What Waleed Aly Is Missing

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It’s been a stellar year for the popular writer and TV personality, but Australia needs more from its public intellectuals than well-worked monologues, writes Mark Manolopoulos.

First things first: Waleed Aly is a thoughtful, extremely articulate person. His discourses are usually logically rigorous and often compelling. I respect him (and I even envy his success in being as close to a “public intellectual” as one can be in Australia). I think he’s one of the relatively few public voices of reason we have when it comes to the critically arid mainstream media landscape.

But I think Waleed Aly exemplifies what most intellectuals suffer from: the lack of any explicit desire or will to change the world. I’ll get to the crux of why I lament this lack of transformative fervour in a moment, but I would first like to show how this lack actually undermines the rigour of Aly’s thinking. In his much-watched monologue about Islamic State on The Project, Aly could only muster up a call for Muslims and non-Muslims to stand “united.”

It’s a rather empty gesture, lacking content, prescription, direction. It’s all style and little/no substance. It’s a stirring call, to be sure. But it lacks any programmatic dimension. It doesn’t offer concrete solutions. While I am loathe to cite him, even Andrew Bolt rightly recognised Aly’s call for “unity” as “a fatuous call”.

Of course, one person alone could not, in under five minutes, offer some kind of concrete solution. To be fair, I suppose what was at the forefront of Aly’s mind was that we should all stay calm and love each other, given that we humans have a propensity for responding to events such as the Paris attacks with knee-jerk anger and hatred, particularly in the post-9/11 climate of an intensifying Islamophobia.

But I think the programmatically impotent nature of Aly’s talk may also be rooted in his (at least explicit) disavowal to want to change the world. How do I know this? Because he said so. He stated the following in an interview with Aparna Balakumar, which happened to be published a few days after Aly’s address, when responding to a question about changing the world:

“I don’t have a desire to change the world. I’m not one of those people. I think people think I do but I don’t and I never have. And part of the reason for that is I don’t feel I have the ability to but also I wouldn’t trust myself to. I’m happy for the world to change but I think if it’s me trying to change it or trying to save it then it’s in deep trouble. I’m genuinely and generally sceptical of people who want to save the world because I feel like history is full of examples of people who have tried to save the world and made it irreparably worse, so I’m just sceptical of that whole enterprise. . . . I don’t want to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and redesign the universe. That’s not what I want to do.”

First of all, note how Aly differentiates himself from change-makers, that he is “not one of those people.” I can’t speculate about his actual tone in the interview, but it comes across as somewhat condescending to me (though I could be wrong). He then categorically denies that he has ever felt this compulsion. Aly appears to be at pains to distance himself from any revolutionary impulse.

new matilda, waleed aly
Waleed Aly delivers a piece to camera on The Project.

He seems to soften his position by modestly (either truly and/or falsely) that he isn’t “capable” of changing the world – but I think one can gauge this only after one has tried. Why not at least try, Waleed, and see how you and the rest of us go?

Then Aly expresses further modesty saying he wouldn’t be able to “trust” himself as a revolutionary, given there has been a pattern of people who have wanted to change the world who have then proceeded to make it “irreparably worse.” While this has often been the case, should we thereby by paralysed by it? Should we merely remain “analytical,” standing by and standing back while humanity, other creatures, and the Earth suffer evermore diversifying and intensifying forms of exploitation, deformation, and destruction?

Furthermore, while there is always the possibility that change-makers will make things worse, can we even afford to think that we’re better of with the status quo than some possibly worse alternative?

In any case, the way things are heading, I think we’re already on the path of the worst (consider the environmental crisis, the ever-increasing domination of the 1 per cent, and, yes, religiously-fuelled terrorism, etc.). I therefore think that attempting social transformation is worth the gamble.

I should emphasise that Waleed Aly is “happy for the world to change,” a “happiness” that I think is informed by his recognition that the world is stuffed (a hope that may also be inspired by his faith?). And yet, Aly goes to great lengths distancing himself from change-makers. Don’t you dream of changing the world, Waleed?

Of course, Aly’s resistance to revolutionary thought and action is emblematic of a general trend: thinkers seem to have given up dreaming big, thinking big, acting big. Meanwhile, the world groans.

And here’s the clincher: recall how Aly states in the interview that “I don’t want to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and redesign the universe.” I think it’s safe to say that these words are expressed with a certain irony (though again, I could be wrong). But the greater irony is that Aly has (accidentally?) struck upon a great truth which he himself may not even recognise: sitting down with a blank piece of paper and redesigning human society is precisely what should be done. The way to proceed in terms of a process of systemic transformation is that the wisest people in the world “sit down with a blank sheet of paper and redesign the universe.”

What we might collectively come up with is the unnerving conclusion that the present system is the best system – or at least the least worst. In that case, we would just need to continue putting up with it (if/until the planet can no longer sustain us). But if we come up with a better system, shouldn’t we go for it? If we end up with a blueprint of a better world, then we should go for it, implemented with the backing of a mobilised humanity that dares to dream and act.

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Mark Manolopoulos

Dr Mark Manolopoulos is a philosopher. He is an Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University.

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