Australian Idol… for intellectuals


Australians love a good competition. We can turn anything into sport. So if shows like Australian Idol can give young singers a chance to crack into the music business why not have an Australian Idol for public intellectuals? After all, we’ve already got an intellectual top 40.

Every week a succession of young hopefuls could strut there stuff in front the Australian public and a panel of three judges. Each aspiring intellectual would have two minutes to give their opinion on the topic of the day — asylum seekers, childhood obesity, global warming, or the ethics of torture. The judges would make their comments and then we’d all get to vote for our favourites (btw: what would the hosts wear on ‘torture night’?).

Of course the judges would need to be seasoned professionals — people with experience who know the business. They’d also need to be entertaining, so conflict would be a plus. How about Robert Manne sitting next to Helen Darville? Or maybe Germaine Greer sitting next to Andrew Bolt. Naturally we’d need at least one judge to make rude comments about the contestants’ dress sense and presentation. How about Tim Blair?

Just imagine Blair telling some earnest young environmentalist with an Amnesty badge that nobody was going to take her seriously if she’s got four inches of cleavage on display.

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26 Responses to Australian Idol… for intellectuals

  1. Geoff Honnor says:

    “Just imagine Blair telling some earnest young environmentalist with an Amnesty badge that nobody was going to take her seriously if she’s got four inches of cleavage on display.”

    Pretty obviously, he wouldn’t.

  2. whyisitso says:

    I would. Then of course I’m not an intellectual.

  3. Ken Parish says:

    My goodness. The Top 40 has got Clive Hamilton on it, and Germaine Greer, David Marr, Bob Brown and that pompous prat Barry Jones. Robert Manne at no. 1 and Henry Reynolds at no. 2, Phillip Adams at no. 5. And Marcia Langton of all people at no. 7. Who composed this list? Ah yes, I see now. All the right (I mean left) people on the Board: Dennis Altman, Stuart Macintyre, Lyndall Ryan … Of course, they’ve got a couple of token RWDB intellectuals (like Windschuttle and Blainey) on their top 40 list and a few who definitely deserve to be there on merit. But overall, what a pathetic joke! You actually couldn’t make a bigger farce of it than it is already by running Don’s “Australian Intellectual” program. It would be almost impossible for the show not to come up with a better list than the “Australian Public Intellectual Network”.

  4. Ken Parish says:

    I’d have Manne and Reynolds in my Top 40, though not at 1 and 2, and I’d have Blainey as well, but none of the others I’ve mentioned in the previous comment. And I’d add the following blogosphere figures to the list of Top 40 Australian public intellectuals in their place: John Quiggin, Andrew Norton, Andrew Leigh, Fred Argy, Nicholas Gruen, Don Arthur, Tim Dunlop, Alison Croggon.

    PS I’d have “bad” Peter Saunders on my Top 40 list too (even though he’s

  5. whyisitso says:

    Interesting comment about Barry Jones, Ken. You obviously agree with Michael Costello in this morning’s Oz.

  6. whyisitso says:

    Interesting character, Michael Costello. Former Chief-of-Staff to Kim Beazley, he’s presumably still a senior figure in the ALP. He regularly vilifies John Howard, but I do get the impression he’s mouthing it to his ALP constituency without a great deal of personal conviction. He is nevertheless quite supportive of government (and US) foreign policy, particularly on Iraq.

    He seems to be very much on the right of the ALP. In fact I reckon he’d be more at home in the Liberal Party. I’d like to see him change places with Petro Georgiou, who’d be on the left even in the ALP.

  7. Sacha says:

    Where are the scientists in the list?

  8. Ken Parish says:

    There’s Tim Flannery and Fiona Stanley, but otherwie you’re right. It’s very light on the hard sciences. Who would you nominate?

  9. Sacha says:

    Don’t know! Tim Flannery perhaps. The problem is in finding scientists who have a very broad impact, not just in their specialty, and that, of course, if a problem given the nature of their work (which is often very specialised and not well known to the general community, nor may it directly impact on the general community).

  10. Ken Parish says:

    OK. Here’s my stab at scientists who should be on the list, in addition to Stanley and Flannery, who ARE on the “official” list. Just 2 “hard” scientists out of 40 does seem very skewed. Gustav Nossal, Peter Doherty, Helen Caldicott (love her or hate her), Paul Davies, Karl Kruszelnicki (at least as a populariser), Ian Plimer. All of these have made significant public impacts beyond their specific scientific specialisation, in most cases on the world stage, which is more than you can say for the bulk of the humanities intellectuals and pundits on the “official” list.

  11. Sacha says:

    Perhaps also Ian Lowe? Certainly include Paul Davies and Dr Karl.

  12. Ken, sorry but I choked on my Weeties (is that how they’re spelt?) when you wrote Helen Caldicott on the grounds that these PIs had to have “public impacts beyond their specific scientific specialisation”. Well so did Pauline Hanson but I don’t think she’d regard herself as a public intellectual. Helen Caldicott is a ratbag, not a public intellectual. Germaine Greer is a ratbag too, but lots of things she says are interesting. Ian Lowe is a bit of a waste of time I suspect, but who knows?

    Also, note how there are no journalists on the list (well there’s Philip Adams who’s a special kind of journo, and David Marr who writes books and gets into the odd crusade.) If you bang away week after week you’re not a public intellectual. Why? Because you don’t market yourself as such and people in the market for intellectuals are very influenced by that kind of thing.

    So I’d add a few of our best journalists Tim Colebatch, Michael Duffy is at least a bit of an intellectual entrepreneur (which is presumably why Philip Adams is there). Adele Horin is another.

    Catherine Lumby should be there. Why isn’t she there instead of the stale list we’ve got. Betina Arndt has more going for her than Helen Caldicott. Anne Manne. Bob Gregory – though he doesn’t go on the media much. Don Watson writes like an angel, but I don’t get much intellectually out of his output. Dennis Altman should definitely be there.

    This top 40 stuff is a bit ridiculous really isn’t it? But I guess we enjoy it.

    Anyway, thx for the post Don.

    And as Troppo’s reality TV correspondent, with the slightest bit of encouragement I’ll post something on the real Australian Idol. It really is pretty damn good this year. No kidding!

  13. There are no scientists for the same reason that I argued there are no social scientists. Virtually everyone on the list is a moralist and/or storyteller (see Don’s earlier post for why these people resonate).

    As for the bloggers mentioned, we all write about intellectual subjects in a public forum so we could be candidates for a list, but is the methodology that suggests us any better than that used in the ALR? Richard Posner’s book on public intellectuals back in 2002 copped a lot of flak, but at least he tried to create objective measures, such as media mentions, scholarly citations, and web appearances, rather than just his own opinions of who was good (though he offered them as well).

  14. Rafe Champion says:

    How did Paul Kelly miss out? He is arguably the top political journo and commentator in the land, he writes really good books and he has a public profile on TV.

    Ken, good call on Ian Plimer!

    Wolfgang Kasper is worthy of note, if not in the top 20.

  15. Andrew,

    I have a real problem with ‘objective’ measures via citations etc. I guess there’s a legitimate role for them, but as ever the measured crowds out the unmeasured. Posner is a case in point. I guess he’s a serious kind of guy, but I find his stuff disorientingly lacking in commonsense.

    On a related matter I recall listening to some ABC program in which someone made the comment that an obituaray of someone 50 years ago would mention gongs they got (including really big ones like the Nobel Prize) in passing – not as a focus. Now it’s the other way round. I think it was better the other way where a community came to a view on the quality of someone’s contribution not by counting the number of articles they ‘got’.

  16. Nick – I suppose asking other intellectuals for their top public intellectuals is an attempt to draw on their experience to go beyond the statistical measures, but I think at least the ‘public’ part of ‘public intellectual’ does lend itself to measurement.

    And I quite agree on prizes. Part of the problem is the conservatism of prize-giving commitees; they follow each other so once you get one prize you’ll probably get another, even if you’ve done nothing extra. At Catallaxy I used to write regular posts on dumb opinions from people with fancy titles, as a minor corrective to all this.

    The other problem is people who stay on these lists for achievements long ago. If he had not died, Donald Horne would probably have been on the latest list, even though his best work was 40 years ago. Similarly I think one of your suggestions, Dennis Altman, falls into this category. He wrote about gay issues long before they were fashionable, but these days his views don’t seem distinguishable from thousands of other social democrats.

  17. Perhaps that’s a fair call on Altman. I think he’s engaged and intelligent. I’d read an article by him way before I’d read an article by lots of people on the list. But I agree, there’s a self referential nature to it all which leads to a few tall poppies getting the limelight and staying there because they’re there and so continue to get attention. That’s what’s so teriffic about the blogosphere.

    Actually that reminds me Owen Harries should be on this list. I admire people like him who jump ship at the right time. I’d also put Manne in that category. (And Francis Fukuyama in the US). Like Orwell these guys jumped ship at the right time for the right reasons (of humanity and commonsense).

    That was really what my recent post ‘an apology anyone?’ was about but in over 100 comments, I don’t remember anyone who discussed that.

    Public intellectuals should help contribute to our collective deliberative intelligence. I’m not sure how many do, but Harries would be right up there.

  18. I agree that Harries is very good. But he did not really jump ship, just articulated what he had always thought in a context where many of his friends were saying something else.

  19. Thanks for the flattery (if that’s what it is, Don), but I’d prefer not to qualify as a public intellectual. I like being a clever dick, but in the same company as Manne? Ewwww!

    And btw, my partner’s name is Dale. My writing name is Darville. When I signed the legal bits and pieces, I didn’t ask for a double-surname job.


  20. Geoff Honnor says:

    What is this Australian fascination with endlessly listing our intellectuals? Do people in Spain, Germany, the US and the Phillipines run around compiling these ‘national intellectuals’ lists of Op Ed contributors and Celebrity Big Brother contestants? It’s almost as if we have to prove to ourselves that we actually do have thinking people in our midst. On that score, it looks suspiciously like Cultural Cringe revisited.

    Anyway, forgetting all that, Clive James should be there well before Phillip Adams who, though a consummate current affairs chat show host, has really contributed nothing original to the heady brew of Australian ideas since his seminal work, “The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.” I think a case could be made for Barry Humphries also……

    Our research contribution in HIV science, epidemiology and prevention has been outstanding and acknowledged as such internationally but obviously very few members of the National Centres in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research and HIV Social Research are invited to Op Ed.

  21. Geoff – I’m afraid other countries do create these lists. The latest round of Australian lists only started when the SMH copied the Prospect/Foreign Policy list idea, and that in turn was probably inspired by Richard Posner’s list.

  22. Geoff I agree with several of your points. Philip Adams is an intellectual dealer if you like – an impressario of sorts. He’s well read, entertaining, very able and has several people’s output of work – four nights a week on LNL, colunns, forwards, lectures etc. But isn’t really responsible for thinking up anything much new – prefers to be a commentator. And I agree with you that this navel gazing at who our intellectuals are is pretty odd.

    Andrew, I guess jump ship is too strong an expression – but Harries has made a decisive break in terms of disagreement with his own side. And for me it is well timed.

  23. Don Arthur says:

    Helen – “Ewwww!” is exactly the response we’re looking for. Hold that face while we get a close up.

    I’ve fixed up that surname business.

  24. derrida derider says:

    Andrew’s right – that list is full of scolds and illywhackers rather than thinkers (and IMO doesn’t even get many of the best of them).

    NTTAWT – we all need both scolding and entertainment from time to time, and the talent for both is rarer than people think. But personally I would have liked to see more hard thinkers rather than showponies – that list needs scientists (both hard and social) badly.

  25. steve munn says:

    What’s wrong with Barry Jones? I thought Sleepers, Wake was a great read and very well argued. I note Barry has now released an autobiography, which I reckon might be worth a read.

  26. Parkos says:

    Poppy harvest time in Afghanistan..

    Australians are not really in a position to define intellectual or liberal and subsequently who amongst their number should rank as such. So dont get too confident and express an opinion.

    How many non-Western European languages can Barry Jones speak?

    Why does Darville constantly have to remind people and herself of her profession?

    Why didnt Peter Singer just study medicine and then make up his own mind about ethics as he goes along rather than pushing his post traumatic views on everyone else?

    I could tell you who some of the most intelligent Australians are, and they are not empty vessels.

    For example, one of my dumber mates is probably more intelligent than anyone mentioned above: Marcus Brumer, who led Monash to victory in the University Challenge television programme and then placed a cream pie on Bracks’ face. He did a stretch for that, when he should have got a medal from the future generations who could have enjoyed Australia’s forests. In the semiotic age, the televised and public cream pie is intertextual discourse.

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