Are New Zealanders anti-intellectual?

Is it possible to have sensible discussions in public?

Last June there was a kerfuffle in the online magazine Spinoff over attitudes to intellectual activity in New Zealand. It was precipitated by an extract from Auckland retired academic Roger Horrocks’s recently published collection of essays, Re-inventing New Zealand.. The excerpt came from ‘A Short History of “The New Zealand Intellectual”’ which originally was a contribution to Lawrence Simmons’s book, Speaking Truth to Power. In its imitable way Spinoff’s heading was ‘Why are New Zealanders so fucking intolerant of anyone with a brain, i.e. intellectuals?’; I doubt that Horrocks chose it; his essay is remarkably moderate.

A few days later Paul Litterick responded. (He is an ‘Auckland-based blogger, cultural critic’ and PhD student.) Its intemperate headline, catching the tone of the response, was ‘Stick this in your pipe, Roger Horrocks, and smoke it: your ‘anti-intellectual’ essay sucks’.

I am not sure the two were engaging with one another. Litterick makes much play with the French intellectuals Derrida and Foucault, neither of whom gets much coverage in the original essay by Horrocks. (Understandably, for New Zealand is much more influenced by Anglo-American intellectual traditions.) Litterick seems more concerned with portraying a particular group of people attending (or not attending) a book launch than engaging with the issue of the anti-intellectual climate which Horrocks was discussing.

Are New Zealanders anti-intellectual? It depends what one means by ‘intellectual’. It is already used in this column in (at least) two ways. The adjective (usually in front of ‘activity’) refers to thinking and understanding things, especially complicated ideas. Reading this column is an intellectual activity (alas, this cannot be said for all blogs and certainly not of followers of Donald Trump).

The second use of ‘intellectual’ is the noun which refers to a person who places a high value on and pursues things of interest to the intellect in the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, especially at an abstract and general level. In my experience there would be many New Zealanders – not necessarily a majority – who are intellectuals in private, at least some of the time, and there is another – not entirely distinct – group who are occupationally intellectuals.

New Zealand’s anti-intellectualism is largely about intellectuals who go public. What we do in our bedrooms is our own business; when we choose to come out of the closet (bother, a mixed-metaphor) it becomes a matter of public concern.

Not all of them of course. Much public pseudo-intellectual activity is a bit like muzak. It is so fashionable and platitudinous that we hardly notice it but it provides a pleasing, comfortable background while we get on with our lives. It is only when the public intellectual challenges us that we become irritated.

Any response to the challenge tends to be ad hominem, typically creating a persona for the public intellectual which is abused while ignoring the message. Sure, there are some who are ‘up themselves’ but so too are those who criticise them – perhaps the mirror for the reflection is jealousy. But in my experience the public intellectuals I really value do not match the image at all.

Take Bruce Jesson who was the epitome of modesty. Yes, he could be firm over stupidity and judgmental over dishonesty, but always courteously. Nor does Horrocks match the straw man abused by anti-intellectuals. He begins his collection with a biographical essay which, I suppose, reports what anti-intellectuals hate. They would say he keeps changing his mind but it is really that his thinking is progressing as it is stimulated by new ideas and new circumstances.

This progression of thinking and of drawing out the implications is the central role of the public intellectual. And why, ultimately, they are so disliked, because they are pushing us out of the comfort zone of the certainty that what we know is true while things aint going to change (The one exception of affectionately respected public intellectuals are our cartoonists; perhaps because they are not taken seriously.)

Think how unpopular it was thirty years ago to say that Rogernomics was largely founded on false premises and would fail. Today this is the conventional wisdom. Just ten years ago we were warned there was a housing crisis acoming; now it has arrived. Who wants to be reminded that the conventional wisdom they once held was wrong? Who wants to honour those who told them a long time ago they were wrong and who got it right, especially if they are still talking about future difficult prospects?

Better to cling to the anti-intellectualism of the platitudes and fashions of the conventional wisdom abusing those who make us uncomfortable. Prepare to be astonished when the predictable surprises one – you may have to, ever so reluctantly, change your mind (but dont admit it).