It's Okay To Be Smart: Professor Peter Gluckman has urged New Zealanders to embrace intellectualism, science and the life of the mind. But in a country where intelligence and creativity are viewed with suspicion, what are his chances?
THE PRIME MINISTER’S scientific advisor, Professor Peter Gluckman, recently asked New Zealanders to show more respect for intellectualism. He was right to do so, although I hold little hope that New Zealanders will heed him. Kiwis don’t put a lot of stock in intellectualism and even less in intellectuals. Supposedly, our nation was built by “practical men” in circumstances that left little time for extravagant flights of fancy. Besides, to most New Zealanders intellectualism smacks of elitism: of people who misconstrue their intelligence and specialised knowledge as a badge of superiority. It offends our egalitarian principles.
Though this faux egalitarianism obliges our sporting heroes to demonstrate huge difficulty in stringing together a coherent sentence, we don’t object. An articulate Rugby player would only arouse suspicion. Was he making fun of us? His team-mates? Or – God forbid! – the holy game of Rugby itself? It’s why our sportsmen and women would never dream of waxing lyrical about their codes. Kiwis don’t appreciate “show-offs”. The media would be unsparing. Careers would suffer.
The Prime Minister, John Key, understands this imperative to do “normal Kiwi” very well. It’s why he has never attempted to modify his excruciating pronunciation of “Nu Zild” English. Remaining so dismally unquotable undoubtedly requires considerable self-discipline in a man as ebullient and intelligent as John Key. But, he’s up for it. To be the sort of bloke most New Zealanders can see themselves having a drink with, not only must the Prime Minister have nothing to say, but he must not say it often, with complete conviction, and in an accent broad enough to send elocutionists running screaming from the room.
In a peculiar way, this practice of political leaders deliberately dumbing themselves down is a tribute to the democratic temper of the New Zealand electorate – and must not be neglected. David Cunliffe’s great mistake, as an aspiring leader of the Labour Party was to be, in the words of Matt McCarten, “the better performer”. Intelligent, accomplished, articulate, even a little poetic, the man simply didn’t stand a chance against the patriotically inarticulate David Shearer.
But our democratic temper – or perhaps that should be “distemper” – comes at a cost. Professor Gluckman made his appeal for more intellectualism at a function honouring the late scientist, author and entrepreneur, Sir Paul Callaghan. In a country that valued men of ideas more (and ignoramuses less) Sir Paul would have been better known and more highly regarded. He wanted a New Zealand that put smarts ahead of sports, and was the untiring advocate of a nimble, export-oriented economy based on scientific entrepreneurism and innovative manufacturing – not on ever increasing volumes of milk and muck.
But, such an economy will only come into being in a New Zealand that has freed itself from the tutelage of “practical men”. A New Zealand whose airwaves are mercifully free of Maori haters, beneficiary bashers and climate change deniers. A New Zealand from which the malign spell of neoliberal economics has been lifted, and whose boardrooms have been populated with business leaders prepared to believe in the extraordinary abilities of ordinary Kiwis. A New Zealand that has, once again, become the place where exciting new ideas go to be born – instead of remaining the place where exhausted old ideas go to die.
Because the real story of New Zealand is not the story of sporting heroes and “practical men”, but of clever, creative, caring and innovative risk-takers. Men and women like William Pember-Reeves and Kate Shepherd, Bill Sutch and Clarence Beeby, Sonja Davies and Sir Owen Woodhouse. Sorely missed citizens like Sir Paul Callaghan and Margaret Mahy.
The social anthropologist, Peter J. Wilson, was another distinguished New Zealander. His celebrated book, Crab Antics, takes its name from the behaviour of crabs in a crab-pot. Should a more intelligent and enterprising crustacean discover a way out of their prison, his companions, rather than follow him to life and freedom, will reach up with their claws and haul him back. Wilson’s study of impoverished rural communities in the Caribbean revealed a culture in which human-beings behaved towards one another much like those incarcerated crabs.
The egalitarianism of Crab Antics is impressive, but it is also fatal. To have an equal chance of escaping their present confinement, New Zealanders must learn to stop hauling down those who have thought our way out.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, July 27, 2012.