The past decades have borne a steady decline of the ‘public intellectual’, accompanied by an increasing disparagement towards their presence. There is no absolute definition of the ‘public intellectual’, but we could take it to mean a person whose academic training and experience makes them well-equipped to speak and advise on a broad number of public policy issues. Elif Shafaq, in a recent talk on populism for the Royal Society of Arts in London (listen/watch/come to their events!), highlights their decline as symptomatic of a broader set of cultural and political changes happening across the world.
We feel as though enlightenment, liberal, democratic values are so deeply entrenched that they are here to stay, and that progress is irreversible. Yet, the rise of populism and nativism – evidenced by several political events of 2016-17 – reminds us that the scaffolding of democracy is truly fragile and subject to change and even reversal. Far right movements, and charismatic right-leaning political leaders, have taken advantage of increasing uncertainty and fear among populations, meanwhile there is an increasing disparity in the voting patterns of people in cosmopolitan cities and those in the rural countryside. It is this fragility that writers and commentators such as John Gray (see ‘False Dawn’ or ‘Straw Dogs’) have been so powerfully exposing for many years.
Why then, does distrust of public intellectuals epitomise the fragility of democracy described above? One of the explanations lies within a broader unease towards authority, leading to what Daniel Drezner has described as the ‘democratization of ideas’. This has lead to a fertile ideas marketplace, with contrasting opinions and concepts emerging from every corner of society. However, it has also led to an increasing ability for intellectual charlatans and charismatic politicians to inject their ideas through to the population. Drezner describes this rag-tag bunch as ‘thought leaders’, echoing Orwell’s language in 1984. This is coupled by an increasing sense in which ‘emotion’ has become more important to the world of politics.
What is more worrying is that it is becoming more difficult to separate the good ideas from the bad. This is where public intellectuals are important, because they serve the function to analyse and critique influential and emerging ideas in the public forum.
Is this situation salvageable by any imposed means? Could our brightest and best thinkers and speakers be given more government support? What may help is to re-engineer the role of the public intellectual so that it can better speak to the demands of the people, helping to re-instill people’s belief in reason as a way to balance the shift towards a politics of emotion. This does not mean we, in response, disparage the anxiety and fear that drives people towards the right, but instead find better ways to step in to the intersection between so-called ‘thought leaders’ and the population they seek to enlist.
Drezner, D. 2017. The Ideas Industry How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas
Gray, J. 2002. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals
Gray, J. 1998. False Dawn: The Delusion of Global Capitalism
Orwell, G. 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four
Shafak, E. 2017. Talk at the RSA, accessible here: https://www.thersa.org/events/2017/11/elif-shafak (see also their other events)