that to get on you must be at least centre right, there was a brief gust of fresh air in the early eighties but with the demise of Neville Wran the Hawke government lost its best ally and the notion that "The right has won" was endemic and still is.

"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."

I've cut and pasted that quote because it is something that needs to go on a billboard I wonder would Matilda readers like to chip in and fund it and would you mind being quoted? I'd be more than happy to arrange it at mates rates.

  "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."

I've cut and pasted that quote because it is the absolute truth, and I'm glad you reminded me of it.

Thanks for a thought provoking article.

svensky
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 22:28

Bolt is clearly not an imbecile.  He's clearly intelligent, and his writing conveys that.  What he is is an intellectually dishonest rabble-rouser.  He's seen a market for populism and makes a nice paycheck out of it.  

I'm not sure I'd call him "right wing" or even "conservative".  That's playing into the identity politics that he does so well.  I'd be very surprised if he even believes half of what he writes - after all, he is clearly intelligent enough to know when he contradicts his earlier positions, when he doctors charts, when he edits quotes to change their meanings and so on.

He's a highly paid, very talented troll for hire.

aaron
Posted Wednesday, May 15, 2013 - 22:40

Oh btw Alecias, I remember reading a previous article of yours titled the "Sexual Politics of Met."

This article included "such intellectual" quotes as.

"Eating meat is associated with male power in its most vile and repugnant forms."

"In rejecting meat, feminists – both women and men – are rejecting a potent symbol of patriarchal power."

"The ill treatment of animals makes the abuse of women tolerable. Following on from my first point, if men get to eat the meat, then women, alas, are consigned to the less savoury role of being the meat."

And this one below which really takes the cake.

"Feminists and vegetarians believe that the personal is political. Just as we tell male partners that the minutia of who unpacks the dishwasher each night really matters, so too do we need to remind ourselves that what goes into our mouths also matters."

So many jokes could be made by that last quote Alecia, but alas none suitable for this forum.

Look Alecia im sure your a nice person, but as your unintentionally comincal writing shows your no intellectual, sure you've been to uni but then again as your writing proves going to uni does not make you smart.

 

jasonwilson
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 02:12

This piece is a long way adrift of what's actually happening in Australian universities, and by extension Australian intellectual life - the two are still thoroughly intertwined, whether we like it or not. 

The points about the need for left intellectuals to stiffen their backs in intellectual combat and the folly of underestimating Andrew Bolt are both correct as far as they go. It's also true that the Simmonds piece wasn't fantastic, no doubt in part because the author is not experienced in writing for a newspaper readership. But Sparrow's response reveals a troubling ignorance of transformations in the university, which in turn mirror broader changes in white-collar professionalism. 

Simmonds mentions a lack of reward for public engagement. Sparrow interprets this as an selfish concern with career advancement. But academics without relentless forward career movement may find themselves without a career at all. They are ruthlessly assessed each year on their performance in areas that universities do prioritise in response to government policy. The top priorities are winning competitive grants, and the publication of peer-reviewed research.  As workloads increase, significant amounts of unpaid labour are required in order to meet these standards that the sector defines as a condition of remaining in it. They are forced to become utility maximising, rational professional actors, as a market discipline is imposed on them by managerialist administration, at the same time that the sector relies on their voluntarism and vocationalism to stay afloat. Of course, the thousands of casualised workers in the sector don't need to defend ongoing jobs, as much as they may like to, but they too are frequently are called upon to work outside their paid hours. And they also need to publish to even get a look-in at any ongoing job that might happen to come up. 

Is the main argument here, then, that they need to try a little harder and make more time to develop the specialist skills of public engagement? 

Of course, relentless performance review, formalised internal workplace competition and unpaid labour is the reality of modern white-collar, professional and service industry workplaces. Indeed, Andrew Ross has pointed out in scholarly works and elsewhere that universities have been the places where the labour relations and management practices of the new economy have been trialled. Labour politics needs to incorporate this understanding if it is to ever be relevant enough to build a majority coalition again. Australian academics have done the hard work of connecting Marxist and post-Marxist theories of contemporary labour with the lived realities of the Australian workplace, and have done so in accessible ways. This book about Australian workplaces was reviewed and well-recieved in the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Times. It was only reviewed in one Australian newspaper so far as I know. Was it reviewed in Overland? 

It's also the case that the most innovative thinking and forms of activism around contemporary work are brewing in universities, where underemployed or precariously engaged intellectuals, and indebted students are theorising their own posiiton in relation to changes in the broader economy. This is a global movement, and fed directly into Occupy and related developments like Strike Debt. Sparrow's expectation that blue-collar unions will ride to the rescue after Abbott wins ignores the reality of what conservative state governments have done on coming to office in the last five years: slash public sector workforces, and try to break their unions. Precarity for a huge cohort of white collar, health and service workers will be the most immediate result of an Abbott government. Meanwhile, the current chief preoccupation of the big blue collar unions is limiting the issue of 457 visas. Don't misunderstand me, solidarity across the workforce will be crucial in resisting what the Abbott government has planned. But thr Howard government wasn't broken by a confrontation with blue collar workers. The MUA made a deal. It did run into trouble when threatened the conditions of casualised workers in retail and service industries. Perhaps we need to learn from that? 

Zizek bulks large in this piece. He's a rich, globetrotting celebrity, who's managed his career with exceptional skill, and has "a place on the table" in many prestigious places and events, with research appointments at 3 European universities, and seemingly endless, well remunerated appearances at high profile festivals. but let's leave that aside. His prominence in the media is not because of a popular demand for his ideas, which are difficult, as are his sources and his context. It's because he's a reliable, oddly mediagenic performer. To implicitly contrast him with an Australian Annamarie Jagose, as Sparrow does, and suggest that the latter's ideas in any way approach "the consensus shared by respectable pundits" merely suggests that Sparrow hasn't made much headway with Jagose's work. The cargo cult of international celebrity intellectuals is a kind of counterpart to the middlebrow hostility to local voices. 

By far the oddest moment is where Sparrow himself becomes indistinguishable from respectable pundits, in claiming to speak for an "ordinary" public who would engage with academic ideas if only intellectuals were more attuned to them. The model then is of a pre-existent, given public that successively chooses to tune in or tune out to that which is broadcast at it, and who has some sort of average level of susceptibility to new ideas that we can pitch at. Academics apparently "hide away" from them, as if the contemporary university was a place to hide from anything. Elsewhere this imaginary crowd might be known as "the punters", who can't be reached from "ivory towers". 

But works assemble their publics. Sending out a work that might constitute a public requires a feat of political imagination. Publics are constituted by texts in circulation, as Michael Warner puts it. Our imagined publics must have some social basis, but they are multiple and changing. Most importantly, a text, even a difficult one - especially a difficult one, that challenges common sense - can constitute new publics in new ways. The success of identity movements demonstrates this. Sparrow wants us only to imagine one, inclusive public, which is essentially static in its capacities and in some senses immovable in its sense of the world. There's a reason that conservatives insist on the same thing. He also asks implicitly that we grant that the publics assembled by Overland or New Matilda have greater political traction or importance than the kind of material I've mentioned in this response, or are somehow secure places from which to assess what might politically matter. I think that that is, to say the least, arguable. 

 

jasonwilson
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 02:24

Oh also- many Australian academics address hundreds of students a week, their performance in which is also a matter of quantified assessment. I'd suggest that that might constitute evidence of a working capacity to translate difficult ideas, but that would be to endorse the logic of performance review. 

Dr Dog
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 08:03

Thanks Aaron, although I did ask about the writers and thinkers, not the ideas. I am more interested in philosphy than economics and it seems that the ideas you have named are successful only within the capaitalist structure favoured by the right. In this context they don't really represent any particular leap forward in thinking.

It seems a failure of both right and left (if Labor could be called such) that when I say society they hear economy.

With a mind to my previously offensive slur in calling Bolt a turd, I much prefer svenky's description of an 'inellectually dishinest rabble rouser'. Accurate and beyond reproach.

jeff sparrow
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 08:24

With the greatest respect, Jason Wilson's response seems an intervention into a debate he wishes we were having, rather than the one that actually took place.

He writes:

The points about the need for left intellectuals to stiffen their backs in intellectual combat and the folly of underestimating Andrew Bolt are both correct as far as they go. 

Well, thanks, I guess. But the grudging tone there suggests these were peripheral arguments or points that everyone simply accepted, when in fact they were the central issue under dispute.

But whatever.

He continues:

Simmonds mentions a lack of reward for public engagement. Sparrow interprets this as an selfish concern with career advancement. But academics without relentless forward career movement may find themselves without a career at all. They are ruthlessly assessed each year on their performance in areas that universities do prioritise in response to government policy. The top priorities are winning competitive grants, and the publication of peer-reviewed research.  As workloads increase, significant amounts of unpaid labour are required in order to meet these standards that the sector defines as a condition of remaining in it. They are forced to become utility maximising, rational professional actors, as a market discipline is imposed on them by managerialist administration, at the same time that the sector relies on their voluntarism and vocationalism to stay afloat. Of course, the thousands of casualised workers in the sector don't need to defend ongoing jobs, as much as they may like to, but they too are frequently are called upon to work outside their paid hours. And they also need to publish to even get a look-in at any ongoing job that might happen to come up. 

Is the main argument here, then, that they need to try a little harder and make more time to develop the specialist skills of public engagement? 

Now, no argument from me that conditions for academics are not great, particularly for those on short term contracts. As I said in the piece, that's why the attack on them as 'elites' is so risible and that's why there should be a material base for undercutting the distrust for academics to which the shock jocks appeal.

But the piece to which I responded contained the following passage.

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.

 Wilson's decision to make something out of this seems quite odd. Actually, there are almost no professions in which writing political articles (especially political articles from radical perspectives) for newspapers or whatever else brings rewards in terms of career advancement. The only possible exception that comes to mind is in the realm of journalism -- but even there taking a stand outside the mainstream consensus is generally a quick way to commit career suicide.

If you are a high school teacher, the stinging op ed you have published does not insulate you from the need to get your marking done the next day. Likewise if you are a building worker or employed on an IT help desk or whatever. All of those positions are under time pressure; in all of those roles political engagement comes on top of everything else they do.

Wilson accepts this. He says:

Of course, relentless performance review, formalised internal workplace competition and unpaid labour is the reality of modern white-collar, professional and service industry workplaces. Indeed, Andrew Ross has pointed out in scholarly works and elsewhere that universities have been the places where the labour relations and management practices of the new economy have been trialled.

In other words, the pressures academics now face are increasingly the norm rather than the exception.

I'm not saying that means academics should just suck it up. Of course we should oppose the insane drive to bring in grant income, the massive class sizes, the increasing reliance on short terms contract. Of course we should!

But the idea that the production of radical political polemics will somehow become part of a normal career structure is just silly -- and the insistence that this is necessary for radical engagement is actually kinda troubling. If you're a shop steward in most industries, you accept that the role will involve a great deal of extra work and quite possibly put your own position at risk. Nonetheless, thousands of people still take that risk, because it's intrinsic in serious attempts to change the world.

What seems to really get Wilson's goat is the following passage from my piece:

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.

To be honest, I do not understand why that is controversial: a suggestion, in response to a dismissal of the uneducated, that the most militant unions have often been blue collar.  Wilson writes:

Sparrow's expectation that blue-collar unions will ride to the rescue after Abbott wins ignores the reality of what conservative state governments have done on coming to office in the last five years: slash public sector workforces, and try to break their unions.

Sorry? Where did I say any of that? Pointing out that Abbott will go after the CFMEU, as one of the nation's most powerful and miitant unions, does not equate with expecting blue collar unions to ride to the rescue. Nor is it counterposed to an acknowledgement that the NTEU will also be under attack. As for the idea that intellectuals might have something to learn from blue collar unionists, I would have thought most NTEU militants would entirely welcome their colleagues adopting some of the traditions of solidarity that go without saying within blue collar unions. 

Again, for the life of me, I can't see why that upsets him so much. Does he really think university academics are the most militant unionists in the country and have nothing to learn from others?

Then there's the question of Zizek. 

Zizek was raised as an example of the intellectual culture tolerated in other countries, specifically Britain. He was contrasted with shock jocks like Alan Jones and, later, Andrew Bolt. My point was simply that liberal intellectuals have to get over their disdain for the crassness of Bolt, Jones, etc, and that, in fact, Zizek employs a variety of similar techniques in his public persona. I also mentioned that he explicitly identifies as an anti-capitalist.

I'm not holding a particular candle for Zizek -- I simply make those two points to contrast Zizek with the even-handed detachment which still seems the default mode for Australian liberal intellectuals.

Finally, on the question of the public.

Wilson writes:

By far the oddest moment is where Sparrow himself becomes indistinguishable from respectable pundits, in claiming to speak for an "ordinary" public who would engage with academic ideas if only intellectuals were more attuned to them. The model then is of a pre-existent, given public that successively chooses to tune in or tune out to that which is broadcast at it, and who has some sort of average level of susceptibility to new ideas that we can pitch at. Academics apparently "hide away" from them, as if the contemporary university was a place to hide from anything. Elsewhere this imaginary crowd might be known as "the punters", who can't be reached from "ivory towers". 

That's fine, and I take that point. But, as I said, he seems to want me to be engaging with a different article instead of the one to which I responded.  The original piece took for granted the notion of a pre-existent public and then suggested that this public should show deference to intellectuals. That was the claim to which I responded; it's also the claim that structures the first part of Wilson's response (where he talks about academics not having time to 'develop the specialist skills of public engagement'), before he suddenly shifts the nature of the debate.

Now there's interesting arguments we could have about what the public means and how publics might be shaped or created. But that would entail a whole different debate, and it's a bit rich to accuse me of not engaging in that, given the piece to which I responded. In particular, Wilson writes:

Our imagined publics must have some social basis, but they are multiple and changing. Most importantly, a text, even a difficult one - especially a difficult one, that challenges common sense - can constitute new publics in new ways. The success of identity movements demonstrates this. Sparrow wants us only to imagine one, inclusive public, which is essentially static in its capacities and in some senses immovable in its sense of the world.

I do not understand how he gets that from what I wrote, which was as follows:

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.

Compare the two passages and judge for yourself. Note, in particular, the scare quotes Wilson uses ('punters', 'ivory towers', etc) and how the words he highlights nowhere appear in my article.

I get that academics feel under attack. I get that it's a difficult time to be in a university and that it's only going to get worse.

But I don't think this kind of defensiveness helps.

Roger JJ
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 13:02

"racist imbeciles like Bolt and Windschuttle". Gee Alecia so now Professor windschuttle is an imbecile as well. And a racist as well. Is this the requirement to be seen as a true intellectual? The ability to slander and diminish those with opposing views?

EarnestLee
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 13:04

My thanks to Jeff for opening a fencing contest which is highly entertaining.

I agree that as much knowledge can be learn't in a Bar as from a Newspaper or a Television commentator. With the bonus that one of nature's gentlemen or peoples'princes may be present.

But where is the Leadership?? How can we get the Busines Achievers to assist in the National Discourse.

 

offer knighthoods?

Evan
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 13:47

Thanks Jeff, well said.

 

One piece of evidence for how much of an insiders view the Simmonds piece was - the complaint about academics being poorly paid.  Most of those on the dole would have a different view I suspect.

calyptorhynchus
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 13:49

I think Bolt is an imbecile, no matter how much money he makes, and no matter how sophisticated his techniques of populist rabble-rousing are. For that matter I think Zizek is an imbecile too, because he has written a large number of books and articles without ever quite managing to say simply what it is he believes in, or is putting forward ('post-Marxist' just won't do).

I say this, not because I'm angry, but because 'imbecile' (Macquarie dictionary "a silly person; a fool.") seems a good label: you are a fool if you pursue ignoble ends.

As for the rest, we have a post-democratic society where the corporations are increasingly constricting the traditional political space in the name of their war on the ecosystem we all share. People who point this out (intellectuals or not), don't fall into the category of 'meaningful' any longer, whereas entertainers like Bolt and Zizek do.

"No-one will study
A people
Eagerly bent
On annihilation." (Paul Huchel)

 

Candide
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 14:36

Roger JJ: '"racist imbeciles like Bolt and Windschuttle". Gee Alecia so now Professor windschuttle is an imbecile as well. And a racist as well. Is this the requirement to be seen as a true intellectual? The ability to slander and diminish those with opposing views?'

 

Alecia is half right Windschuttle, like Bolt, is an imbecile but neither is of the intellectual variety. They are moral imbeciles or to be more accurate - notorious bigots. The racist charge is all but impossible not to infer from the content and tenor of their writing and their general obsession Aboriginality. It is hardly a slander to make a rational observation based on their behaviour. It is in fact a moral obligation I would say. Perhaps she is, as Jeff suggested, living up to the edict of Hazlitt and "fighting tooth and claw" to defend a cause which is worth fighting for.

 

Liberal thinkers are expected to maintain fastidiously clean hands in combat and observe the Marquis of Queensbury rules while the fantasits of the neo-condom can roll in whatever illogical ordure they wish. Sometimes when one sees a spade one must call it a f***ing shovel and be done with it.

meski1
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 15:29

"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.

 

More that he tried and failed, perhaps.  That doesn't make those that haven't tried and failed, imbeciles.  You're trying to make the comment out to be elitist, and it is not.  There's plenty of other evidence that he's an imbecile apart from that, anyway.  

 

susieq777
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 15:56

Almost all of the apparrently good right-wing ideas you raise are about money and economics, Aaron. I guess that's why I'm still a screaming leftie

kevin47
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 16:23

I'm surprised that The Conversation has not been tossed around in this discussion. Academics with opinions (Michelle Grattan aside) online are a rare enough mob outside the economists and political 'scientists'.

The Conversation is a quality site with posts that often reach out to a wide audience. It's a bit worrying that it receives government funding. Wonder what you get for $2 million apart - can't say that it shows particularly on the tech side.

 

 

fightmumma
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 16:31

Hi Doggie - nar, I reckon Bolt more deserves the four letter word...

John Snow
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 17:58

I find these discussions about intellectualism tend not to get us very far (I have just read a book on the subject in relation to religion).

The big issue today in public communications is the level of deceit. Truth is the issue. Bolt, Jones, etc. spread deceit, in many cases, because they are deceived. I read somewhere that propaganda is typically aimed at the educated and is most successful with them (has that been contradicted by any research?).

Some prominent public figures actually do believe the science of climate change is fraudulent. In discussions about the wars the nation is involved in, the real reasons for the war are rarely mentioned in news or current affairs programs or articles. In commentary on economic decisions and finance-related events, the context of the way the (global) system actually operates remains an unknown for most.

Public discussion therefore tends to keep the public confused. There are very good intellectual commentators, people to whom truth is important, but the system tends to sideline them so that they are just another addition to the confusing mix; they are easily dismissed with the usual disparaging remarks.   

 

Maureen Goodin
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 19:47

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.

Melchisedek
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 20:14

As a now retired university professor who has taught in universities on three continents I must say that I find the facile manner in which Alicia brands other people as "imbeciles" rather disconcerting. 

It is the mark of a someone who is discourteous and so lacking in respect for other people and their ideas as to be profoundly anti-intellectual.

 

mleonard
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 20:49

 

Well, let's just say that shock-jockism is clearly not the sole prerogative of the Right - is it Alecia? 

 

Joe Cross
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 21:26

Why andrew bolt IS an Imbecile: First of all I should say,I don't believe bolt is an imbecile, if this means intellectually challenged. As has been pointed out elsewhere recently, the intellectually disabled and mentally ill are often denigrated, and often by those on the left, who too easily throw around the label "looney" etc as a negative term. And I'd say Jeff Sparrow's recent piece in New Matilda is generally correct. Academics are inclined to see themselves as an intellectual elite, and the rest of us as barely functioning brutes, incapable of a thought more complex than where to find our next banana. All of history shows this is wrong. However, I disagree with his assertion that bolt is talented etc. Of course, it is generally incorrect to dismiss the Right as lacking intelligence,but to elevate bolt to the status of more than just a very ordinary intellect, is not an accurate characterisation. His prose style, in my admittedly un-academic... opinion, is tedious and strained. But I guess this is a matter of taste. But to suggest he has talent generally, leads all too easily into a kind of " i don't agree with him, but you've got to give him credit...." (Thatcher comes to mind), or " he got where he is because he is so shrewd" with an underlying appeal that we should take what he says seriously. But bolt got where he is just by accident. He happens to be consistently and dependably right wing on all issues. His ideas never change (again adding to my impression of him as limited). This makes him VERY useful to the likes of rinehart, murdoch and the rest of the ruling class. But there are any number of other cockroaches writing in the australian media of equal if not more ability, who could have gotten just as lucky, but didn't. Think of albrectson, ackerman, howe etc etc. Further, to claim that an individual who has children, but spends a lot of his time trying to stop action on climate change, is intelligent, beggars belief. And think of his childish style of argument, which amounts to " what ever you say I am, you are" Think of ludicrous episodes like his claim that he was trying to HELP Aboriginals by suggesting they were not "black enough". To mis-characterise bolt, and to see him as anything other than a very ordinary racist who got lucky, risks giving him and his views an authority they don't deserve.

peter hindrup
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 21:28

‘Most local pundits are highly educated (journalism’s well and truly a profession rather than a trade these days) ‘

Journalism is a craft. If the suggestion is that today’s journalists are better than in days of yore, then I beg to differ.  The best of today against the best of yesterday?   Very little in it.  Many of today’s middle lower order would not have held a job.

A university education does not necessarily endow one with the ability to think, or think constructively/creatively.  No more than does a trade.  While some have the inherent ability to think, that  ability that can be improved with learned knowledge and/or skills.

Training/education can on occasion preclude constructive thinking. If one ‘knows’ that something cannot be, or cannot be done, one is unlikely to set about thinking a way around it. 

Ignorance of the ‘impossibility’ can result in somebody ‘just doing it’. Obviously it doesn’t always work out.

Kids can on occasion, see the bloody obvious. ‘Why don’t you do this, or that?’  I long  ago learned to ask: ‘Show me’, or ‘what do you mean?’  Often enough they simply haven’t understood, but at least they are thinking, and therefore in my view, to be encouraged.

As to whether an academic can be like Bolt, I fail to see how a thinking person could be. Being open to ideas is surely the mark of an inquiring mind.  Bolt’s views appear to have been set in concrete sometime BC.

I can only speak of my knowledge of Sydney University, where open to the general public lectures are ongoing, across a variety of disciplines.  They bring leading figures from across the globe to speak of developments in their field, but sadly 50 or sixty people turn up.  These events run free, to $15 or $20.

I have seen speakers at the University for nothing, and seen people pay $30 and more to hear the same person at Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House, where on occasion there are a thousand or so people.

Perhaps it is a matter of inept marketing, but the reaching out to the general public is an ongoing pursuit.

fightmumma
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 21:36

we are all imbeciles for spending so much time discussing him!! Think of all the other things we could be doing other than reinforcing his own sense of self importance and power in regurgitating the views of certain powerful people/groups...regurgitation is certainly not intelligent or original, perhaps imbecilic if one believes one's own bullshit..and who knows with that piece of work?  I remember his discussion about that Fiskville health issue and asserting with apparently no expertise in the field whatsoever, that a few cancer deaths doesn't make a "cluster" and this even with the personal experience (I think) of his fatherinlaw having cancer...whether imbecile or what...certainly not my cupoftea...ew...

Bob McDonald
Posted Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 21:40

 

I worked with the fishing industry and listened academics ignore hundreds of years of collective experience at sea in their quest to blame fishermen for the decline in fish stocks they modelled. Many believing fishermen being liars they felt no obligation to listen. Managers and Bopard members said of fishermen; 'were lucky to be allowed to fish' - 'they were inefficient owner operators that had to be dragged into the corporate world' and so on.

They got very personal about blaming them, using their status as scientists to access the media unchallenged for the most part the fishermen were not qualified and particul;arly the ABC was not interested in their side of the story.  

Then later commercial fishermen stood up to the Queensland Government over the Port of Gladstone development. They had been wearing the blame for dead dolphins and a turtle for months until it was linked to dredging and industrial contamination.  Dredging similarly closed more than 600 square kilometres to fishing - closed a successful long term small boat commercial fishery in the harbour. Commonwealth State fisheries scientists were silent

Scientists use computer models to estimate fish stocks and close fisheries down regardless of what is going on at sea and the impact their science has on coastal communities - collectively hundreds of jobs lost. When Marine parks are declared that allow seismic testing and oil exploration they are silent - but still support banning fishing. So you think Andrew Bolt would be right onto that - but no - he ignored it too. So where does that leave fishfolk, their communities, Australian fish consumers and most importantly marine life currently being trashed by bad development and heavy industry?  

Are 'they' any different to or better than Andrew Bolt? Who are we meant to believe?

fightmumma
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - 07:40

Bob - very interesting!  This is the sort of modern day problem that is killing the private lives and interests of people, with no access to our elected leaders or influence over what happens in our lives, to our livelihoods and within our local small-scale communities...this is the tragedy of the new world that priveleges multimillion dollar corporations over us and our lived exepriences...hand in glove with the scientific world who gain their funding through the same processes and interrelationships as the government and corporations...I hope I don't live long enough to see the end product of this, the world in another 50 years that has had all the humanity, uniqueness and individuality rationalised out of it...

jasonwilson
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - 08:19

Jeff, I'd like to try again to clarify how my original comment and this one are in fact direct responses to your piece, and why I find your further response to be unsatisfactory. 

You wrote that "academics want to be treated like philosopher-kings: protected from snark and richly rewarded when they deign to comment on public events". You may not be aware of it but at this point you rendered your piece risible for any academics reading. For the many politically engaged academics, whom your later comment indicates you still have trouble recognising, it's  insulting. 

Apart from being a cliche, it betrays an ignorance or unwillingness to account for contemporary conditions in the university. Worse still it suggests (and I hope that this isn't the case) that you have allowed a whole generation of critical labour theory pass you by. You have failed to acknowledge in your comment that critical reflections on conditions in the university have been articulated globally with activism around immaterial labour, precarity and debt. You wrote this piece while student and staff activists were clashing with police at the University of Sydney, following  earlier strikes and occupations which publicly articulated some of those ideas I mentioned. I can offer further global examples which Australian academics and para-academics have been involved with or connected with,and  where university-based thinkers and activists are at the forefront of defending the public what little we still hold in common. So who is hiding from the world here? 

You seem to want the blue collar left to remain at the core of a movement, but after September, attacks will be multipolar. But to repeat: the most vulnerable people in the first instance will be in the public sector, and in casualised work generally. You say the challenge will be in getting progressive intellectuals to listen to and learn from blue collar unions. I say that it will be at least as big a challenge to get blue collar unionists to extend meaningful solidarity to precariously employed university tutors, or to casual service workers like those currently organising near me in the teeth of concerted opposition. Your challenge, Jeff,  will be to understand or at least acknowledge how the development and extension of certain kinds of managerialism began in universities, and how they were testbeds or models for management according to what Boltanski and Chiapello call "the new spirit of capitalism". 

I hope you're beginning to see how odd it was for me to read "where are the academics challenging the neoliberal consensus"? Worse still your weird discussion in the reply which implied I was complaining about not having enough free time, which completely evades the substance of my comment. I've now offered you examples of concrete political action, and scholar-activists trying to build political projects around theorising labour in new ways. There are Australian scholars who are part of a global movement which tries to theorise emerging labour conditions, particularly in relation to technology, and taking this forward into political action. If you're not aware of this, and I still find that hard to believe, you need to get out more - I don't think you can blame the people who are already thinking and acting. I sincerely hope you're not literally demanding op-eds as evidence of public engagement? 

This is where my critique of your model of publics is important. You say you're taking your cue from the original article. But I'm afraid the structure of your article means it fits with a genre, where the fantasy of a unitary public is used to demand that intellectuals speak to it in particular ways. Conservatives deploy this tactic frequently, though admittedly for different purposes - I expect a lot more of it in coming months. The biggest problem with acceding to unitary definitions of "the public" is not even that it is used to try to discipline theoretical discourse, but that it is used to - in Ranciere's terms - distribute the sensible to exclude other marginal voices, and in order to not recognise their claims. I'm not suggesting that that's what you're trying to do, but that's what you risk playing into, and that's the shape your argument takes on for certain members of your public. 

You doubled down on this vision of the public when we talked on Twitter, when you said "for a lot of academics, attempting to speak to the public is demeaning". I'm genuinely not actually sure what you could mean by this - I know a lot of academics and it doesn't sound like any of them - which is why I asked you to clarify your demand in my original comments. In a bush-lawyerly fashion, you argued that this meant I provisionally endorsed a singular model of the public. As should be clear from my comment, and our earlier conversation on Twitter, I do not. I would want to preserve a concept of publicity as a way of understanding what we hold in common, and of places where publics can emerge, but not as some imaginary standard of legibility that intellectual practice needs to aspire to. 

In any case, I think I understand now what your demand is, which is that you want academics to communicate in a way that's more like journalists do - this is what "finding ways to present your ideas so that they resonate with the experiences of ordinary people" must mean, and what such demands are usually code for. But what does "ordinary" mean here? And who is not ordinary? These are crucial questions. Invocations of the ordinary are always-already political, and the ordinary is one of the things that power tries to normatively define.  Whose ordinary are you making demands on behalf of? The punters I mentioned in my original comment are the ordinary people of journalism, and I'm afraid that whether you recognise it or not, your piece echoes their invocation. Currently, many equal marriage activists are deploying concepts developed in queer theory for small, engaged publics. That's not all they're doing, and those are not the only tools they're using, but without the initial space for developing concepts that were not and still may not be immediately intelligible to all publics, those concepts may not have been available for use by anyone. You can't predict what circulation difficult ideas might have, and what political uses they may find. 

You can see how unsatisfactory the simple dichotomy you set up between those who are oriented to the public and those oriented to power. You can be oriented toward neither and still engaged in politically important work. My swipes at Overland in the original comment were because of what the article indicated about what seems to be your complacent confidence in your own ability to know the proper relationship between "the public" and intellectual practice. We need to be oriented towards a public, but this will always be a gamble. 

So you see that your judgement on the original piece is almost beside the point. The things I have mentioned are what your piece is really about. So to repeat: the idea of the university as a place where people go to hide is nonsensical. Universities are where the the destruction of the public sector is begun and renewed, as we've seen again in recent weeks. That idea - the cliche that incorporates ivory tower talk - in the face of what's actually going on, doesn't get us anywhere. And your piece, I'm afraid, could easily have been written in 1996. It's really not attuned to the current moment. 

I'm afraid this will be my last entry in this discussion - I actually need to concentrate now on writing up my research on precariously employed digital media workers. It was self-funded research which I'm now completing outside any paid role, with my partner's support. I don't ask for or deserve any credit - I know of all kinds of people pursuing research projects on labour, critical urbanism, and other forms of democratic theory and practice outside full time or ongoing academic roles. This is the way things work now. I tend to work in cafes, where it's even harder to hide than in universities. From my point of view, to be told that a more authentic confrontation with neoliberalism or more public engagement is necessary is very strange. 

calyptorhynchus
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - 08:20

Bob MacDonald "I worked with the fishing industry and listened academics ignore hundreds of years of collective experience at sea in their quest to blame fishermen for the decline in fish stocks they modelled."I'

I'm quite sure that fishermen do have vast experience of the sea and fish, but at the same time you can't keep on increasing the take without the fish stocks declining (especially as warming oceans are less productive).

Having said that, I should also note that in conversations with commerical fishermen at Wollongong and Ulladulla and elsewhere, I glean that the major problem is that small operators are being elbowed out by large industrial-scale trawlers, which are indiscriminate, waste most of their catch (because it isn't the species they are after), and are looked to as 'the industry' by government.

Dr Dog
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - 08:41

Homer Jr, did I read right where you make only two points - that people just pick sides, then 'Tony for PM'. Most people on a cheer squad have picked sides HJ, what an exellent example of the sort of intellectual weakness coming from the conservative these days. Pretty lazy. and should be laughable except that your conservative betters like Bolt and Abbott do it all the time, so I forgive you.

Hi fightmum, we have to talk about Andrew (sounds like a movie) in case we have the good fortune to get within earshot of him and need to be prepared to unleash a stream of invective that would witther a grape on the vine.

Aaaron where are you champ? I was just warming up.

jeff sparrow
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - 08:50

Jason,

I agree, I don't think there's much point pursuing this. 

I engaged quite closely with with what you wrote, quoting paras from your comment in my response. You simply ignore all of that, since you _already know_ (as you actually put it!) what my post is 'really about', attributing me views that I nowhere expressed and, in some cases, explicitly disavowed. 

Readers can make up their own minds.

fightmumma
Posted Friday, May 17, 2013 - 14:29

Dr D - haha!! Yeah, rehearsals!! Though after being a teacher combating students who want me bowing my reality to their self-involved worlds, or overcoming the vitriole of my nasty exhusband's abuse, I more prefer to be submerged within my own life and beliefs rather than take my eye off the ball and enter the weird world of Bolt!!  Besides, I'd just have to fight the urge of landing my best right cross plumb on his dimpled, little chin!!

Love the idea of a movie - would it be satire as in "Andrew Bolt saves the world"? Or "A day in the Life of..." sort of like other similar public identities such as Lara Bingle or Brynne Edelsten?? 

benjaminwilkie
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013 - 00:15

I work as a casual academic. I have also written for New Matilda and The Drum on contemporary immigration debates, and have written countless popular history pieces for magazines and newspapers. I've done some public speaking and have been a candidate in a recent election. I think it is important that academics engage outside of universities

But, Jeff's response probably doesn't do enough to recognise that this type of public and popular research and writing can only ever be 'on the side' - it will not be counted by our employers as any kind of 'output' and generally won't come into consideration when applying for scholarships/grants/jobs/promotions, or when trying to convince your boss not to sack you because of the latest round of funding cuts.

The career path of an academic in 21st century Australia has inherent disincentives for an aspiring public intellectual wishing to engage or publish outside of academia. More of us are writing for a wider readership (e.g. the Conversation, but also every other online opinion source), and are actively trying to have our research made more accessible through online and open access projects. More and more of us are using social media to network, discuss, promote, and curate in our specialist fields.

But, again, such alternatives are rarely recognised as legitimate outlets for research. If you want to know where we can safely publish (where it will 'count'), take a look at the ERA journal list.

Call me expedient, but as a casual working in 13-week cycles (in a job that's only available 26 weeks of the year) I am doing everything I can to focus on 'output' that will count towards my career. As much as I'd love to spend more time writing for a wider reading public, teaching and 'approved' research must take priority - whether I like it or not.

I am a politically engaged individual, but I must also pay the bills.

Unsurprisingly, academics are talented writers and excellent public speakers. It's what they do for a living. They are well-equipped to engage others and often more than willing to have their thoughts heard.

To claim that we are hiding away is to ignore the realities of Australian universities and the perception of 'clever people' in the Australian eye; we'd love to come out and chat, but the boss will dock our pay and we'll be spat on anyway.

benjaminwilkie
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013 - 00:46

In addition to the above, I think something needs to be made clear: yes, other workers are time-poor but undertake the thankless task of being politically engaged on top of everything else. So what's wrong with academics, then? The key difference is that academics are so readily dismissed and ignored in the public sphere. Whether it is the tall poppy syndrome at work, I don't know. Either way, it's worth pointing out that even if we had more time to mount our campaigns, Australian academics are often just told to sit down and shut up - from the Left as much as the Right. Perhaps if we presented ourselves as generic 'intellectuals' rather than university employees, we'd get more of an audience?

Olivier
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013 - 10:07

Very interesting article, Jeff.

I agree that left-wing academics have a counterproductive tendency to be defensive and dismissive of others, but I think that is often partly a result of the frustration they feel at being largely ignored by the public, an auto-catalytic cycle. Since Reagan and Thatcher English speaking politics and corporate life seems to have accepted the illusion that trickle-down economics is the greatest good for the greatest number.  I find it harder to talk to fellow Aussies than Europeans and north Americans about socio-economic issues like: deregulated economics creating busts and booms; disaster capitalism; corporations offsetting their costs (pollution, infrastructure, social) onto the commons; etc. Most Aussies seem to me to choose to distrust all politicians blindly, rather than explore the issues. I suspect that ignorance tends to play to right-wing politics. Enlighten your neighbors before the election, I suggest.

Dr Dog
Posted Monday, May 20, 2013 - 13:34

Hi fm,

I was referencing a movie from last year called 'We have to talk about Kevin.' The film which I haven't seen is about the parents of a sociopath/psychopath and their reluctance to acknowledge the black evil brewing in their child's heart.

Kind of like the bosses at Channel 10.