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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

just a few blind spots « Previous | |Next »
August 12, 2003

Tim Blair has an interesting post here. It is about intellectuals in public life. It is worth a read, even though it is basically a series of quotes from an article by Jean Bethke Elshtain. The article is called The Dissenters Club and it is published over at

Tim's style, which is much copied and admired, is to offer little by way of commentary. But there is enough to get the general idea of his argument. There is the pose of being anti-intellectual (academics and intellectuals talk crap); his standard reference to the Adelaide Festival of Ideas as an example of crap (see here and here and here);and an affirmation of Elshtain's point about the intellectual as a negator. She means that intellectuals are always against whatever it is. The intellectual is a negator of the staus quo, who is free from accountability and who distorts the very meaning of dissent (as freedom of speech).

Tim titles his post 'stupid intellectuals'---by which he means lefty, anti-war intellectuals. But his anti-intellectual mask means that all intellectuals are stupid. This includes Tim because he affirms Elshtain's point about intellectuals who supported the Iraqi war. True, Elshtain is referring to intellectuals as academics; but intellectual is broader than that. It means performing an intellectual role in civil society. So journalists such as Paul Kelly and webloggers such as John Quiggin are intellectuals. So is Tim Blair.

Alas Tim has a problem. To see his problem we need to remind ourselves that Tim's argument is twofold. It is based on him tacitly affirming Elstain's concept of an intellectual assenting to something the Howard Government is doing or that Australia is undertaking. And it is based on his explicit support for Elstain's attack on the received understanding of the intellectual as automatically negating what is.

But our dear Tim is so so iconoclastic in his own cultural practice. He is forever dissenting from a left liberal hegemony; and he is forever negating the cultural left that still dominates public life. He seems himself as being in the conservative minority resolutely fighting off the dead hand of the tradition of the cultural left. Tim is one of those types whose social role it is to fashion a critique of the social, moral and intellectual culture of Australia and its social institutions. Tim is a troublemaker and stirrer, albeit a right wing one. He wears his iconoclasm was a badge. It gives him a certain aura.

So in shooting arrows at the intellectual as negator, who is so free from accountability and who obscures the very meaning of dissent, our loveable Tim is shooting himself in the foot. We at public opinion hope that he earns enough money from his journalism to afford the private medical bills.

One last point. The Righties have a problem here. They define intellectuals by definition, as being Leftist in orientation and so engaging in social critique of what is. They conveniently ignore that a federal democracy is grounded on critique (each of the institutions criticise the other). So what is overlooked is the positive role of critique over and above lefty/righty politics.

Though Righties do acknowledge the existence of right wing intellectuals and so tacitly undercut their anti-intellectual pose, they would deny that the Tim Blair's of the world do anything more that just criticise lefty intellectuals. Righty intellectuals, they say, are different by definition from lefty intellectuals who negate everything that is. This account conveniently ignore their whole slash and burn critique of the instititutions of social democracy. On their Hayekian account, these institutions had to be destroyed to make room for the spontaneous workings of the competitive market and a liberal market order.

It is sad to see these illusions. They --eg., the Jack Stroochi's of the world----do not even understand their own lived history. They are blinded by their old models. They continue to pull them out from the archives of the 1950s, even though they tell the rest of us that the world began anew on 9/11. Presumably, they are blinded by the light of the birth of the new world and so they have forgotten the pathway that led them from the old world.

Historical amnesia its called. It's a terrible condition to have. It leads to the abuse of history.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:41 AM | | Comments (1)


Very precise piece of dissection Gary. Good to see the instruments are still good and sharp.