Friday 27 July 2012

Thinking Our Way Out

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.


Dave Kennedy said...

Good post, Chris, however I think you meant Clarence, not Charles Beeby.

We still have many talented and internationally regarded educationalists in New Zealand, which makes the decision to employ Lesley Longstone to lead the Ministry of Education so bizarre. A dictatorial bureaucrat will hardly serve New Zealand's education system like Beeby or Renwick who were largely responsible for our top 5 international ranking.

Since National took power some recent international assessments have seen us drop to 7th. I guess if we are replicating systems from countries ranked well below this drop is logical consequence.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally with the sentiments of the original article comments. NZ is distinctly low on intellectualism. Quite possibly due to 25% of graduates emigrating and thus leaving the intellectual tailings back in NZ.

Programming in NZ is mostly to blame for the de-intellectualising of the remaining masses because it’s their primary source of external thought perspective. When programming revolves around profit and debases itself to the optimal viewing for advertisers then viewers just develop &%*^ for brains.

Chris Trotter said...

Thanks, bsprout - duly corrected.

Anonymous said...

Intellectuals can be either left or right politically.

The intellectuals of the right are celebrated big time. Our media takes every opportunity to tell us how clever the likes of Roger Kerr, Don Brash and a bunch of other right wing bastards are (or were).

Our left intellectuals struggle to be heard and even academia tries to keep them out of sight and out of mind.

New Zealand is not disimiliar to other countries in this respect. I have lived in a number of countries and have noticed a similar pattern of the thinkers of the right being lionised and the left being patronised or ignored.

Ignoring clever people with good ideas is a characteristic of capitalism as much as it is a characteristic of New Zealanders.

Anonymous said...

Yes Chris and funny as a fart is the fact that our own avaricious and maori-slaughtering landed gentry have been sending their own wee cherubs to the most expensive ecoles for generations in order to avoid parental responsibility, only to belatedly accept into their dying, faux-communal coteries of greed, variants of neurotic, inbred, sense-of-innate-superiority, materialistic, workaholic, mysogenistic, racist, anti-intellectual, alcoholic, products of the materialistic, anti-Christian, pro-American, Racist, bullying, money-grubbering,"Christian" schools of our era.

You worshipped money, you fucking moronic, bucolic idiots who had it all in the most climatically-blessed paradise of all. And lost your souls. You raped the land from Naori and you tried to kill them all. And you raped Progression by embracing Class domination. Scared, greedy, weeds on horseback, smashing the faces of those who produced your own wealth. Then ran away, you scumbag cowardly bastards, but not forgotten.

And now you own the papers and think you own us.

You don't. Your own abused offspring disabuse you. And leave these precious shores with relief.

A new country grows beneath your leaden, defeated feet. And it will reclaim the promise you so cravenly wasted. Go to your graves of self-disgust and bother us no more.


Anonymous said...

"The intellectuals of the right"

There are hardly any intellectuals of the right and New Zealand has none in any case. Brash is a bureaucrat, not by any means an intellectual, and Kerr and the rest of the NZBRT are/were lightweights and/or crank theorists on the level of Ian Wishart.

The fiction of conservative intellectuals is nothing more than an artifact of our era's fetish for evenhandedness.

Perhaps you are mistaking intellectuals for "entrepreneurs of ideas"; an exotic, invasive species which is currently overrunning the former.

Jigsaw said...

It's simply incredible for 'Anonymous' to claim that there are no intellectuals on the rights. Arrogant as well.
As for John Key's pronunciation
of New Zealand-there are Radio New Zealand journalists who are paid to report who have much worse pronunciation habits. We have had a week of 'ceremoany ' so far already. Like it or not he comes across as a 'good bloke'.

Tiger Mountain said...

Kiwi intellectuals? Whadarrryaa!

Anyone with half a brain should be strapped to posts advertising sponsors product, at rugby matches like latter day Archie Baxters so they are in no doubt how their fellow citizens view them.

Victor said...

Many good points here.

It's clearly the devaluing of intellectual excellence that hurts New Zealand most. But the overt and pleasurable pursuit of just about any form of excellence, other than in sport or business, also seems to be frowned upon.

The politics of "Dancing With The Stars" was always instructive as a guide to the national psyche. Some of the "B List" celebrities showed real ability as hoofers and took an all too fatal pleasure in what they were doing.

As a result, they tended to get voted down in favour of the gallant bumblers (some replete with "back stories"), whilst also being denounced as "show ponies" or worse by the censorious multitude.

Right through last year's Labour leadership contest, I felt a strange sense of deja vu, as Cunliffe's virtues were turned against him and his character vilified. All that was lacking were the pulsating chords of the Paso Doble.

The politics of "Master Chef" are infinitely more tortuous and Byzantine. But you can always put your money on the blandly, non-confrontational trumping the edgy perfectionist.

Yet take the pursuit of perfection out of life and it becomes a sad and tawdry business conducted in a depleted human environment, replete with leaky homes and a busted infrastructure.

Victor said...


"Ignoring clever people with good ideas is a characteristic of capitalism as much as it is a characteristic of New Zealanders."

True! And particularly so of other English-speaking countries.

But it all fits so well with the patch-protective censoriousness of a small society, with an inbuilt dislike of confrontation and a reverence for its own much-vaunted practicality.


Yes there are right-wing intellectuals in New Zealand. But there's an apparent dearth of conservative intellectuals, as opposed to market-fundamentalist neo-liberals.

If true conservative intellectuals existed here, they could expect to be as roundly ignored as are the more thoughtful voices of the Left.

Can you imagine corporate bucks expended on seminars lauding the virtues of tradition and expressing wariness of helter-skelter change? Can you imagine the NBR questioning the creed of "heroic" destruction? I suspect not.

Anonymous said...

Whether they are intellectual or not, those who pass for thinkers on the right have certainly been able to out organise, out strategise, outflank, build more solidarity among their fellow righties and amass more power than the left.

As a person from the left I find this very depressing and cannot help but think the left have got into the habit of confusing academics with intellectuals and fail to recognise the value of applied thinking; that is thinking, organising, acting and reflecting.

Of course the shallow bastards that populate the upper echelons of what passes for the left among our mainstream political parties have a vested interest in preventing any deep thinking and successfully rubbish those who attempt to engage others in doing so in the union movement and other potential areas of intellectual growth.

Anonymous said...

"Yes there are right-wing intellectuals in New Zealand"

Name one.

(difficulty: crude hacks who plagiarise Randist nonsense or think tank sophists don't count)

Brash and Kerr were certainly clever people, but so was Bill Gates and he isn't an intellectual. None of these people have the breadth of learning, culture or deep appreciation of the abstract and the general that characterises a genuine intellectual.

If you correct for the ridiculous inflation of mediocrities (e.g Hayek) by the right you end up with very few genuinely right wing thinkers who are any good (and they tend to be really anti-Marxist liberals, like Karl Popper).

Victor said...


If you exclude "crude hacks who plagiarise Randist nonsense or think tank sophists" (a beautiful summation),then I would probably have to agree with you about the absence of right-wing intellectuals in New Zealand.

To my mind, these types are only intellectuals in that they strip society down to an abstraction, in their case, known as "the market". That doesn't mean that their intellects (let alone their pronouncements)are of any great consequence.

There is, of course, another intellectual tradition that used to have first claim on the title of 'conservative'. In the UK, its current most capable spokesperson is probably John Gray. In a previous generation it was Michael Oakeshott, despite his lamentable weakness for his pal Hayek. And their starting point is a Burkeian distrust of the very tendency to abstraction so beloved of market and other fundamentalists.

To my knowledge, there's no-one of that ilke in NZ. And the point I was making is that, if they did exist here, they would be just as firmly excluded from mainstream political discourse as are intellectuals of the Left.

And we would be the poorer for both exclusions.

Anonymous said...

Problem with that is that John Gray hasn't considered himself to be a conservative for a quite a long time.

Problem with a distrust of abstraction is that it is itself an abstract position, and requires defence in terms of abstract principles. Conservative political philosophers often find themselves in the curious position of not being able to argue for their position without by that act refuting it. The alternative is not to argue, but that is to admit defeat.

The other Burkeian attitude is not hard to refute. After all, if you claim that we should prefer tradition, you need a ground for doing so. That ground is usually something like "it works". However, that just gives critics who think it doesn't a perfect platform to ridicule the theory (this becomes obvious when we consider that it is obvious that many things don't currently work very well). A rational defence of traditions needs to occur on a piece by piece basis. A general attitude of reverence for tradition is lunacy.

Similarly, those conservatives who prefer gradual change as an end in itself (and there are some) are as insane as someone who believes as a matter of principle that things should change as fast as possible.

In the end, a lot of this conservatism is religion by stealth, resting on the belief that God will sort it out.

Anonymous said...

If I'm honest I've always considered myself a right wing intellectual that emigrated back to the long grey cloud land called the UK.

There aren't any intellectuals in NZ. It’s a wasteland. But to be fair there aren't terribly many anywhere and with NZs low population its always going to have very few.

I do think however that any true right wing intellectual eventually becomes left wing. The factors that lead to that are 1) to be an intellectual you have to think a lot and to do that something has to really be prodding you. You can see injustice, corruption and so forth and it niggles you. 2) You can become left wing because you are smart enough to play the system and be wealthy enough to have a conscious.

Lindsay Perigo was the last journalist that I recollect that had something approaching an intellectual but I seriously didn't agree with his Marxist views. Mike Moore probably was the most intellectual MP that I can recollect.

John Keys, just a linear thinking plod. The left in NZ should be able to rip the limbs off him intellectually.... but they can't, they're deaf dumb and mute.

Perhaps I'm lucky; I've had a blue collar upbringing and a white collar education. I can see a lot, and I don't like what I see transpiring in society.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous@1:24 PM

Sorry old chum, but if you seriously believe Mike Moore was an "intellectual MP", then you simply don't know the meaning of the word.

As for Lindsay Perigo being a Marxist ...

Obviously, you know nothing about the man, who is probably New Zealand's most outspoken advocate of Objectivism - the ultra-individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand - and about as far from Marxism as it is possible to get!

I want to thank you, though, for proving my point.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chris, although admittedly my recollection of those 2 people was when I was about 10-15 years old. I can't recollect anyone else until I jumped on the plane and got a 500% wage increase.

Lindsays attitude is that he lived in a borderless world and everyone was equal to migrate to any country etc etc etc. I just remember him as being rather Marxist in his permissiveness.

Moore, admittedly I can recollect little other than he seemed an ok bloke compared to all the other poor performers in NZ politics. Intellectualism is a relative thing.

So, your point hasn't really been proven.

Victor said...


Had we but world enough and time!

Firstly, yes, you’re correct in observing that John Gray no longer considers himself a conservative. But that’s because he holds that true conservatism no longer exists as an activating ideology amongst political parties virtually anywhere in the developed world. But he does still claim to adhere to “aspects of the conservative view”, whilst complaining that a clearly unconservative utopianism and “batty rationalism” have now migrated to the right of the conventional spectrum. This seems to put Gray in a similar corner to Oakeshott, who thought of conservatism as a ‘disposition’ rather than an ideology

And, yes, you’re correct in stating that distrust of abstraction is itself an abstract position. But it’s an abstraction used in its appropriate sphere, viz. the critique of other abstract ideas. In contrast, neo-liberals (just like their Whig precursors) apply abstraction to an understanding of the concrete and infinitely complex realities of human existence. No wonder they get things so badly wrong! The same is largely true of Marxists, albeit that their source of reference is a more sophisticated and complex abstraction.

I’m not sure what you refer to as the “other Burkean attitude”. But there are, I think, a number of broadly Burkean attitudes that remain worthy of note. The first is that humans are not primarily rational. A second is that ours is a social species. A third is that human capacities are inherently limited. A fourth is that we are wiser as a species than is any given individual or generation. A fifth is that the wisdom of our species is to some extent accessible though our traditions and through the historic institutions that are the vessels of tradition. A sixth is that our greatest achievement is human society itself and what these days is called ‘social capital’. A seventh is that social capital is hard won and easily dislodged and lost. And an eighth is that you never know what’s lurking around the next corner.

All of this should lead to a broad scepticism about change, let alone about change posited on an unjustifiably optimistic view of human nature. A conservative temperament would always tend to prefer a bird in the hand to two in the bush. But a sensible conservative should always be aware of when the bird has flown and when change has become necessary.

Are these necessarily religious attitudes? I think not. Burke was himself a Christian and seems to have believed that the essentially benign development of human society was part of the working out of divine providence. But many, perhaps most, subsequent Burkeans have been sceptics and utilitarians. Certainly, there’s nothing in the Burkean view of society that requires the intellectual buttress of religion. Moreover, conservative scepticism has been hugely buttressed by Darwinism and a great range of related insights into the essential irrationality of our species and the serendipitousness of our being.

In contrast, neo-liberalism necessarily posits a ‘hidden hand’ which renders rational the manifest irrationalities of the market. Similarly, there’s a large dose of messianic millennialism in Marxism for all its apparently solid empiricism.

So, assuming Gray is correct and traditional conservatism is dead, where does this leave the those of conservative disposition and understanding? Precisely where they should have been anytime these last several decades, in the ranks of Social Democracy, defending the known good, our social instincts and the social capital of the ages against the doctrinaires of the market.

Victor said...

Anonymous @ 2.21 pm

Sorry, but what exactly is Marxist about permissiveness?

As to the alleged intellectualism of Mike Moore, you might like to reflect on the thought that people who use a lot of long words don't necessarily know what they're talking about.

I think that, on this occasion, Chris has more than adequately proved his point and you have neatly underscored it.