The Social Critic in New Zealand

Keynote address to the 2005 Conference of the Sociology Association of Aotearoa New Zealand, 25 November, The Eastern Institute of Technology, Napier. [1]

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Political Economy & History;

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the tramps abuse one another: ‘Moron!’, ‘Vermin!’, ‘Abortion!’, “Louse!’, ‘Sewer-rat!’, ‘Curate!’. Then Estragon says with finality ‘Critic!’. All Vladimir can reply is ‘Oh!’. The text says ‘He wilts, vanquished and turns away’.

Yet, Karl Popper argues that the critic is the key to progress, because it is only by ruthlessly criticising existing knowledge can we move onto new and better understandings. His exposition is usually thought to apply to scientific knowledge, but his Open Society and Its Enemies makes clear he thinks this is also true for social knowledge.

However, any Popperian critique of society typically subverts the existing social knowledge – the ‘conventional wisdom’. This knowledge is not merely some abstract theory. It is also integral to the social group’s existence, to its cohesiveness and understanding of itself. Under threat from a critic, the group will be as abusive as Estragon.

This is certainly true in New Zealand. Today I want to explain why the social critic is so important, and yet why we are so dismissive of her or him. Even so, I want to encourage those who have the inclination to participate in the thankless task of social criticism, and for the rest I implore they are more supportive of it, than we have been in the past.

The Popperian critic is a public intellectual whose function, according to Edward Said “is to represent a message or view not only to, but for, a public and to do so as an outsider, someone who cannot be co-opted by a government or corporation.” (Representations of the Intellectual) Not all ‘brain-workers’ are intellectuals. Indeed most occupational-intellectuals are not, because they are insiders typically loyally working for the government or corporations.

There is less difference between Beckett and Popper than at first appears. Beckett’s play was challenging the conventional wisdom – of the conventions of the theatre and, even more pointedly, of our very understandings of the meaning of our existence. He is actually one of the critics who Popper and Said acclaim. So Beckett is not implicitly abusing such ‘critics’, but those who are defending the conventional wisdom – who found Waiting for Godot outrageous because it challenged the verities upon which their lives were comfortingly and confidently based.

The Conventional Wisdom

The term ‘conventional wisdom’ was coined in John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society. He begins by arguing that economic and social phenomena do “not conform to a simple and coherent patterns” and “often seem incoherent, inchoate and intellectually frustrating”. He goes on

“Because economic and social phenomena are so forbidding, or at least seem so, and because they yield few hard tests of what exists and what does not, they afford to the individual a luxury not given to physical phenomena. Within a considerable range he [or she] is permitted to believe what he [or she] pleases …
As a consequence, in the interpretation of all social life there is a persistent and never-ending competition between what is relevant and what is merely acceptable. In this competition while strategic advantage lies with what exists, all tactical advantage is with the acceptable. Audiences of all kinds most applaud what they like best. And in social comment the test of audience approval, far more than the test of truth, comes to influence comment. …

Just as truth ultimately serves to create a consensus, so in the short run does acceptability. Ideas come to be organised around what the community as a whole or particular audiences find acceptable. …

Numerous factors contribute to the acceptability of ideas. To a very large extent, of course, we associate truth with convenience – with what most closely accords with self interest and individual well being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes to self esteem. … Economic and social behaviour are complex and mentally tiring. Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding. This is the prime manifestation of vested interest. For a vested interest in understanding is more preciously guarded than any other treasure. … Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behaviour, but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability.

Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability. They are highly predictable. … “ (p.17-18, Penguin 1962)

And, I would add, that predictability is also comforting.

As much as there is to admire in Galbraith’s insight, he underplays two major features of the conventional wisdom. First, he suggests that there is a consensus, whereas society is fragmented and each fragment or social group has its own conventional wisdom. Second, the stability that Galbraith observes is temporary. Conventional wisdoms change over time, not rapidly and certainly behind the changing facts they purport to explain. But change they do.

Many Conventional Wisdoms

Why did Galbraith think the conventional wisdom was an ‘exceedingly broad’ consensus? The Harvard professor was focusing on the understandings of the elite. Despite the pretence of conflict over principle, the elite has a lot of commonalities.

However in society as a whole there are many social groups, each of which has its own understandings. The groups overlap, so the understandings overlap, but nevertheless they can be distinct.

One such group, with a distinctive conventional wisdom, which has recently been raised to prominence is the ‘mainstream’. A curiosity is that its main spokesmen – and I am conscious of the gender of the noun – belong more to the elite than to the group for whom they purport to speak. This is possible because while the concerns of the elite are not the same as those of the other group, the elite needs the support of what it calls ‘the mainstream’.

This becomes more insidious, if one recalls that the term ‘mainstream’ was used a couple of decades ago by the rogernomes – the advocates of neoliberal policies – to claim that their account of economic theory was the internationally dominant one. That was demonstrably untrue, but the effect of the claim was to mislead those unfamiliar with modern economics.

There is no simple economic mainstream. It was, and is, more like a braided river, with a left bank and a right bank and many channels down which economics flows. To say otherwise is to misrepresent how economics developed. This is as true for claims there is a social mainstream. Of course there are some commonalities across all the streams. Commonalities are important and what make us a nation or a part of humankind. But the differences are also important.

The claims of a ‘mainstream’ perspective have been promoted most recently in relation to the issue of political correctness. That is a topic in itself, but I would be failing here were I not to say something about the issue from the point of view of a Popperian critic.

As Galbraith set out, within every social group there is a tendency not to challenge – not to criticise – some of its beliefs. Of course we dont have the time and expertise to evaluate all of them, but in some instances we dont try because it is – well – not politically correct. Too often they are lazily and uncritically repeated without any evaluation, on the basis that if the group says they are true, they must be.

We often do so out of a solidarity with the group, perhaps because we hope we are supporting it, perhaps because it seems oppressed. But even though it may deserve empathy, it does not need uncritical support. To give that is to do the group a disservice. It deserves the best analysis each of us can give it. To do otherwise is to condemn the group to an intellectual wasteland and the likelihood of severe disruption when it is confronted with reality.

I cannot justify much of the tenor of Don Brash’s 2004 Orewa speech, but it did confront the Maori community and its friends with a lot of their sloppy thinking, which had been tolerated, because it was considered politically incorrect to challenge it. I only wish that the quality of the Brash critique had been higher, for it was just as sloppy as that which it was criticising.

Political correctness – the unwillingness to criticise certain understandings for political reasons – is an anathema to the Popperian critic. But it is a general anathema. There is no group which is privileged by not being subject to such criticism. However, the public intellectual is likely to concentrate upon the conventional wisdom of the elite – I shall call it the ‘establishment wisdom’ – and any designated mainstream consort, because that dominates the public discussion.

The Conventional Wisdom Through Time

Not only do different social groups have different social understandings, but those understandings change through time. This raises a severe difficulty for the conventional wisdom, since its central notion is that its truth is incontestable. This is quite different from science, whose position is that ‘this is our best understanding but we shall progress’.

In the case of the conventional social wisdom, any challenge is not simply about the relative merits of two ideas. Those ideas are central to the existence of the group, and to the authority of the group’s leadership. Challenging them is challenging the leadership, which is so afraid of the consequence of challenges that it tends to prohibit all of them. So the conventional wisdom ends up, as Galbraith reminds us, with an inconsistency between reality and its social understanding.

I illustrate my proposition with a couple of examples from my own research. The first involves asking the simple question: Which New Zealand port is the second to biggest joint exporter and importer of goods by value? For the record, the biggest export port for the last four years has been the port of Tauranga. But it is not a big importer. Ports of Auckland is now the second to biggest export port, and remains the biggest import port. The number two external port is our second largest import port and third largest export port. It’s about half the size of the Ports of Auckland. It is the Auckland International Airport.

You may think this a trivial pursuits question. I got interested in it because of the importance of air cargo in a globalising world with diminishing costs of distance. I raise it here because the airport has been our second most important external port – even ignoring tourism – for the fifteen years back to 1990 for which data is available. I doubt that this fact threatens the integrity of the establishment wisdom, but it illustrates how a gap between reality and perception can persist for long periods.

So let’s try a more substantial question. What proportion of exports by value today are from the pastoral sector? For the record, forty years ago, over 90 percent of exports were the products from sheep and cows. The proportion today is about a quarter.

The frequently quoted figure, of 55 percent or so, is constructed the following way. First it covers all farm exports including horticulture, and not just those from the pastoral sector. Second it includes forestry and, sometimes, fishing. Third, it ignores service exports, including our single biggest export sector, tourism. In fact farm-based exports – not just farm exports because over half of the value is added after the farm gate – are around 40 percent of export receipts. That they are vitally important to New Zealand is no reason to exaggerate their statistics.

I dont need to explain today, why the establishment wisdom is reluctant to acknowledge the reduced significance of the farm sector which dominated New Zealand from the late nineteenth century to past the middle of the twentieth. I was confronted by this fact because any serious account of the events of the late twentieth century has to recognise the enormous structural change in the New Zealand political economy.

The change in the economic mechanisms, the way in which the economy is regulated, which occurred in the 1980s was not because of the wickedness of Rob Muldoon, nor because the previous mode of economic regulation had been fundamentally wrong. Rather, the economic structure changed, and the economic mechanism had to change with it. Many of the critics of those changes have been just as blind as the proponents. Both ignore the changing structure.

Ignoring structural change has limited our understanding of economic development. Treasury’s work today focuses on a single-sector/single commodity economy. Of course such a simple model is simpler to analyse. But it misses the fundamental feature that an economy does not grow evenly, but different components grow at different rates. The lesson is that if one does not think ruthlessly and rigorously about an issue, one may overlook its most salient feature.

An Experiment

Bear with me by sharing in an experiment, although announcing it may ruin the test. I begin by asking what proportion of the New Zealand population is ethnically Maori? The usual answer is around 15 percent, a figure derived from the 2001 Population Census when 14.7 percent responded by ticking the Maori category.

Responses to questions about one’s ethnicity are self-ascribed and subjective. The census allows more than one response to ethnicity. Some 11.4 per cent of New Zealanders give more than one ethnic affiliation. Of those in the Census who said they were Maori, 44.0 percent, or 6.5 percent of the total population, said they had another ethnicity, a far higher proportion than any other major ethnic group. Only 8.2 percent of the population described themselves as of solely Maori ethnicity.

Why do we use the 14.7 percent figure rather than the 8.2 one? The technical reason is that until recently Statistics New Zealand used a ‘prioritisation’ criteria for allocating each New Zealander to an ethnic category. Those who classified themselves as Maori were put in the Maori category, even if they said they belonged to other ethnicities too. Those who classified themselves as Pasifika, were so classified, providing they had not also classified themselves as Maori. Those who classified themselves as Asian were so classified, unless they classified themselves as Maori or Pasifika. The same principle applied to the small ‘Other’ category. Finally there is the European category – Statistics New Zealand does not use ‘Pakeha’ in its Census returns – which is the residual of those who only classified themselves as European with no other joint ethnicity..

So the frequently quoted 72.8 percent of New Zealanders of European ethnicity ignores those who say they are of European ethnicity and something else. The totality – the figure comparable to the 14.7 of Maori – is actually 80.1 percent. But if we use this convention of double counting of people with two or more ethnicities there is an over-count of 14 percent of the population.

While trying to sort out this statistical problem, I discovered that the data became tractable if I created an ethnic category of Maori-Pakeha, that is the 5.9 percent who claimed to be both Maori and European. That reduces the over-count to 2.7 percent of the population, and that can be easily absorbed by mild averaging.

It turns out that my new scoring solution also affects how we might think about ethnicity. Basically I am proposing a new ethnic category, Maori-Pakeha, a name chosen rather than Pakeha-Maori which was used in the nineteenth century for Europeans who lived as Maori. I am not inventing a new ethnicity, merely making such people visible in our statistics. It has been there all the time, a group who think of themselves as neither Maori nor Pakeha but both. Like a Möbius band they see the two as an integrated whole. For while we may see the terms as two sides of the paper, the twist is such that the ethnicities belong to the same side. To label Maori-Pakeha in the data as Maori, is insulting to them, because they do not think of them as just ‘Maori’. It would be equally insulting to label them as just ‘Pakeha’.

We have had this statistical problem for about twenty years – basically how to get a column to sum to 100 percent. It is a nice illustration of Gilling’s Law ‘how you score the game, shapes the way it is played’. The way we have measured ethnicity has affected the way we think about ethnic relations, encouraging a crude and divisive biculturalism, ignoring the more subtle, more nuanced account like the one being expressed by the Maori-Pakeha themselves.

This change will not be welcomed by the conventional wisdom of the establishment, nor by their mainstream, nor by the dominant rhetoric in the Maori world. The existence of a Maori-Pakeha group has the potential to explain various phenomena in the politics of ethnicity which today we gloss over because they contradict our conventional wisdom. I would further argue that it provides a way forward to resolve some of the difficulties we are having with ethnic relations, which have to be openly confronted since Brash’s 2004 Orewa speech..

So what is the experiment? I have proposed a redefinition of ethnicity which resolves a technical problem, but also changes our perception of ethnicity. I may be wrong, but suppose this is progress. Just how long will it be before the notion of a Maori-Pakeha ethnic group is adopted by the conventional wisdom? And to what extent will the adoption of such a group into the national rhetoric be the result of the latest fashion, and to whar extent it will arise from careful research and analysis.

The Role of the Critic

I have given three examples of disjunction between reality and the establishment wisdom’s portrayal of a reality which, at best, is out of date, and at worse is damaging economic and social thinking. Such disjunctions provide a justification for the Popperian critic, whose task is to reconcile the perception and reality.

Since the conventional wisdom does not want to be out of touch, it will encourage criticism providing it is not too threatening. As Shakespeare’s Caesar said of Cassius: ‘He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.’

Instead there is a court following of pseudo-intellectuals, who are expert at mouthing platitudes, sounding wise to the unwary. One, also a bank director, once said to me ‘Interest rates look interesting. They will go up or down, dont you think?’

The court followers include gatekeepers whose function is to prevent serious discussion. Typically, early in their adult life they wrote a paper on some topic, which the establishment wisdom favoured. Rapid promotion followed. Nowadays they do no original thinking at all. But when the establishment wisdom wants to discuss something they go to the gatekeeper for comforting advice, albeit hopelessly out of date. This blocks any serious discussion on the topic, especially as the gatekeeper has a personal and positional interest in discouraging criticism.

The rule is never to quote the work of serious New Zealand critics, and frequently not even to read it. There are establishment research papers which make obvious – even laughable – errors that were resolved decades earlier, but alas by those outside the charmed circle.

Insofar as it practises peer review, the establishment carefully choses friends, or overseas commentators, who are rarely as good as claimed. As Bruce Jesson said, ‘New Zealand’s lack of intellectual vitality has always been related to its background of colonialism: lacking ideas of their own, New Zealanders have imported them wholesale and uncritically from overseas.’ (Fragments of Labour, p.12). One might add that citing overseas sources is a part of the tall poppy syndrome of not celebrating local intellectual success. As an earlier intellectual said “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country”.

The consequence is the endemically low quality of intellectual work for the establishment. They dont even know how low its quality is. A number of university departments were surprised how badly they performed in the recent PBRF exercise. You cant be more mediocre than not to know you are third rate. The ignorance is compounded, by the pseudo-intellectuals telling the non-expert how good they are, and so the poor quality becomes the standard conventional wisdom. One is constantly reminded of M. K. Joseph’s “That we may avoid distinction and exception/ Worship the mean, cultivate the mediocre.” (Secular Litany)

And, as Galbraith points out, the establishment wisdom is self-serving. Unlike a scientific paradigm, it is not simply an account of the world. It has the purpose of justifying the authority of those who promote it. Any rigorous criticism threatens that authority.

The Critic and New Zealand

One hundred years ago André Siegfried wrote that New Zealanders’

“… outlook, not too carefully reasoned, and no doubt scornful of scientific thought, makes them incapable of self distrust. Like almost all men of action they have a contempt for theories: yet they are often captured by the first theory that turns up, if it is demonstrated to them with an appearance of logic sufficient to impose upon them. In most cases they do not seem to see difficulties, and they propose simple solutions for the most complex problems with astonishing audacity.” (Democracy in New Zealand)

Siegfried’s observation was not the first time this frailty of New Zealanders was observed. Samuel Butler’s observed that Erewhonians

“are a meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense … when a philosopher arises among them.” (Erewhon)

Nor was Siegfried’s observation the last time. The most famous has been the extremist seizure of economic policy in the 1980s. As I have already argued, there was a need to change the economic mechanism, following the structural changes which began in the late 1960s. However New Zealanders with their contempt for theories were captured by the first theory that turned up.

It proved to be a bad one, as the subsequent economic performance shows. In every one of the six years from 1987 to 1993 there was falling output per person, the longest period of economic stagnation in our recorded history (although not as deep as the shorter Great Depression of the 1930s). In those years, New Zealand fell from being slightly above the OECD average in the GDP per capita stakes to near 20 percent below.

Instructively, the establishment wisdom does not address this fall. Ignoring it has led to the absurd demands that with the aim of returning to the top half of the OECD, we should introduce policies which look remarkably like those that dropped us out of the top half when applied in the 1980s. The conventional wisdom is not renowned for learning from experience.

Less obvious was the suppression of the critics of these ill-thought-through policies. Lenin said the first thing after the revolution was to shoot the intellectuals. New Zealand is more civilised. Jesson reports ‘techniques ranged from the withdrawal of research funds, the use of patronage, to crossing people off Christmas party lists.’ (Fragments of Labour, p.55) Few protested.

The politics of the 1980s involved a revolution – really a coup in which one elite was replaced by another. The introduced policies were not only a part of the coup, shifting power from the old to the new, but they also shifted income and wealth from the population at large to the new elite.

In contrast to the sharp changes in political governance by parliament or council following an election, there is considerable continuity in the elite. A recent Christchurch Press series on the powerful in Canterbury contained family names which would have been in earlier lists, although in different industries indicative of the structural change. Those familiar with their local communities could tell the same story,

Thus there was considerable continuity between the elite before 1984 and after 1993. But as one of their spokespersons, Roger Kerr, said not without pride, “The average age of chief executives of major companies has dropped ten years.” (Spicer et al 1992:74) The inter-generational coup required a change of rhetoric, of the establishment wisdom. Today’s elite is trapped by it, while events have moved on. It needs a new rhetoric but it has not the firepower to create one. Nor will it allow others the means to do so.

It is not merely a matter of the failure of past economics, nor of the economic and social changes that have happened since. A public appalled by the coup seized the initiative and imposed MMP.

New Zealand has been what Bruce Jesson called a ‘hollow’ society, where, with few exceptions, the institutions for wielding power arose out of the state rather the people, who put their faith in the government to protect and promote their interests. For most of New Zealand’s history that trust was returned. However the structure of governance was like a fort with a wall and guns aimed outside to protect those inside. Once the enemies of the people captured the guns, they turned them inward, and – well – we got the massacres we call Rogernomics and Ruthanasia.

MMP is essentially a procedure to control those who man the guns, but it does not fill the hollowness in New Zealand society. It is beginning to be filled by institutions which have some independence of the government. The most obvious is the business sector, which was liberated by Rogernomics. But it hardly comes out of the people. More promising are the iwi, and the unions which survived the ECA onslaught.

I am not sure about the universities. They claim to be institutions independent of the state, and are not as dependent upon public funding as they were. But are they sufficiently independent to be able to pursue their traditional liberal objectives in the face of external pressures?

For the universities have failed to support public intellectuals, ironically so for the intellectuals’ raison d’être is to be the critics and consciences of society, the task with which the universities are statutorily charged. Their academic economists no longer contribute much to public life, as is evident in the decreased role they play in public discussion, for the media today depends almost exclusively on bank economists for commentary on the economy, even though as employees of large financial institutions they must frame their remarks in that context.

The failure to support the critics of the Rogernomic reforms cost the universities dearly. It was obvious from the 1987 Hawke Report on Post-Compulsory Education and Training that the universities would be subject to reforms inimical to their interests too. Their reluctance to encourage critiques of the general reforms left them with no means of analysing and preparing themselves when it was their turn. They end up like chattering opossums in the headlights.

The media has yet to prove itself. In the early 1990s, two of the establishment sent their acolytes around to persuade editors to cease giving space to the critics. The media largely succumbed. Today it is characterised by shallowness, laziness, the pursuit of sensation and gossip, and poor research, unable to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, the profound and the fatuous.

The arts are helping to fill the hollow. Not only are there many more awards for artists today, some are far more generous, but there is less dependence upon state support, with corporate funding and a variety of sometimes idiosyncratic patrons to top up the market. Even so, there were few from the arts sector who engaged directly with the changes of the 1980s.

So we have a less hollow society than a couple of decades ago, but there are still serious gaps, especially as far as intellectual activity is concerned.

The established wisdom was bitterly antagonistic to MMP, intuiting that it was a vote of no confidence. Even today it has a palpable dislike for MMP. The events after the 2005 election were interpreted in terms of the Winner-Takes-All alternative – a more accurate term than FPP – nostalgically assuming there were no problems under WTA. There is a yearning in the establishment to return to a time when a small group could capture the state, and impose its policies. The policies are certainly in the best interests of such bolsheviks, but they apparently still do not understand the difference between their interests and those of the community at large..

The meek and long-suffering have a grievance against Rogernomics. Better, less greedy, economic management would have had them today a quarter and more better off in material terms. Even so, the failed policies were possible because New Zealanders are a practical people scornful of scientific thought, incapable of self distrust, with a contempt for theories, who nevertheless seize upon the latest fashion: an illustration of Keynes’s dictum about practical men and women being but the slaves of defunct intellectuals.

Being a Critic

Even so, there may be those convinced that being a public intellectual is so worthwhile they are tempted to pursue the profession of social critic.

To what extent should a critic directly confront the establishment? As Edmund Burke remarked “It would be well if gentlemen, before they joined in a cry against any establishment, had well considered for what purpose that cry is raised,” and on an earlier occasion he said, “It is a general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare,” (which might be a good motif for an election campaign).

Each critic will solve the challenge in her or his own way. Often the conventional wisdom’s no-go areas are where the most interesting insights are. If entering into one results in a challenge, then so be it. Some will avoid direct confrontation perhaps in jargon ridden diatribes which the public do not understand. Others will relish the challenge of confronting the conventional wisdom in a way which is accessible to the general public.

But while in every culture the critic’s role is problematic, in New Zealand it is more difficult because of our size and our distrust of the intellectual. There are so few niches here in which the public intellectual can function. The universities have not been very supportive, while none of our so-called think tanks has genuine independence or funding to offer much hospitality to genuine critics.

Sometimes academics grumble about their conditions, saying they are thinking about retiring from the university and taking up the life of an independent scholar. I tell them about its loneliness, limited collegial networks, professional jealousies from those within the academy, lack of status, difficulties of obtaining grant funding, poor financial rewards including difficulties of long term provision for retirement, the lack of technical support which academics takes for granted, the risks if anything goes wrong – say with your health, and so on and so on. At which point the academic decides their current job does not look so bad.

The public intellectual’s income prospects are certainly not great. The New Zealand Herald pays its columnists between 30 and 40 cents a word. At the top rate, and allowing for overheads, (at less than the current university markup), a public intellectual would have to write 1000 words – clean – every working day to earn the average wage, and also find sufficient commercial outlets to publish them. as Herbert Guthrie-Smith wrote about his great insight into New Zealabnd ecology and development ‘I don’t want to boast, but I believe the revenues from Tutira, capitalised and carefully invested, should easily keep me in toothpaste.’

It is the lack of public understanding which the intellectual finds hardest to bear, with the resulting lack of support, and precariousness of position. We are a long way from Voltaire’s ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it’. Rather, any new idea is jumped upon as stupid or politically incorrect, rather than asking what is the problem the intellectual is troubled about? Ad hominem abuse is frequent. Addressing the issue is much rarer – better to ignore it.

We may despise public intellectuals and social critics, and yet still try to be one, captured by the first theory that turns up and proposing simple solutions for the most complex problems with astonishing audacity. There is no commitment there to do the hard grind of reading original texts, nor thinking carefully and systematically. We find it so easy to be seduced by court followers, giving pseudo-intellectuals a prominence and significance out of line with their competence, if in line with their status. As Keynes said ‘worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.’ Our inability to judge intellectual quality damages the quality of our intellectual life..

No, dont chose to be an intellectual. The life is too uncomfortable, too precarious, too dangerous, and the immediate rewards are not great.

For some though, there is no choice. Driven by a curiosity, by a passion to serve the people by helping to understand better where they came from, where they are, and where they are going, such people will be public intellectuals and social critics anyway, whatever the costs. As Bruce Jesson reflected towards the end of a far too short life

“If you had said to me, when I was 17 or 18, ‘you’ll spend your life writing, you won’t make any money, you’ll publish magazines, you’ll publish books,’ I’d have thought: ‘Wonderful. What better a way to spend your life?’” (The Nationbuilders)

The immediate reward is to have got something right, or at least better that what had gone before. To have written a good sentence – or equation – which encapsulates some truth gives a satisfaction which is hard to describe to the non-intellectual.

If there is a longer-term reward, it is in the secular heaven of being remembered. Recall the richness of the contribution of those this lecture has honoured by quoting them: Jesus, Shakespeare. Voltaire, Burke, Butler, Siegfried, Guthrie-Smith, Keynes, Beckett, Popper, Joseph, Said, Galbraith, Jesson, …

For the rest of us, we need to accept the passion of the critic, appreciating its application is vital to the success of our society in a troubled and troubling world. When we go out of our way to support a public intellectual, especially in those trying times when they are being shot at, or when the bank balance is redder than the ideas being promulgated, we earn points in our heaven too, contributing to our society’s development.

Ultimately even the conventional wisdom will acknowledge the value of critics, turning up at their funeral, to say how their insights are valued, how important their contribution to social understanding has been, and how they overcame so many challenges and hardships to do so. But the establishment is also there to make sure the coffin lid is well screwed down.

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[1] I am grateful to Elizabeth Caffin, Don Gilling, and Alan Gray for vigorous criticism of earlier drafts.
[2] Some 16.2 percent told the Census they were of Maori descent. The question is there for electoral purposes. We do not usually use racial notions in public discussion, but law requires an objective measure, whereas ethnicity is subjective. Not all those of Maori descent describe their ethnicity as Maori and not all who describe themselves of Maori ethnicity are of Maori descent. The Census does not ask descent for any other race: probably over 90 percent of New Zealanders are of European descent.

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