The Public Intellectual: A good or a bad thing?

The last two individuals that the Liberal Party of Canada put up as candidates to be the country’s prime minister were both, by most definitions of the phrase, public intellectuals. And both were savaged by their chief opponents, the Conservative Party of Canada, precisely because they were public intellectuals.

In their French-language attack ads leading up to and during the 2008 federal election, the Conservatives sneered at “professor” Stéphane Dion. Again, in 2011, Michael Ignatieff’s academic credentials and long career as a public intellectual was not, so far as the Conservatives were concerned, an asset for someone hoping to be prime minister but instead was something to be laughed at and derided.

Sociologists Neil McLaughlin of Hamilton’s McMaster University and Eleanor Townsley of South Hadley, Maine’s Mount Holyoke College comment on this in their recently published research paper that looks at popular concepts of the “public intellectual” in Canada and in the U.S.:

The nature of electoral politics militates against a leader of the opposition or a Prime Minister being identified as a public intellectual because it is associated with charges of elitism and a lack of realism. From this perspective, if we follow the public intellectual debate in Canada .., Ignatieff’s essay in the New York Times Magazine on “Getting Iraq Wrong,” (2007) and his book True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada (2009) can both be read as attempts to distance himself from the public intellectual label as well as a response to the conservative criticism that he is not really Canadian.

The results of their study are published in the November, 2011 issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology.

Their cue for this work is the argument made most famously, the authors tell us, in Rusell Jacoby’s 1987 book The Last Intellectuals that, in the United States at least, specialization and professionalization among professors meant that  academics were increasingly disconnected from civic society. Those “public intellectuals” that remained in the public sphere came under attack by Richard Posner in 2001 for being more interested in celebrity than in the pursuit of peer-reviewed knowledge and discourse.

McLaughlin and Townsley take a look at the use of the term “public intellectual” in 25 English-language Canadian newspapers in the period between 1987 and 2005, before Dion became leader of this party and before the Conservatives had honed their brutally efficient political attack machine.

The authors do find in Canada, in the late 1990s at least, some of the anti-intellectual backlash that would become the hallmark of Conservative politics a decade later though it was “not as vociferous or bitter” in the 1990s as it was at that time in the United States. One might argue that the Conservatives of the last five years have made “anti-academic loading”, to use the McLaughlin/Townsley phrase, increasingly vociferous and bitter. And, if it is, one might, if you believe the study’s authors, blame/credit the National Post for this trend:

By the end of the 1990s . . . there was an upswing in interest inpublic intellectuals in English Canada. This coincided with the founding of the new conservative newspaper the National Post in 1998 by Conrad Black. The Post is the publication where references to public intellectuals were the most common over the period, and this is connected to the Post’s role as a right wing forum for public intellectual discourse. With the founding of the Post, then, interest in the term slowly mounted.

The launch of the Post was quickly followed by the appointment in 1999 of Adrienne Clarkson as our Governor General.

The appointment propelled her already famous husband, John Ralston Saul, into the political limelight in a way that focused the national conversation on public intellectuals in a specifically political way. As viceregal consort of Canada, Saul became a lightning rod for public intellectual discourse, eventually becoming the individual most frequently nominated as a public intellectual in our survey of Canadian newspapers. Saul was not employed as a professor, and his triple links to the cultural field of letters, the media elite and the government does not have an equivalent in the United States…

Saul quickly became the chief target for those, mostly writing in the pages of the Post, who pre-saged Posner’s 2001 argument “that most public intellectuals were shallow, attention-seeking, typically left-wing media celebrities”. Here are McLaughlin and Townsey on that point:

Given his own prominence in networks around the CBC, within book publishing, and elsewhere among the cultural elite in Canada, it is not surprising that Saul quickly became a target for conservative commentators and pundits.

McLauglin and Townsley, though, note that the debate involving the role/value of public intellectuals in Canada took on a different tone than the one in the United States a decade ago: is striking how quickly the debate about public intellectuals was adopted to make sense of specifically Canadian intellectual issues: namely, the impact and dominance of U.S. culture in Canada, issues around state funding for the arts and other forms of cultural production, the place of academics and the university in national political life, and enumerating the contribution of Canadians to pressing social problems in Canada and beyond..

McLaughlen and Townsley also show the Canadian media at their parochial best (again):

… the Canadian press was so quick to sift out who was Canadian among those named as public intellectuals in Posner’s 2001 book, and why it also quickly identified the Canadians (e.g., Michael Ignatieff and Naomi Klein) on Prospect’s international lists of the top 100 public intellectuals in 2005 and 2008. In some sense, then, deciding whether or not an intellectual is “Canadian” or not preoccupies Canadian journalists.


4 thoughts on “The Public Intellectual: A good or a bad thing?”

  1. Intellectual/intelligentsia No matter the term, these ‘learned, cultured’ folks do not warm the heart of the average Joe & Flo Canadian citizen.
    I certainly admire the Neurologist at the local hospital that fits into that category (an intellectual ‘plus,’ obviously a pragmatic individual).
    What I, (Hey this is just me) do not want is the elected public servant wearing that badge. This guy/gal in charge of building roads and bridges, has the key to the cash register, would never get my vote.
    As far as I can see, the cliche “They’ve never, ever had a real job” is really not that much of a cliche. They haven’t.
    It’s scary enough having them as Professors in public education, instructing the kids ‘all they ever wanted to know’ about left wing politics.
    As for me, I’ll stick with that economist guy.

  2. David, I think McLaughlin and Townsey’s use of the term “cultural elite” in describing Mr. Saul is telling. The term “elite” has become an all encompassing perjorative, and using that term now is a pretty good indication of the starting bias of the user.

    The current government made great use of the word, associating it with expensive coffee drinks, Toronto and the word “academic” as part of their appeal to their own base of middle-income Canadians.

  3. Does this mean there are no right-wing intellectuals, or that they keep their candle hidden under their basket? Elitism runs in both directions.

  4. Yes, of course, freakin’ idiots like Bush are much preferred!

    More seriously, when we have people planning the future of our country, we really should be hoping we get people that are both smart and wise.

    Ideology, which does not change to reflect changes in the world are a bad way to set the nation’s course.

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