Is the Sunday Star-Times New Zealand’s most intellectual newspaper? Certainly the paper ran a very good review last year of Laurence Simmons’ Speaking Truth to Power. Written by Mark Broatch, the article entitled Smart thinking allows for an insightful examination of the NZ personality. And it must be one of the few times that a newspaper article mentions both Antonio Gramsci and Fred Dagg. [Read more below]
In the review Broatch asks appropriate questions such as: ‘We may be anti-intellectual, but are we anti intellectuals? And what is a public intellectual?’
Broatch perceptively notes a related change in the NZ personality that allows more public expression, but ponders whether this newfound openness extends to the discussion and debate of ideas:
There has been something of a sea-change in our broader culture in recent times. Whereas once on the rugby field we were dutiful destroyers, unsmiling assassins, trotting back from the tryline with barely a glance to our team-mates, now every try is celebrated by a passionate embrace. We used to dislike show-offs, but that was before reality TV. We were once a society of reluctant talkers, grudging mumblers. Now you cannot shut us up. It has been said that we will bend over backwards to allow an opposing point of view, but not give an inch on the roads. Perhaps our cars are real-world avatars for the aggressive, overconfident, thin-skinned people we are underneath. But if we accept that we are emotionally more open on the sports field, more able to show our glories and failures, should we not be able to argue as passionately for the ideas we believe in?
Another curious tradition in NZ is the fact that we tend to be both reticent and plain speaking. For although New Zealanders can be polite to a fault as well as avoiding disagreement, we tend to be rather plain speaking:
Despite our reluctance to talk, New Zealanders have a strong desire for plain speaking. Perhaps our anti- intellectualism is partly fuelled by the dual notions that intellectuals have things to say, but speak in impenetrable cant, or that the gobbledygook hides a paucity of real or useful thinking.
Another interesting issue raised up by Broatch is the fact that although New Zealanders actually embrace culture to a significant degree, but it occurs largely in isolation, and much of its funded by the state:
We read a lot of books, go to cultural events, fill literary festivals, listen to NatRad and Concert. We read serious papers and websites. Some of our popular culture has depth and real meaning. But we largely do this in isolation. And we are swamped by cheap foreign material, from the high and the low. And too much local culture is debased by the commerciality it needs to survive with such a small population. How much compromise is too much when we subsidise the creation of culture, through grants bodies and NZ on Air, for instance?
As with other reviews of this book, Broatch passes comment on the selection of candidates for the interviews, which he regards as its weakness: 'Most of its contributors are pale, middle-class liberals from Auckland's academia. A few are from Wellington. Where are the right-wing intellectuals? The South Islanders? The non-Pakeha? The poets such as CK Stead and Brian Turner? The artists?' This is probably a fair point. But the answer to Broatch’s question about ‘what is a public intellectual?’ also comes up in the review: it’s those that ‘clearly confront dogma and orthodoxy’. And despite being overwhelmingly pale, liberal, Aucklanders, most of the interviewees do a fantastic job of this.