Emeritus Professor Roger Horrocks contributes an insightful and reflective essay on ‘A short history of “the New Zealand intellectual”’ to Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand (edited by Laurence Simmon, 2007, Auckland: AUP). In this, Horrocks deals with being chided for being “ivory tower”, he details the reality of the university common-room discussions and debates, he explains why the media doesn’t contribute to ‘the public sphere’, and he criticises the current Labour Government for continuing the neoliberal model of media [Read more below]
Roger Horrocks quotes from Bill Pearson’s classic 1952 essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’ to say that: ‘There is no place in normal New Zealand society for the man who is different’ (p.30). The public intellectual has always been marginal, and strategies need to be developed in order to deal with their marginal position. Elsewhere in the Speaking Truth to Power, James Belich talks about the strategies of New Zealand intellectuals that seek to inoculate themselves against New Zealand’s anti-intellectualism: ‘the people who survive this anti-intellectualism best tend to be those who demonstrate that though they might be intellectuals they still watch rugby and drink a lot of beer. My predecessor, Keith Sinclair, was an expert at this. He could build a boat and drink any kiwi bloke under the table. So in that way he evaded the anti-intellectual reflex’ (p.293). In this same way, Horrocks announces that, ‘I have developed a way of talking about art or ideas in public that is cryptic and flavoured with colloquialisms and down-to-earth comments, so I am not embarrassed to be overheard’ (p.32). Of course Horrocks doesn’t believe that he should be so embarrassed, and he draws attention to a different attitude towards the public discussion of ideas that exists in a cosmopolitan European city such as Berlin: ‘If people heard an esoteric conversation at the next table, their immediate reaction would be curiosity’ (p.32). Apparently, the term intellectual ‘carries a different cluster of associations’ in Europe: hard thinking, comfortable with ideas, open minded, dedicated to truth, art, science, or the community (p.30).
Horrocks argues that ‘Public attitudes tend to create a double bind: intellectuals are chided for being “ivory tower”, yet when they attempt to get involved in the public arena they are told to go away’ (p.39). [I can add that, as someone who participates in political debate in the NZ blogosphere, that this is occasionally occurs even there. Although in online debates I make no mention of my academic employment, there is often someone who will use this as a weapon to discredit. It is noteworthy that this has occurred on relatively leftwing blogs such as the Labour-aligned Standard, and the Green Party’s Frogblog – where ironically the co-leader Dr Russel Norman once tried to dismiss a political argument as being too abstract and not very practical.] This raises the vexed issue of how ‘Egalitarianism (normally a positive idea) became distorted in a conformist society’ (p.36). It seems that many on the left now use egalitarianism as a tool to deride critical analysis and public intellectualism.
The ‘public sphere’
The ideas of Habermas are used by Horrocks to describe what a healthy public sphere should look like in a democratic society. This is ‘a situation as characterised by broad participation, freedom of speech, and rational, well-informed debate on the issues of the day. Such debate helps to prevent either big business or the government from simply imposing its own views’ (p.40). In elaborating on the history of ‘the NZ intellectual’, Horrocks shows that the ‘Political bases or concentrations of intellectual activity in any country include: (1) the mass media, (2) the arts, (3) universities and schools, and (4) politics. In some countries there is considerable overlap between the arts and the mass media’ (p.39).
Unfortunately, according to Horrocks, most of our public commentators are conservative and populist: ‘the media favour personalities who are champions of common sense and can vividly convey its classic sneer. The present line-up – Paul Holmes, Frank Haden, Michael Laws, Garth George, John Banks, and Deborah Coddington, among others – make up a powerful group of conservative opinion-leaders’ (p.41). He complains that ‘They have chosen to use their intellectual skills to become populist motor-mouths. At times they disagree among themselves but their disagreements fall within a narrow range of conservative opinions’ (p.41). Incidentally he relays his interest in the fact that it is the rightwing in NZ – as well as the US – that is so anti-intellectual.
The public sphere is greatly enhanced, according to Horrocks, by the assistance of a mass media, ‘providing they are not captured by commercialism or sensationalism. In these terms New Zealand is a highly imperfect media environment’ (p.40). The print media serves New Zealand particularly badly, in this regard:
New Zealand’s serious readers envy the kinds of weekend papers on sale in the UK, as our local papers seldom look beyond human interest, entertainment, and sport. There was a brief excitement when the Herald announced in 2004 that it was going to launch a Sunday paper, but serious readers were astonished to see the Herald on Sunday pitched even further down-market than the Sunday Star-Times (pp.40-41).
These deficiencies are partly a result of NZ’s small audience, partly due to a very low level of public funding, and partly, Horrocks says, due to the strongly commercial environment, which means that ‘few magazines such as the Listener that have traditionally made room for in-depth current affairs or arts coverage lead an anxious existence’ (p.40). Horrocks blames the neoliberal approach in NZ:
Since the early 1980s, a “more market” approach has dominated the media environment and this has further heightened the problems associated with small population size. Multi-national corporations have taken over the ownership of most New Zealand newspapers, magazines and radio stations and instituted a ruthlessly profit-driven style of corporate control, with short-term sales and rating figures as the key concerns. The result has been basically to shrink the space in which the kinds of in-depth discussion and analysis valued by Habermas might occur (pp.40-41).
Horrocks uses the case of television to show how public intellectualism has declined in our media:
There have always been some public intellectuals working in television… but in the late 1990s most gave up the struggle as the National Government destroyed all remaining vestiges of public service broadcasting in order to make TVNZ a more attractive package for potential buyers. Some directors went overseas, some looked for new careers. Programmers and commissioning editors functioned as a listener over the shoulder, making sure that every aspect of a programme was viewer-friendly. They referred frequently to generic viewers (‘Mr and Mrs Smith’) who should never be allowed to feel intimidated. To avoid that possibility, programme-makers were advised to stop interviewing experts, particularly academics. ‘Documentaries needed to be personalised (to be structured round individuals rather than ideas), to be as emotional as possible, and to move along briskly. They had to avoid being complicated, “pointy-headed” (intellectual), or overtly educational” (p.42).
Discussion follows on whether or not the Fifth Labour Government has actually rolled back the neoliberal model. Horrocks sees the voluntary TVNZ Charter that came into force in 2003 as being a partial solution, but also very problematic when combined with Labour’s ongoing neoliberal model for television:
TVNZ managers whose attitudes were shaped by the commercialism of the 1980s and ‘90s continue to have difficulty understanding what the Charter should mean in practice. The government itself has continued to give mixed messages by providing some funds for Charter programmes but still expecting TVNZ to make a profit and to return a dividend…. TVNZ is the only national public broadcaster required to deliver a dividend to the government. This strange ritual of giving with one hand and taking away with the other reflects the fact that the Government has rejected only some aspects of the neo-liberal legacy. TVNZ remains primarily a commercial broadcaster and much of its local content consists of lifestyle and reality programmes that are cheap to make and easy to consume (p.43).
Most other western countries have at least one non-commercial, national channel. Not only is the country continually denied this, but also, despite some small changes, Horrocks is aghast that the Government continues an arrangement whereby ‘there is less support for the public funding of media than in Australia, Canada, Britain, or other European countries’ (p.40), and ‘New Zealand television has been required to chase advertising revenue to supplement its public funding’ (p.40).
In the universities, too, the current Labour Government continues its commercialist approach. Horrocks says that ‘It is ironic that in 1988, in a Sites issue on “Intellectuals at Work,” Steve Maharey attacked “the anti-intellectualism of New Zealand universities”. It is not obvious that this critic has made the universities a much stronger site of intellectual activity since becoming Minister of Education’ (p.55).
As an Emeritus professor himself, Horrocks is able to report that the stereotype of ‘eggheads lost in a world of ideas’ is far from the truth:
The reality of the New Zealand ivory tower is more mundane. Common-room discussions are less likely to be about ideas than about gossip, sport, overseas trips, parking problems, restaurants, wine, and other topics typical of any middle-class group. Official university meetings focus mainly on regulations and budget problems. Many university courses and staff publications are routine in character, forms of intellectual busywork. Bureaucracy has mushroomed, and money-minded managerialism plays a major role in the running of tertiary institutions. There is considerable tension between the “critic and conscience” role of the universities and their need today to keep governments happy and to fill the large holes in their budgets by extracting money from corporations and wealthy patrons, some of whom are quick to take offence. Expensive advertising campaigns by fiercely competing universities stress academic “excellence” but also promise prospective students that the campus will have first-class sporting and recreational facilities and a friendly, fun atmosphere (p.55).
The creative arts in New Zealand is probably not normally seen as being part of public intellectualism. But according to Horrocks it definitely is:
The New Zealand situation has tended to encourage a “public intellectual” stance among many of its artists, not because their opinions are welcomed but on the contrary because there is so much about our society that disturbs them. This sense of political urgency can be found, for example, in paintings by Nigel Brown, Jacqueline Fahey, Tony Fomison, Pat Hanly, Ralph Hotere, Robyn Kahukiwa, Colin McCahon, Selwyn Muru, Peter Robinson, and Carole Shepheard (p.37).
Interestingly enough, however, Horrocks notes that much of the arts community actually supported the shift towards neoliberalism in the mid-1980s: they ‘endorsed this “more market” approach as a way to rescue the country from its bureaucratic paralysis’ (p.62).
Horrocks provides an interesting discussion about whether the original neoliberals (the ‘Rogernomes’) were intellectual or not. He mentions ‘the confusing way it has been interpreted as an important example both of intellectualism and of anti-intellectualism’ (p.62), but comes down on favour of seeing them as anti-intellectual. He also wants to discredit the association that many make between the neoliberal economic reforms and the enlivened society that developed in the 1980s:
After the events of the early 1980s (such as the Springbok tour protest), it was obvious that New Zealand was going to open wide to the world as soon as Muldoon was gone, and Rogernomics had no right to claim credit for all the new energies released. Indeed it bungled the transition because of its obsessive, cargo-cult enthusiasm for the market (pp.62-63).