Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand
Laurence Simmons (ed)
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
I was thrilled to be asked to review this book. You see, I am a bit of a public intellectual myself, yet had not been asked to contribute to Speaking Truth to Power. I was naturally diffident about going out and actually buying a copy, and yet genuinely interested in what it might contain. So thank you, New Zealand Books.
The review copy arrived as I was about to set off to an overseas conference, and I took it with me as reading material for the long flight. To enhance the experience I had myself upgraded to the decidedly non-public, and possibly non-intellectual, precinct of Air New Zealand’s Business Premier cabin. And as I stretched out happily in my sleek plastic pod, kind people offering me delicious things to eat and drink, a certain mellowness of mood descended which I worried might be the enemy of the rigorous objectivity required of the reviewer. Nevertheless, I persevered, and got through about half of the chapters before finally turning off the reading light and dialling up one of those movies I had always wanted to see but never got around to: Music and Lyrics.
Picking up the book again in the cold light of a rainy Vancouver Sunday five or six days later, I found my perspective had changed. Two things now seemed quite strange. I’ll expand, but first let me explain what the book is. Fifteen contributors are listed on the cover. One is editor Laurence Simmons, who leads off with a nice essay: “Why I am not a public intellectual” (because he hasn’t got a public). Roger Horrocks, Andrew Sharp and Stephen Turner contribute three more chapters. Then follow interviews with 10 public intellectuals, seven conducted by Simmons, three by Heather Worth. A final chapter reports “roundtable” discussions held at the University of Auckland.
The 10 interview subjects are, in order of appearance: Brian Easton, Lloyd Geering, Jane Kelsey, Marilyn Waring, Michael King, James Belich, Ian Wedde, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney and Nicky Hager. That makes 14 contributors, not counting Heather Worth, who is not given a cover credit. So who is the 15th person listed? The late Bruce Jesson, subject of Andrew Sharp’s elegant essay, but really worth his place, because he is there in spirit throughout. I will note now that the book is tidily produced, and generously and often amusingly illustrated by John Reynolds.
OK, so what did I find strange? First, was something that, cocooned in my cosy Kiwi cabin at 35,000 feet, I had not noticed. Just how odd the contributors are, in a purely statistical sense, of course. They are all New Zealanders; even all but one (Nicky Hager), at least second-generation New Zealanders; all but two, baby-boomers. And their insularity is limited to just one island – none of our dear South Island grumps are sampled here. There is no expatriate on the team.
Even more unusual, none of the 15 appear to ever have been professional expats themselves. Some had the usual youthful OE, and at least three have, in maturity, been seriously successful at exporting their ideas from their New Zealand base – Belich, Kelsey and Waring. But none of this crew – possibly excepting Waring – has had the experience of hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen and women, from carpenter to choreographer, of having successfully plied their trade for fee in foreign parts.
These demographics alone limit us to a cohort accounting for less than 10 per cent of our adult population. And there’s more or, rather, less. In this group of 15 intellectuals, there is no film-maker, novelist, dramatist, composer, performing artist, visual artist; no-one from the media; no-one from the Wellington policy establishment, no-one from the political right, no scientist.
I make these observations uncritically, being myself no fan of formulaic “representativeness”. Each of the 15 is surely worthy of being here on their merits. But the peculiarly narrow homogeneity of this team may explain the other strangeness I perceived, as the book and its themes rattled around in the forefront of my consciousness. You see, ever since getting off the plane in Vancouver I seemed to have been bombarded with public intellectualism, rather like when you learn a new word (such as, eponymous) and it pops up in everything you read.
There was Robert Wade (an expat Kiwi, as it happens) attacking globalisation in the Financial Times. Chomsky being chewed over in The New Yorker. Charlie Rose talking to the infuriating but compelling Christopher Hitchens on public television. There was the superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs on his grand but possibly doomed mission to relieve the mass misery of sub-Saharan Africa. A Vancouver Sun article on the chap who invented the powerful metaphor “ecological footprint”, photographed bicycling to his office at the University of British Columbia, a few hundred metres from where I was staying.
There was the Sunday New York Times’s book review section, the letters column of which is the natural habitat of that most pathetic of intellectual sub-species, the aggrieved author. This week, one was complaining of the “calumny” of being accused by his reviewer of aspiring to “the life of a public intellectual, with its talk-show appearances and lecture circuits”. Calumny? Sounds OK to me.
This last aside, what was striking about it all was a total lack of self-consciousness. The ideas were being put about, criticised in some cases; but none of these intellectuals evidently felt the slightest need to justify having ideas and talking about them, and none of their critics wasted any time mocking them for so doing. What a contrast with the present volume! Here, to a large, indeed major, extent, the primary concern of this possibly parochial cohort of Kiwi thinkers is not ideas but the climate for ideas; specifically, the New Zealand climate for ideas; even more specifically, the inhospitality of this climate for intellectuals like them.
By way of sad but not extreme example, here is Michael King responding to Laurence Simmons’ first question about whether King actually considers himself a public intellectual:
Yes, I do, in that sense, but I would never pin that label to myself because to call yourself any kind of intellectual in New Zealand is to suggest that you have superior knowledge or superior enlightenment, and it’s seen as a form of élitism, and it’s very much against the sort of democratic traditions of New Zealand society.
Oh dear, Michael King: not willing to come out of the closet and publicly declare yourself to be what you are, or were, viz a public intellectual.
He isn’t the only one. An inordinate amount of attention is given to the supposed hostility against ideas, intellectuals and the “intelligentsia”, attributed to the public, in general, and parts of the media, in particular. Roger Horrocks devotes many pages to the role of redneck newspaper columnists and TV pundits, including the ineffably silly episode of broadcaster Paul Holmes, in a brain-fade moment, describing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a “cheeky darkie”. Apparently 54 people led by some academics sent off a protest letter expressing their “profound [sic] disgust” at Holmes and calling for his sacking. Various columnists then weighed in to attack the “pompous eggheads”. Blah blah.
All this account served was to confirm me in my decision to not waste a minute of my week reading or watching these nitwits.
Several of the contributors – including seven who have achieved the totally secure academic rank of professor – complain about “pressure” exerted on them or others to not express unpopular views. When I hear people like us complaining about pressure, I think of the late, great Australian cricketer Keith Miller, who flew fighter planes during the war. Miller was asked about the pressure of playing in test matches. “Pressure?” he said. “That’s not pressure! Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.”
Pressure exists in New Zealand, but it’s not like, say, the pressure on female academics in Saudi Arabia who have to get (and don’t get) permission to hold small discussion group meetings in their own homes. It’s not like the pressure on journalists in Russia, who are murdered for writing the truth. It’s not like a hundred places in the world where it can be seriously uncomfortable or dangerous to dare to “speak truth to power”.
Unsurprisingly, it is two of the stroppiest intellectuals in the book – Jane Kelsey and Nicky Hager – who are least bothered by anti-intellectualism in general and pressure on them in particular, and who insist on steering their interviews towards actually discussing ideas. Simmons asks Hager one of his standard questions: “Do you think there’s a sort of anti-intellectualism inherent in New Zealand culture?” Hager will have none of this:
No, I actually don’t see it quite that way …. I don’t think it’s the man in the street or the woman in the street who chops down the tall poppies, which is what anti-intellectualism would be. I think it’s other people, who are actually the establishment, who are doing it… So it’s not so much an anti-intellectualism, it’s more a punishment of alternative views.
Right on, Nicky! Of course, if you walked around with a label saying Me Intellectual You Idiot – or even Me Profound You Shallow – then you are going to get peoples’ backs up. But in New Zealand, the problem is not the demand side of the story – the public, the audience – but the supply side: the lack of intellectuals with something worthwhile to say and the nerve to tell the people who would regulate the market for ideas to piss off.
Even Nicky Hager has a moment – just a moment – of timorousness in the face of a debate-stifling establishment, when he describes as a “no-go zone” any basic debate on “Maori issues”. He says that “people are too scared, they actually don’t want to go into those issues because they had such unpleasant experiences [in the 1980s].”
But, then, pressed by Simmons, he cannot resist jumping up out of his foxhole:
Well you see, you’re asking me to stick my head back into that fire. I’ll tell you what I think … biculturalism as a non-unified society is a dangerous, hopeless, dead-end way for the country to go … I think that if you have a vision of a society where you are dividing people into groups … it’s a recipe for future conflict of all sorts, and the only vision that actually brings peace here or anywhere is one of international humanism.
Well, that is a step towards “rethinking New Zealand”. A step which I support, as an economist and native of this country. It is an issue which is actually usefully discussed in this book, in particular by Geering, Walker and King. But that’s about it, in terms of anyone actually doing any “speaking truth to power”. Really, a more truthful title would have been: Speaking Personally: Public Intellectuals Rethink Themselves.
I am not blaming the intellectuals for any deception here – they were just answering the questions put to them. And I should say right away that, with just a few exceptions (“Because there are so few intellectuals in New Zealand, I’m in continuous critical dialogue with myself”), they respond with an engaging lack of pomposity and pretension.
Perhaps we cannot even blame Laurence Simmons – the title might have been imposed on him by his uber editor, the publisher. Such often happens in this game. I’ve absolutely no idea, for example, what title New Zealand Books will come up with for this piece. I just hope it is not something totally misleading like: Kiwi Intellectuals Wankers. That would be most unfair: a calumny.
Tim Hazledine is Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland.