Entr'acte: Thinkers down and out in
Paris and London
PARIS: Among the striking cultural differences between France and
Britain is the way their intellectuals operate in the public arena.
While the French expect their thinkers to speak out on matters of
conscience and state, Britons view the very idea of an "intellectual"
with suspicion, preferring their "scholars" to work more
quietly in elitist circles. Both, though, have added weight to the
political debate. And now both, it seems, are becoming endangered
The waning of the power and status of the intelligentsia is hardly
exclusive to France and Britain. Yet it is an alarming trend for
countries that once boasted imperial and military might and now
rely on the "soft power" of their culture and brains.
And this is where the long-divergent paths of France and Britain
meet: In both countries, governments, media and public opinion are
learning to live without the input of the critical intellectual.
The change is most apparent in France, because probably nowhere
in Europe has the "intellectuel engagé" been more
accepted as a political actor. Specifically, Émile Zola's
"J'Accuse" in 1898 - his denunciation of institutionalized
anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair - set an example that encouraged
Catholic, fascist, Communist, Trotskyite, anti-Communist and liberal
intellectuals to hold forth and claim the moral high ground.
But since the end of the cold war, the ideological combat that
once spawned major figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron
has become largely irrelevant. The French government seems less
interested in courting intellectuals, newspapers that serve as their
vehicles are losing circulation, and even college students have
switched their attention from politics to job-hunting. Once an end
unto itself, knowledge is becoming a means.
A handful of intellectuals - most theatrically Bernard-Henri Lévy
- have become media and literary celebrities. But cries of lamentation
are heard more often. In February, 40,000 members of the educated
elite signed a petition accusing the right-of-center government
of waging "war on intelligence" by cutting scientific
and other research budgets. One minister retorted: "Being an
intellectual should not be considered a protected species."
France's top thinkers are gloomy. The headline of a recent article
in Le Figaro's literary supplement asked: "Why don't intellectuals
of left and right occupy a more prominent place in the public arena?"
The article's author, Jacques de Saint-Victor, added a rhetorical
question: "The end of intellectuals?" Perhaps many earned
this fate by defending indefensible communism. Yet, he concluded,
there is still a need for critical thinkers to raise the tone of
Britain's recent experience also suggests that a "thinking
deficit" has become a fact of political life.
Notwithstanding the Cambridge Communists and Oswald Mosley's Brown
Shirts in the 1930s, political extremism has never flourished in
Britain. But the Fabian Society demonstrated that intellectuals
could affect politics. Founded in the 1880s to advance democratic
socialism, it shaped the trade union movement and the Labour Party.
A few individuals also stood out: In the 1950s and 1960s, Bertrand
Russell was as influential in Britain as Sartre was in France.
But in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher broke the power of the unions;
and in the mid-1990s, Tony Blair's New Labour abandoned the old
left. In Britain too, then, with socialism seemingly defeated, ideological
debate evaporated. If British cabinets of the 1960s and 1970s included
intellectuals like Richard Crossman, Michael Joseph and Roy Jenkins,
their place was now taken by pragmatists more obsessed with opinion
polls than ideas.
So, outside the chattering classes, does any of this matter?
Yes, in the view of Frank Furedi, a British sociologist who addresses
the issue in a new book, "Where Have All the Intellectuals
Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism." His focus is
on Britain, where, he argues, people with genuine learning, breadth
of vision and a concern for public issues have been replaced by
facile pundits, think-tank apologists and spin doctors. His diagnosis
might also apply to other Western democracies.
As societies have dumbed down, with television crowded with reality
shows and newspapers with gossip, so has the public debate. Politics
- without policies - is even marketed by the media as soap opera:
Will France's president, Jacques Chirac, be outmaneuvered by his
ambitious economy minister, Nicolas Sarkozy? Can Britain's chancellor
of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, outmaneuver Blair to succeed him
in 10 Downing Street?
Still, if politicians are unwilling to examine their societies
in depth, can intellectuals do any better? In France, intellectuals
- everyone from writers and movie directors to philosophers and
scientists - do raise their voices, but mainly to defend their own
interests. In Britain, by seeking out a new audience through the
media, they have gained notoriety but lost clout. One interesting
spinoff is that political theater in Britain is now tackling issues
that newspapers skim over.
In his book, Furedi, who teaches at the University of Kent, argues
that "massification" of higher education has conspired
with political correctness to lower standards of learning, to reward
mediocrity and to discourage excellence in academia. He sees a culture
of "low expectations" fueled by the credo of social inclusion
as infantilizing the way both government and media address public
issues. And one result is a new generation of intellectuals who
fear being thought elitist.
"The heroic image of the classical intellectual has given
way to a more down-to-earth pragmatic person, whose job is not a
particularly important one," Furedi writes. He adds: "In
such circumstances, knowledge and art are not likely to be valued
for themselves, but because of their usefulness to society."
Certainly in Britain, the government increasingly promotes education
as a job tool and culture as an entertainment industry. "There
is a new breed of university managers, museum and gallery directors
and 'knowledge' entrepreneurs who regard the content of culture
and ideas with indifference," Furedi notes, recalling that
Britain's education minister recently expressed contempt for the
notion of "scholars seeking truth."
Clearly these are difficult times for public intellectuals. Governments
feel safe in ignoring them; politicians and the media, in Furedi's
words, "spoon-feed the public with sound bites"; and the
public at large shows little interest in political debate. Still
more alarming, Furedi believes, the world of art and education is
going along with this "philistine social engineering agenda"
in the guise of promoting equality.
But society as a whole may pay a price if intellectual elitism
is written off as antidemocratic. Critical intellectuals once represented
an independent voice outside the ruling establishment and, as such,
enhanced democratic pluralism. Today, with political debate increasingly
orchestrated by government and media, the silence of the intellectuals
risks undermining one of democracy's crucial checks and balances.
published in the International Herald Tribune, 14 October