thinking in public

analysis, bbc radio 4, 10 april 2003

They read good books, and quote, but never learn
A language other than the scream of rocket-burn.
Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:
Elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

KENAN MALIK   The Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, with his controversial poem about the war on Iraq.

ANDREW MOTION   I've never written anything since I was appointed Laureate which has had such an effect as that. It's been translated into about 30 different languages, it's whizzed around the world, I've had literally hundreds of emails from people out of the blue about it.

KENAN MALIK   As writer, critic, academic, campaigner on many social issues from homelessness to war, as well as bard to the Queen, Andrew Motion has as good a claim as any to the title of 'public intellectual'. But is that how he sees himself?

ANDREW MOTION   Some of the anxiety that I have about categorising myself as an intellectual is to do with that very word intellectual seems to create some sort of barrier between the person being it and the audience that the're reaching. It implies a certain degree of superiority. I would see myself purely and simply as a poet who has a rather peculiar public office to perform.

KENAN MALIK   There might be an element of false modesty here, but Andrew Motion's doubts also reveal the uncertainty that intellectuals now feel about their own role in society. It's an uncertainty that Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, and author of a forthcoming book on the public intellectual, both acknowledges and regrets.

FRANK FUREDI   It seems to me what intellectuals have done is that they've brought to the surface important problems that face society, that are on the subconscious of culture, of society. They've provided societies with insights, with concepts, with perspectives that allowed people and communities to make sense of the world.

KENAN MALIK   How do you think that the role of the public intellectuals has changed in recent years?

FRANK FUREDI   We don't really have a cultural terrain that is hospitable to difficult, complicated, challenging ideas. I think these days we are more in a policy-oriented, a much more technically oriented regime where intellectuals only have a marginal character.

KENAN MALIK   Do you think that's a change unique to Britain?

FRANK FUREDI   I think over the last 10 or 15 years we've seen a gradual trend whereby all Western societies seem to be subject to very similar patterns. Of course there are national variations and in places like France, there is still, at least outwardly greater, respect being given to the intellectual and a greater role, but when you actually scratch the surface the role of the intellectual has diminished in just about every society I can think of. Whether it's in Britain or in Germany, or in France, Italy, it's a very similar sad process.

KENAN MALIK   But are intellectuals really an endangered species? After all, you can barely open your paper or switch on the TV or radio without yet another celebrity don imposing upon you - such as, perhaps, those in this very programme. So what really has changed in recent years? Here's Geoff Mulgan, director of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, a kind of think tank inside government.

GEOFF MULGAN   Thirty or forty years ago many of the ideas coming into politics and government came from universities, often from the big universities, the LSE, Oxford, Harvard and so on. For a number of reasons their influence has changed and to some extent declined. I think the whole intellectual ecology, if you like, in the UK and some other countries, notably the US, have changed in the last 30 or 40 years. In part that's a change in the character of university life where universities have become somewhat more inward looking, funding is more determined by peer pressures and peer review. Funding councils tend to be somewhat more enclosed within their disciplines than was the case 30 or 40 years ago. There's also been a rise of think tanks for sure. There's been a rise of informed comment in the media and all of that has meant much more competition, if you like, around the promotion of ideas. So the role which some public intellectuals played in the 50s and 60s has been, to some extent, dissipated. Those roles are more likely now to be placed by journalists and leading commentators in the media have filled the space which a generation or two ago would have been filled by professors in universities.

KENAN MALIK   Political and social life evolves and intellectuals will have to adapt or die. So what? It's just opening up the marketplace of ideas to greater competition, suggests Stefan Collini, professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University.

STEFAN COLLINI   Certainly in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, intellectuals profited in some way from a wider social deference. There was a sense that these were people who made up a very small proportion of society with a particular cultural background and particular level of education which was not at all widely diffused. One of the things that's happening I think is that with the decline of that kind of deference, a much wider range of types of people are looked to for comment and guidance. And I think it's shaken the really rather authoritative and elevated role that people might have ascribed to some of the leading intellectuals a couple of generations ago, and now one would think of these intellectuals figures as quite often being in competition with other kinds of actors in say the celebrity culture or other kinds of actors in the political world. It seems to me that the greater plurality of types of figure who are called upon these days must be a gain.

KENAN MALIK   It's true, for example, that there's a greater diversity in the backgrounds of the cast list and even presenters of a programme such as Analysis than would have been the case in the past. But let's not exaggerate. It was never was the case that all intellectuals were once the products of Eton and Oxbridge. From Thomas Paine in eighteenth century to CLR James in the twentieth, there was been a long and healthy tradition of working class or self-taught intellectuals.

In any case, as anyone who uses the Internet knows, a plurality of sources is not necessarily a gain. Rumour and fact, truths and falsehoods jostle with each other for our attention, and one needs good judgment to discriminate between them. But good judgement is precisely what the so-called democratisation of culture seems to have undermined. Pluralism has helped create an 'anything goes' attitude where every idea is thrown into the pot. The focus group, for instance, which lies at the heart of the modern political process, is rooted in the belief everyone's view is of equal worth. Might this not blunt our ability to distinguish between good and bad ideas, great insights and commonplace idiocies? Here's the philosopher Onora O'Neill, principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.

ONORA O'NEILL   A lot of people would say democracy and populism aren't the same thing and that if we're serious about democracy, which I am, you have to think about giving people ways of taking part in and reflecting on public affairs which, as it were, support their abilities to judge well, rather than encouraging them to take sides or to identify with celebrities or against hate figures and this sort of thing. I think it's a very difficult thing to see how one can conduct public debate in ways that are genuinely democratic, rather than wearing a populist sheen.

KENAN MALIK   Democracy views all people as being of equal worth. But not all ideas. Hence Baroness O'Neill's ambivalence about the democratisation of culture. And she's not alone. Mary-Kay Wilmers is editor of the London Review of Books, a magazine that might appear wilfully old-fashioned. Does she see the magazine as swimming against the tide of contemporary culture?

MARY-KAY WILMERS  Yes, I see it as an area where difficult subjects and current subjects are discussed by people who, well they do discuss them in other papers too, but they discuss them at greater length. They have mostly more freedom to argue but I mean we're not very much in favour of opinion, we're in favour of reflection and argument and building an argument. If there isn't the same attitude of deference to toffs who are intellectuals, then everybody's going to have more sense of their own entitlement and they don't want to read it at great length, they want to sound bite and in a way that's fine, if that's what they want. It's not what we want.

KENAN MALIK   Such a stand against soundbite culture may sound virtuous. But ideas must have a wider audience if they are to flourish. In last year's Reith lectures on Radio 4, entitled 'A Question of Trust', Onora O'Neill made a case for a fundamental transformation of public life, a case that has only benefited from the higher public profile she now enjoys as a result of those lectures.

ONORA O'NEILL   Since I gave those lectures I have had innumerable invitations. I try to manage about two public occasions a week, which is actually quite a sweat, talking to, on the whole, public sector groups, professional groups, charity groups, big professional associations, large audiences on some occasion.

KENAN MALIK   Professor O'Neill is someone who wears many hats - a philosopher, a broadcaster, the principal of Newnham College, a cross-bencher in the House of Lords, a member of several parliamentary committees. So does she consider herself to be a public intellectual?

ONORA O'NEILL   I think to my slight surprise I probably do now. But I have to tell you a lot of what I do intellectually is not public at all because when I practice my trade, I sit with one graduate student or drive across on a Saturday to talk to a small seminar run by the Graduate Philosophy Society of another university and I wouldn't feel myself, as it were, true to the calling if I deserted that sort of activity in favour of the big audiences and the public arena. To be a public intellectual, I think you've got to be an intellectual. We're rather like weeds, we spring up. It takes quite a long time to become such a person because you've got to have a certain dedication to the intellectual side of it and then, as it were, you may or may not go public in certain respects.

KENAN MALIK   For Onora O'Neill the Reith Lectures provided a springboard to help launch her ideas into a more public forum. For Andrew Motion, the office of Poet Laureate affords the same advantage.

ANDREW MOTION   Being Poet Laureate undoubtedly makes it easier for me to speak in public. In terms of the platform it provides me to speak from. The role that I see for myself as a Poet Laureate is essentially to do with breaking down walls. I mean previous to my appointment I could have shouted myself blue in the face and a few people might have paid attention, I might have got an article in the paper, but now it more or less happens as a matter of course that if I do feel strongly and want to say something then there is a space in which to say it. Now this is a terrific privilege and I feel it very sharply, and I feel very blessed in it. It also means that I must be careful not to waste the opportunity that it gives or to dilute the authority of the position by firing off about things that I don't particularly care about. In other words, I have to make sure that when I do battle on about something or other that it's something that I'm absolutely clear that I think about and deeply about and value highly.

KENAN MALIK   There are many things you have battled on about, you've written about apartheid, about homelessness, about national identity, many social and political themes. What drives you to write about these things?

ANDREW MOTION   I have written about many of these things. The traditional expectation is of course that the Laureate will just write about certain events in the Royal calendar. That's the long and short of the public remit. Or that has been the long and short of the public remit. I have written a few of those poems and I mean to go on respecting that as and when I can. But at the same time it seems to me very important to put those poems, to make them part of a much bigger picture, to write poems about matters of national interest.

KENAN MALIK   Andrew Motion's view seems like a throwback to an old-fashioned, and almost romantic, vision of the intellectual as a dissenter. But is there a price to pay these days for taking such a stand? Here's Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books.

MARY-KAY WILMERS   I think it's the role of the intellectual not to be cowed by received wisdom. One thing I do dislike now quite a lot is the epithets that are directed at us. I don't like the phrase 'the chattering classes'. I don't like the way, if you express an opinion that's contrary to the mainstream it's knee-jerk or opportunistic or cynical, or if it's on the left, it's the Prada Meinhof. And I think we've had a lot of that directed at us. By people who, I don't know, wish us ill or want a bigger audience. But we don't want that audience.

KENAN MALIK   But an intellectual who has no audience is no intellectual - just some cleverclogs talking to himself. It makes no difference how good or right your argument is if it convinces no one but those already convinced. An intellectual has to be accountable to his or her ideas by engaging with the public.

But what happens when the winning of an audience becomes more important than the message you wish to convey? It's a cliché to suggest that we live in a celebrity culture, but the observation is no less true for that. Here’s the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion.

ANDREW MOTION   Anybody who appears regularly in public, pontificating about one thing or another, however good they are, however shrewd they are, as soon as they do this, they achieve a kind of celebrity status which in itself is problematic for the message they are trying to get across. The problem to do with celebrity is to to do with the difficulty of the people who have become celebrities by one means or another, the difficulty they have in defending their intellectual life and the pronouncements which arise from it against the personality-driven curiousity about themselves, the way they live and in particular their private lives . Personally I think it is important not to get drawn off into the kind of 'do I or do I not re-flock my wallpaper' kind of argument.

KENAN MALIK   So do you think that the rise of celebrity culture has in a sense trivialised intellectual debate?

ANDREW MOTION   I think there is something inherently trivialising about celebrity culture. And I suppose really what I’m trying to say is that celebrity culture is the problem. There is no problem as such with celebrities if they’ve earnt it and they’re saying sensible things.

KENAN MALIK   There have always been celebrity intellectuals - think of the media status that TS Elliot, or AJP Taylor, or Isaiah Berlin possessed. But, sociologist Frank Furedi argues, today's celebrity culture has helped transform the way that ideas are presented to the public.

FRANK FUREDI   I think the problem comes when in certain cases there are very strong pressures on the intellectual not to be an intellectual but to be an entertainer and not to promote ideals and to challenge people with important ideals and ideas, but to titillate people with fairly insubstantial entertainment formats.

KENAN MALIK   So are you put off from having your own radio or TV show because of that?

FRANK FUREDI   No, I would love to have my own TV show. And on a good day maybe I could play a role of an intellectual through TV.

KENAN MALIK  And perhaps through radio too. Though whether presenting Analysis makes one an intellectual or an entertainer, I'm not quite sure. The intellectual as entertainer is one major change in the cultural landscape. The intellectual as technocrat is another. It's a transformation revealed in the rise of the think tank and in the changing relationship between governments and academics. Here's Geoff Mulgan of the No10 Strategy Unit.

GEOFF MULGAN   Government employs far more economists, far more social scientists than it did twenty or thirty years ago. Far more of the day-to-day business of policy making around say welfare-to-work policies, criminal justice, education is informed by detailed empirical research advised by academics, than was the case in the past. So that sort of normal science, if you like, has become much more important to the business, both of universities and of government.

The shift of government and politics to greater pragmatism, a less ideological context, more emphasis on what works, has certainly rescued the influence of a certain kind of intellectual, that is to say purely ideological, very theoretically driven intellectuals don't have as much influence as they might have had before. But it has actually opened up in other respects much greater influence for intellectuals. In a way it's perhaps a revitalisation of quite a healthy British tradition of social science empiricism, which is always perhaps compared to some of the traditions of Germany or France, being much more concerned with the concrete and understanding the general through the concrete rather than the other way round.

KENAN MALIK   Working with the concrete. It makes intellectuals sound like engineers. And in a sense that's just what many have become: sober professionals dealing with minutiae of policy-making, rather than open-ended explorers of ideas. For Geoff Mulgan such old-fashioned British empiricism is a good thing. For Frank Furedi, on the other hand, it undermines the very essence of what it is to be an intellectual.

FRANK FUREDI   I often think of the person working for a think tank, and making up ideas on the back of an envelope as very much the personification of how we treat ideas. If you look at the way that think tanks and people involved in policy making in public affairs promiscuously go from one idea to the next, what is the big idea of January is easily forgotten by May, that's very much the way we seem to be treating ideas. And I think as a result of that we simply do not have time for ideas that take a long time to evolve, we don't cultivate people to think in a long termist, experimental sense, we want ideas with quick results, ideas that are unambiguous, ideas that are fairly black and white.

LEE EDWARDS   That's true that politicians tend to want solutions for problems that they're facing today, or perhaps tomorrow or maybe even next week. And so you do have this question, is that going to be the best solution for a particular policy question or should you sort of step back and take a longer look at it?

KENAN MALIK   Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation, President Bush's favourite Washington think tank.

LEE EDWARDS   It seems to me what the Heritage Foundation does is to do both. When there is a particular bill or legislative item which is before the Congress we'll provide analysis on that. But at the same time will look at bigger issues, you might say more controversial issues, such as social security, missile defence, both of which we’ve been writing and talking about for several decades.

KENAN MALIK   Many critics of think tanks suggest that you're not really public intellectuals, but simply experts who are very narrow in your way of thinking.

LEE EDWARDS   I don't like to sort of, you know, get into a battle of curriculum vitae, but I know, for example, speaking for myself, I have written thirteen books, I had them published in a number of publications which I think are rather substantial including the Washington Post, and as a matter of fact I also am an Adjunct Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America. And I don't think that I'm atypical.

KENAN MALIK   But a long cv does not always an intellectual make. Here, as elsewhere in life, size is not everything. In any case, as Lee Edwards happily acknowledges, the power of think tanks like the Heritage Foundation resides more in their political clout than in their intellectual acumen.

LEE EDWARDS   What's remarkable, it seems to me, is that if one looks around Washington DC today, and looks at the various executive departments, that there are a number of think-tank people who have positions of responsibility. For example, in the State Department there are, and I counted this up the other day, about four under-secretaries who all come from think-tanks. For example, over across the river at the Pentagon in the Defence Department, the Deputy Secretary of Defence, Mr Wolfowitz, is a graduate, if you will, of a think-tank here in Washington DC. But what Lee Edwards sees as the strength of think tanks may in fact be their weakness. Institutions such as the Heritage Foundation have become an adjunct of government, a means by which intellectuals have transformed themselves from outsiders, often challenging received wisdom, to consummate insiders, at ease in the corridors of power. And once on the inside, critical thinking often becomes subordinate to the needs of the political process.

KENAN MALIK   But how new is all this criticism? Our culture has dumbed down. Intellectuals are not as good as they were. They're cleverer in other countries. Haven't we heard all this before? Haven't the doom-mongers always been with us? Professor Stefan Collini of Cambridge University certainly thinks so.

STEFAN COLLINI   The language of the decline of the intellectual is something which is repeated in different forms in each generation. The real intellectual is always assumed to be elsewhere - in the past, hence the whole theory of decline, or in other societies. In that traditional British view those intellectuals are always presumed to be in France. It's not at all so obvious that there are any intellectual figures who are more gigantic in France at the moment than in Britain or anywhere else actually. There is a certain glory or grandeur which attaches to those who were in previous generations, those who are now dead. Those we see around us, we see too much of the comings and goings. We see too much of the stops and starts, in this case of their thinking and their writing, perhaps to put them on the pedestal. So that always produces this optical illusion it seems to me that really great names are in the past.

KENAN MALIK   It's true that every generation tends to look back to a previous generation as a golden age. And yet, what is happening today is not simply a replay of the past. Think of the intellectual cast list from, say, the 1940s and 50s - Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, TS Eliot, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Popper, George Orwell, JBS Haldane, Claude Levi-Strauss, Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir, and so on. The intellectual depth of this line-up, compared to a similar cast list from today, is surely more than just an optical illusion. As is the importance many of these figures placed on being not just intellectuals, but intellectuals involved in political movements and public debate.

It's as great a myth to believe that nothing has changed as to believe that everything has changed. Celebrity culture, think thank philosophy, the democratisation of culture - each has helped recast the role of the public intellectual in our society, transforming both the 'public' and the 'intellectual' side of the equation - and not necessarily for the better.

In the end, though, the question is this: why should we listen to intellectuals at all, however brilliant they may be? Here's Andrew Motion.

ANDREW MOTION   I think there can be something embarrassing or worse about writers just as there is about any other group of people who are in some sense giving their opinion without taking responsibility for it. There is a kind of suspicion that free-floating, free-standing intellectuals might, have separated themselves from society so why should we take it from them especially if their pronouncements are not surrounded by practical actions. In other worlds especially if they don't seem to be taking responsibility in some way for their words. They're not getting involved in practical support for what it is that they might be saying. There must be deeds, protests going on, marches, you name it, along with the simple fact of saying a thing. They may well turn around to us and say: the words themselves are the responsibility you fool, but I think that nevertheless there is something rather repellent about people who stand outside the flow of daily events and tell what we should think and so on about things.

But what's important is that writing in general and poetry in particularly moves at a different speed and takes longer perspectives. So a good poem about whatever event it is or whatever circumstance it is that's being spoken about, might not make its mark immediately. But it might well turn out to be the thing which survives almost everything else.

KENAN MALIK   And as with poetry in particular, so with ideas in general. But at their best, the ideas of intellectuals help provide depth and vision to public debate, clarify moral and social issues, and possess long-term significance. That's why we should worry about a culture that encourages intellectuals to become entertainers and in which long-term thinking often seems subordinate to short-term policy needs.