Real Intellectuals Have Day Jobs

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has an excellent piece in the weekend papers in which she compares public life in the UK to Erdoğan’s expanding kingdom of fear.

Here in the UK things are very different. Freedom of speech prevails, democracy is strong. Novelists are not sued for tackling controversial issues, academics are not expelled in their thousands, journalists are not put in jail en masse. Compared with their Turkish, Russian, Venezuelan, Pakistani or Chinese counterparts, British intellectuals have so much freedom. One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t. So why don’t we have more public intellectuals in this country? The answer lies in the words of a British academic who once told me: ‘Well, we think it’s a bit arrogant to call yourself intellectual. And to do that publicly is twice as arrogant.’

There appears to be an interesting mapping of the world in some people’s minds. According to this, feminists and activists for freedom of speech and human rights are only needed in those parts of the world where things are dire and democracy is visibly under attack. What seems arrogant to me is the presumption that intellectuals are needed in backward countries whereas over here in the developed, democratic west we are beyond all those ‘petty troubles’.

Shafak makes a fine point, but I’d like to expand on it. There are other restraints on intellectual life on this country. (I’m using the word ‘intellectualism’ to cover emotive and intuitive thinking, as well as cerebral rationalism.) So my attempt at answering Shafak’s question is in two parts.

Britain is a very stratified and class-oriented society. To be a ‘public intellectual’ in the UK – that is, to speak, and write, and argue, for a living – you need to have gone to certain schools, then to certain colleges in certain universities: you need introductions in the better parts of the capital, and a private income once you get there. Ideally, the legwork needs to begin long before one is even born: influential relatives and inherited wealth can open doors that nothing else can. I don’t want to be chippy: class considerations don’t necessarily poison everything, I think that amazing things still come out of British publishing and journalism. But let’s not kid ourselves.

In Amitav Ghosh’s fabulous opium novel Flood of Fire a young Indian farmboy, who dreams of being a soldier, refuses to join an English regiment because, he thinks, John Company doesn’t understand caste tradition. A havildar puts him right: ‘the English care more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did… The sahibs are stricter about these matters than our rajas and nawabs ever were. They have brought learned men from their country to study our old books. These white pundits know more about our scriptures than we do ourselves… Under the sahibs’ guidance every caste will once again become like an iron cage.’

When intellectualism gets tied up with class and caste, intellectuals tend to hang out mainly with people similar to themselves, and to develop ‘packages’ of opinions – circumscribed always by the fear of getting sued, or pissing off certain key people. Meanwhile everyone else is brought up on the lie that books and reading have no practical application and that the right thing to do is get an apprenticeship and find steady work on a building site – steady work until the next crash, of course.

Or as Jeremy Clarkson wrote the other day: ‘I’m sorry, but an upper second from Exeter is always going to be trumped by a spot of nepotism. If I know your mum and dad, you stand a pretty good chance. If not, you’re just another name.’

The second part of my response to Shafak is about ideas. Shafak writes that: ‘Populism creates its own myths. It tells us that intellectuals are ‘a privileged liberal elite’ out of touch with ‘the real people.” Now, I hate giving credit to any of the foul ideologies and movements that call themselves ‘populist’ today – but the lies of what Shafak identifies as ”anti-public intellectual’ discourse’ are leavened with a grain of truth: it’s the iron rule of propaganda that the grain of truth is what makes the big lie believable.

People don’t trust intellectuals in this country because so many prominent thinkers have been ‘out of touch’ with England’s liberal, radical and democratic traditions. Turkish writers and journalists have been jailed for speaking out against Erdogan’s dictatorship. Too many English writers and journalists have spoken out for dictatorship – from the defenders of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s, to Corbynite fanboys for Putin, Assad and Islamism today. (The same weekend Shafak’s brilliant essay appeared, the same newspaper carried a comment article by President Erdoğan himself, in which he defends the repressions that followed a recent coup attempt by the hated Gulenists.) British intellectuals have been reluctant to make the most of their own freedom. As Shafak writes: ‘One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t.’

George Orwell has escaped the blanket scepticism that British people tend to have about public intellectuals – he wrote so clearly and honestly that he was accepted, with only a little bad grace, into English cultural tradition. In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ Orwell demonstrated why the scepticism endures.

But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries.

People sense in public intellectuals, particularly the very political ones, what Orwell called ‘an admiration for power and successful cruelty.’ They suspect that a great deal of the intelligentsia would be comfortable with a British Erdoğan. (And can’t you hear the dinner-party rationalisations already: ‘It’s easy to criticise, but… vital measures to ensure the security of the People…. regrettable necessities…’)

Shafak writes:

We have entered a new era in world history. Liberal democracy is widely under threat. There is a dangerous discourse brewing outside the borders of Europe that claims, “Democracy is not suitable for either the Middle East or the east”. Isolationists are proposing new social models in which democracy, human rights, freedom of speech are all dispensable and all that matters is economic stability. They do not understand that undemocratic nations are deeply unhappy nations and cannot be stable in any way.

Turkey, Hungary, Poland … Case after case shows us that democracy is more fragile than we realised. It is not a material possession that some countries have while others have not; rather, it is an ecosystem that needs to be continuously protected, nourished and cared for. And today, faced with populist movements and tribalist discourses, this ecosystem is threatened. If we do not speak up for basic human rights and pluralistic values then we run the risk of losing them one by one. Turkey holds important lessons as to how countries can go backwards with a bewildering speed. What happened over there can happen anywhere.

Despite everything I’m optimistic – Britain still has a literate and creative culture that’s proven itself more than a match for bigotry, philistinism and wilful stupidity in the past. But the above, I hope, illustrates why other things entrenched in this country may make the storm longer than it should be.

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