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

Paul Kelly blasts intellectuals « Previous | |Next »
October 9, 2007

Paul Kelly has a go at Australia's academics and public intellectuals in The Australian Literary Review in a piece called Time For a Rethink His argument is simple: the moral vanity of Australia's intellectual class has led it into a political dead end. Thus:

it is hard to categorise Australia's intellectual class because, in essence, it defies categorisation. What is easier to categorise, however, is that distinct group of public intellectuals who write for a wide audience, aspire to shape public opinion, attack Howard for his sins and lament the collapsing standards and morality of our political leaders... The critique is notable for its moral fervour, weak analysis and alienation from the nation's heartland....Contempt for Howard becomes a contempt for the people and for the democracy that elected him.

The argument is hooked on David Marr's recent Quarterly Essay, titled His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard, where Marr argued that Howard has led a conservative party political assault on Australia's liberal culture.

Kelly conception of public intellectuals is very narrow -he includes Raimond Gaita and Julian Burnside---and he claims that they have become moralists.Buy this he means that

their main task is to make moral judgments about politicians and to identity the source of their evil. There is almost no limit to their self-righteousness and pomposity...It demonstrates, above all, the role of the public intellectual: as passionate moralist, as opposed to enlightened analyst, as polemicist as distinct from scholar.

Kelly's response to this is to acknowledge that truth in politics is a valuable public good and that the role of intellectuals and media is to expose lies and promote truth. He adds that if this critique is to be effective then it demands a recognition of the nature of politics, the foundational point being that personal morality and political morality are overlapping yet different concepts.

Okay, so let us grant this distinction and put the issue of 'going to war Iraq on the table, as this concerns political morality in a democracy. What does Kelly say?:

The lesson from Iraq is that Howard did not lie but lost the trust of the public. This is an instance of a seriously defective decision. The evidence is that this war was misconceived, its justification was false, its implementation was disastrous while its consequences have been counter-productive. The breach of trust is fundamental. But did Howard lie? It remains an important question. Either he knew or suspected Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and lied to the public, or he was sincere. The evidence, contrary to many claims from public intellectuals, is that he was sincere. But sincerity does not forgive strategic folly or disastrous misjudgment about the nature of the war.

The truth in politics was that the evidence was not there. What was there was sexed up by the politicians and when this was eventually discovered Howard pointed the finger at the intelligence agencies. Kelly is an apologist for the deceit, deception or the con by the Howard Government.

Despite this Kelly persists in talking about 'the dysfunction of the intellectuals' and to claim that Howard has not corrupted our governance or brought our democracy to despair. There is no mention of the corruption of Senate.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:57 AM | | Comments (10)


a review of Marr's His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard, by Julianne Schultz,the editor of the Griffith Review, is here. One point that is made is this:

It is the bully-boy tactics that Marr targets with greatest clarity: "Finding dark motives is the stock-in-trade of public debate under Howard. It's easy work. Slamming your opponent's motives means you don't have to grapple with facts; you don't have to answer arguments; you don't have to do any home work; and you can't be disproved." In this environment, those taking a contrary (or even a more nuanced) view quickly become "damaged goods", careers and reputations are undermined and the information that informs public discussion diminished.

from memory Marr has a bit of go at the failure of the media to pursue these issues actively, and the way that journalism has ended up with passively accepting "his master's voice".


I was thinking about writing a post on this, but ended up rolling my eyes and walking away, for similar reasons to the ones Manne gave at the end of the interview.

If you read Kelly at face value he's covering the same old ground he always has. No surprises there. He's made a career out of defending the Howardian way of life. Which is why I found the interview more interesting than the article.

He says "The purpose [of the article] was in broad terms to argue at the national level, I think we've made a lot of progress since 1983 under both Labor and Coalition governments on the big issues."

That really bugs me. He bitches about influential people who put humanitarian concerns on the table because, unlike him, they don't also cheer about the economy.

His Master's Voice is about various things the Howard Government has done to silence influential critical voices, stacking boards to smashing hard drives and when you can't stop them, discredit them somehow.

And what, exactly, is Kelly doing in this piece if not trying to discredit dissenting voices?

kelly is right about one thing, oz 'intellectuals' are rightly called chatterati. as the oz electorate is effectively powerless to direct the nation, and commonly uninterested in what they cannot affect, discourse can not rise above gossip.

in these conditions, argument ad hominem flourishes for lack of facts, and inabilty of 'citizens' to require accountability from their masters.

the nation's character, it's actions and functions, are all of a piece. on the plus side, hanson was too ignorant to be a threat, her advisors were too short sighted and the 'better' hanson has not come on the scene as yet. enjoy the lucky country while you may, some proto-fascist is asking himself what's to stop him doing better, and seeing no impediment in law or culture.

Paul Kelly is entitled to his opinion, even entitled to his method of trying to silence decent ( this is more of the same). Fortunately Howard's assault on our institution looks as if it is coming to an end. I wonder what percentage of the electorate are voting against this government because they have noticed and are fed up with the tactics discussed in the recent Quarterly Essay.

I know the set contains at least one.

sure Kelly can have his say and good luck to him for being in such a good position to say it. We citizens in turn can probe what he argues--that's how public reason in politics works isn't it.

What I find odd is that though Kelly talks about governance he never addressed the issue of the Coalition effectively diminishing the Senate as a check on executive power, and using its majority to force through contentious legislation, to limit Senate inquiries and to weaken Senate committees.

These are important issues raised by Howard's critics and they have to do with both political (not personal) ethics and liberal democracy.

Kelly says that his main generic argument against the public intellectuals is that I think at the end of the day their analysis is not good enough.

I think that the task of intellectuals is to clarify, is to inform, is to enlighten, is to guide public debate in an effective and intelligent way and I think far too often what we get is a polemic. A polemic which is designed to create anger and indignation, a polemic which doesn't enlighten or clarify at all.

Its odd isnt it.That isn't the role of the commentators mainstream media in Australia since 1996 --certainly not the conservative ones in the Murdoch Press --the Howard huggers (Albrechtsen, Bolt or Ackerman)-- with their partisanship, deep anti-intellectualism and appeal to prejudice and bigotry in the name of common sense of ordinary Australians.

So who is Kelly thinking of? There has been serious debate on water and climate change that has been informative, enlightening and it has guided public debate in an effective and intelligent way.

Kelly ignores the way that the conservative movement used talkback radio as democracy's safety valve to enable ordinary battling suburban Australians to air their opinions free from the straitjacket of political correctness. That is how they saw things.

Talkback radio was used as a conservative force to get around the left leaning Canberra Press Gallery and academic commentators.

It's had an effect on the press. Today we have conservative columnists who read like shock jocks.They are politically incorrect, unashamedly partisan and very much in step with the temper and agenda of the Howard era.

Kelly says that the economy is his main concern and he interprets the reforms as a success because they resulted in prosperity. Intellectuals, he says have been on the wrong side of been on the wrong side of the big debates in Australia since 1983, and he illustrates this by stating that intellectuals insist that political leaders are destroying Australia's egalitarianism by their disregard of the inequalities caused by a more market-based economy.

Those who have critiqued neo-liberalism argue that inequality has increased. Thus in Who Gets What? Analysing Economic Inequality in Australia, University of Sydney academics Frank Stilwell and Kirrily Jordan argue that capitalism is inherently unfair, and all the more so because of "neoliberalism" and "transnationalism". They point out that wage incomes are now more unequal, with skilled workers gaining and unskilled workers falling behind. People on very high incomes such as chief executives have done very well, increasing their distance from middle-income Australia.

As the authors acknowledge, the evidence is mixed for those on lower incomes, not least because several million jobs have been created in the past 16 years and the Howard Government recycles a hefty chunk of tax back as family payments. But there is no doubt that wealth has increased and that it is unequally distributed.

That is far more nuanced account than Kelly attributes. Kelly even acknowledges that markets tend to create more inequality while increasing overall prosperity.

It's not fashionable in blogworld to pay heed to al loomis. Generally he's tolerated as a kind of resident loony, but he's been making a valid point for a long time. The issues we debate as a public, the way we debate them, the voices that get heard and the conclusions we draw are not at all democratic.

Our public debates are dominated by the personal opinions of adherents to one doctrine or another with little, if any, reference to what we as a people are interested in, want, believe is important or otherwise think should happen. Iraq is a case in point.

We know the majority don't support the war, but our public debate is conducted in terms of partisanship instead of the issue itself. If you think the economy's doing great you logically have to support everything else the current government does. Obviously that's garbage, but it's presented to us as a package deal.

It seems to me that, as one of those with a voice, Kelly is presenting us with one package deal as opposed to another. We take either the economy deal or the humanitarian deal, as if there's no choice. None of the public intellectuals he's talked about have made that distinction, to my knowledge.

There's the distinction that Kelly can't do. He's stuck in an either/or distinction without understanding the irrelevance of that. Poor sod.