Reading Speaking Truth to Power as a first year academic has been a stimulating and informative experience. It’s persuaded me to want to contribute to the public sphere outside of the lecture theatre, and therefore hopefully be part of ‘public intellectualism’. Before reading the book I wasn’t familiar with the concept of ‘public intellectualism’, which will be no surprise to the contributors to this book. All of them are highly critical of the lack of public intellectuals in this country as well as the lack of a public domain in which meaningful debate and discussion can be facilitated.
So what is a public intellectual? According to this book, a public intellectual takes ideas and concerns about society and voices these within the public domain. Ideally, they also challenge orthodoxy and dogma. One of the book’s most celebrated public intellectuals is the late Bruce Jesson, who had no formal connection with a university nor much media exposure, yet was one of this country’s most astute political commentators and theorists. Jesson, despite being of the political left, also regarded leftwing politics in this country as being ‘intellectual mush’ due to a tendency towards ‘mindless activism’. In his view, New Zealand politics and society suffered from a ‘flight from thought’ that meant we allow all sorts of elites, fashions and ideologies to easily dominate us.
Therefore public intellectualism is not about academics, theorists or writers per se, but about the interaction of thinking people with public issues. The Habermasian argument made throughout Speaking Truth to Power is that New Zealand lacks the necessary ‘public sphere’ in which ideas and debate might thrive. The dozen or more contributors to this book discuss similar themes about how the critical mechanisms that make up the public sphere are inadequate or in decline. The state of New Zealand’s universities is seen as dismal, corporatised, insular. The media is in a parlous condition, and therefore a major contributor to the decline of ‘the public sphere’. The current Labour Government is seen as ideologically empty – Hager describes it as ‘cautious and visionless and nervous and going nowhere’. Issues of ethnicity also get a strong hearing: Hager explains why debates about Maori sovereignty are a ‘no-go zone’, and Michael King puts forward the contentious argument that pakeha are an indigenous culture.
In a significant sense, therefore, the book is the story of the decline of quality public debate and discussion in New Zealand under neoliberalism. Although it also constitutes a list of what’s wrong with the state of intellectualism in New Zealand, it’s also a clarion call for a revitalization of the public sphere. It’s a useful catalog and balance sheet of the existence of public intellectualism, its projects, and its participants.
And it’s not all negative. Many of those involved are enthusiastic about the role and potential of new communications technologies to assist public intellectualism. Brian Easton, for example, cites blogs as being increasingly important for understanding electoral politics: ‘During the 2005 election, some were much more lively and more interesting than the formal media, which tended to provide facts laced with stodgy, self-important non-comment’.
The interesting format of the book centres on eleven interviews with leading intellectuals, but also includes introductory essays, and it finishes with a roundtable discussion. The most interesting chapters are those that interview Jane Kelsey and Nicky Hager – who offer highly perceptive thoughts about academia, the government, and the media. Hager considers that New Zealanders aren't actually anti-intellectual but that the powerful elite use this prejudice as a way of clamping down on alternative views. Roger Horrock’s incisive history of intellectualism in NZ is also a standout, as is Andrew Sharp’s reflective essay on Jesson.
The book’s focus is on the leftwing side of the political spectrum, and it’s true that there’s a certain sameness to those involved. Many of the subjects are ‘organic intellectuals’ – in that they are not employed as academics, but as journalists, politicians, and public thinkers. Most are dissidents – they are the opinion leaders outside of the mainstream who occasionally burst through to shine a light upon problems in New Zealand society.
After reading this book, a new teacher such as myself can’t help but ask questions such as: Is political science in a healthy state? How many true public intellectuals are there amongst our discipline? Where are all the academic blogs and YouTube channels? And apart from the reactive responses of political scientists to media telephone calls, where are all the projects that involve taking political studies to the masses?
Speaking Truth to Power has inspired me towards wanting to interact with the general public and not confine my study of politics to the classroom. Moreover it encourages me to be an activist (there’s nothing wrong with mixing theory and practice according to the contributors), to participate in new communications technologies, to interact with the mass media, and most of all – to be accessible by learning to be a strong communicator rather than attempting to broaden my messages by being low-brow.
This is a fascinating collection of thoughts and points of view that offers great insight into the state of New Zealand under neo-liberalism. While it is true that the book is dominated by left/liberal thinkers (and the book has been subject to criticism on this basis), my experience has been that this approach provides a useful coherence to the contributions; making the reader feel part of a broader discussion on the relationship between neo-liberalism and New Zealanders' ability to participate in public debates. Another collection that canvasses the thoughts of the public intellectuals from other parts of the spectrum could act as a useful companion.
Laurence Simmons (ed.), Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, (Auckland: AUP, 2007), pp.344, $50.