A Few Comments on Kelly Contra “The Intellectuals”

Paul Kellys piece in last months Australian Literary Review was in its way quite well done. Many of his general arguments were not only sensible, but were expressed with clarity and, at times, considerable force. Nevertheless, as did Raimond Gaita in his response this month, I found the comfortable certainty of Kelly’s judgements a bit troubling, the more so for being emblematic of the ersatz realpolitik that seems to pervade Australian politics. Far more troubling was his aggressively critical stance towards a small selection of intellectuals.

He quotes Owen Harries to bolster his case about “the dysfunction of the intellectuals”. “They are slaves of fashion”, Harries writes in Suffer the Intellectuals, “and, on the big questions, they tend to get things hopelessly wrong.” Provocative generalisations are of course always tempting, but we do need to remember that Harries is a subtle man, and as a serious intellectual himself clearly doesnt view the judgement as universal. Nor as applying uniquely to intellectuals of the left. Examples enough can be found to illustrate the frequent bone-headedness of intellectuals from all sides of politics and all ideologies so its doubtful whether this sweeping condemnation much advances Kellys rather selective case. As with anything, discrimination is required if criticism (or praise) is to be useful. To take a small (but hopefully pertinent) personal example, after listening to an interview with David Marr, I was left with little desire to read His Masters Voice, Marrs piece in Quarterly Essay about the corruption of public debate under Howard. It still sits unopened. He was too shrill in his condemnation to hold my interest or retain much credibility. Gaita, on the other hand, even though I may disagree at times, I will always approach with respect. He has earned that through the consistent quality, the seriousness, of his efforts to understand, to be balanced and to educate.

Kelly, unfortunately, seems unwilling to really delve beneath the irritated surface of his impressions. He pounds away at his chosen three betes noir (Gaita, Marr and Burnside) without sufficient differentiation. Odd choices, in a way. Had he wished to illustrate the frequent inanities of “leftish” critiques of economic, social or political matters, I’d have thought he could find far more appropriate targets. Perhaps he is in some way personally offended by the emphasis Gaita in particular places on moral considerations, and on integrity. Kelly does, after all, hit out with phrases like “moral vanity”, “self righteousness” and “pomposity”. There’s strong emotion at work here. Perhaps the mantle of hard, experienced realism in which Kelly cloaks himself can’t stop the old fashioned values sometimes slipping through to his heart like a stiletto.

Given Kellys use of him, Harries’ comment last year about Howards policy towards the US in the wake of 9/11 is rather amusing: “In either case, it was an example of misplaced realism. And in either case it is extremely dubious whether uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed American policy will have enhanced our standing as an ally in the long run. A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought.” Indeed. Discomforting as it may be to some, quite a number of intellectuals (including ones from the right such as Harries) clearly foresaw the likely consequences of the Iraqi invasion and occupation long before they began to hit the headlines. Kelly’s newspaper, on the other hand (not that he can be held responsible for all its occasional lunacies) enthusiastically, at times almost embarrassingly, endorsed and promoted the war. Certainly not the strongest basis from which to flay those who opposed the war.

No doubt some intellectuals do hate Howard with an intensity that doesnt encourage sober judgement. Underneath his affected detachment, though, I fear Kelly is falling into a similar trap, for his dislike of dissenting intellectuals seems almost visceral. He gives the impression of one who doesnt really wish to hear, doesnt want doubts cast on his clubby perceptions of how the world works, doesnt want to have to distinguish between lightweights and gadflys and serious thinkers. The “foundations for rational conversation on the same page” that he claims to desire have been there throughout, just waiting to be built on. Gaita, for one, is the epitome of a careful, considered, rational man, as is Harries, yet both were pushed aside in the furious rush to judgement in the wake of Tampa and 9/11.

Were it up to Kelly, it seems, they still would be.

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The Happy Revolutionary

Robert Manne had a pretty good defense of the Kelly Three both on Lateline, and in the latest issue of The Monthly.

Marr, Burnside and Gaita are hardly unhinged Bolsheviks, motivated solely by a ‘hatred’ of Howard. This is typical culture warrior stuff, and I see no reason to take it the least bit seriously. This effort by Kelly reads little better than an Andrew Bolt blog-post, albeit without the small mercy of brevity.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
14 years ago

I’m with your sentiments Ingolf – though with Ken I thought Gaita’s recent stuff in the Monthly has been pretty poor.

I made a note to post on Kelly’s article. I thought it was awful. It was wilful in its choice of examples, and basically lazy in the way in which the argument and the evidence for it was marshalled. I had more articulate thoughts on it than that back when I read it, but no longer. Unfortunate. Kelly says – or used to say – lots of things that were quite perceptive and interesting. But it’s been a while . . .

I’d not seen the debate referred to in the previous comment. It’s good. It’s here.

Anthony
Anthony
14 years ago

Erratum: for “Giata” read “Gaita” throughout

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

As general comment, not having caught up on the articles quoted here, to read Kelly is to see a ccommenter sucked into the consumerist engine, two arms and a flailing foot clutching at the perimeter. Gulping breaths, ageless professionalism finds itself and the words feed out smoothly. The machine lives on, renewed.

It’s like eating a meal, wholesome nonetheless in the eating, of imported sausage three vegetables and mashed potatoes. No need for garnish or sauce; rather, the less hint of that the better: emphasise the homegrown elegant real thing. What you find punctuating the effect, sensationally placed, are pockets here and there of hit-it-up impact. In that potato is a chunk of garlic, all of a sudden. The sausage, ginger. Suddenly you stop, react, think again.

But it’s bangers and mash nowadays, to feed the masses, drawn from the menu of a none too classy chef. The incisive calls are designed to set the piece apart, but do not drive the piece, nor lift it: it’s not structured on that.

We like the inclusion of something powerful – seminal, incisive, insightful, pungent, even with a truth – but we do not walk away from it with ourselves renewed. We’ve merely gone through the motions. And when the pungency is untrue, it can rank for days.

To ‘renew’ the reader is the work and charge of the thinker. Reading Paul Kelly, too often, one gets the feeling he might enjoy just going away to read, and give thinking a miss for a bit.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
14 years ago

Ingolf the Gaita article I’m referring to was on the intervention. Turns out it’s on line.

I was broadly sympathetic to the line Gaita was running – which was hostile to the intervention for its lack of consultation.

Some of the points that he made on that score were quite telling, but then revisiting all that stuff on reconciliation I thought was really completely off topic and gratuitously moralistic. In the same edition of The Monthly, Manne expressed his own misgivings at greater length and indeed more dramatically much more sparely, without overstepping the mark that I think Gaita did.

After discussing the intervention Gaita goes off on something more familiar to him.

In Australia, reconciliation is the name given to the acknowledgment that past and present injustices committed against the Aboriginal peoples generated for the non-Aboriginal inhabitants a sense of collective responsibility for the wrongs committed by their political ancestors.

He goes on a bit later

The call to self-determination by Aborigines and its acknowledgement by many Australians was, among other things, recognition of that fact. Aboriginal leaders invited non-Aboriginal Australians to discuss forms of political association that would be true to the history of their dispossession, forms that would almost certainly be novel to the history of Western political thought. Even to enter such a discussion seriously requires great generosity on the part of the non-Aboriginal population. The impatience associated with ideological combat makes it impossible.

I think when you’re dealing with the problems you’re dealing with, this is head in the clouds stuff. It would be great if we were all very generous. It would be prudent to wonder whether it would take us anywhere all that great. But we’ve not been very generous. And it’s not our lack of generosity that has created the mayhem in aboriginal communities. It is largely aboriginal agency (albeit an agency that has worked in an unusual context). And rabbiting on about generosity of spirit, and reconciliation when the topic turns to sexual abuse in outback aboriginal communities seems well wide of the mark to me.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
14 years ago

Ingolf, I’ve just read the Gaita response to Kelly. I think it’s very good. But like you said – at the same time he seems tired of it. It’s dreadfully, dreadfully and unnecessarily wordy.

This would be a good para – without the struck out sentence which adds little but takes a fair while to actually take in.

That does not mean, however, that the morally terrible deeds politicians are sometimes required to do, to protect not just their own communities but the conditions of political communality, cease to be morally terrible just because they are necessary. It is, as I have written in many places, a mistake to believe that it is a truth written in the heavens that a secular ethics must assume that the world and our values are matched for one another, that if only we think creatively enough we will always find a way to avoid doing something morally terrible. There is always the possibility of tragedy.

The final few paragraphs are marvellous though I think, though again I think they could have been expressed a little better.

One should be realistic in politics, as in all things. But among the realities there are moral realities. There are no morally or politically neutral standards that can settle the dispute between Kelly and me about what counts as realism and what as irresponsible romanticism or moralism. This is fundamental to understanding the nature of political sobriety, which cannot, without serious distortion, be made to look like a politically and morally neutral concept.

What one counts as realism and common sense, as striking the right balance between moral and political considerations, will, at critical points, be an expression of one of a number of conflicting conceptions of value rather than the judge of them. Consider, for example, the metaphor of achieving the right balance between security and human rights. If one puts 1kg on one side of a scale and 5kg on the other, everyone knows how it will tip. If it doesn’t tip that way, one will throw away the scale, assuming confidence in one’s weights. If one lacks confidence in them, there are uncontroversial methods of putting things right.

Now think about people and their values. One person believes it is sentimental to hold nations to account morally or legally for their conduct towards one another, especially during war. He believes that for the sake of the national interest, for the sake of the common (national) good, we should severely curtail the rights of suspected terrorists and be prepared to torture them if that would save many lives.

For another person, the concept of the national interest cannot be separated from the conditions under which a morally serious person could love their country, lucidly and without shame. He holds that torturing, or seriously violating the human rights of those who would wish terrible evil on us, cannot be a means towards achieving the common good because it is essential to his conception of that good that we do not even consider such things.

Differences of this kind are not just between intellectuals and “the Australian people”; they exist in all parts of our community. The assumption that there is the right balance to be achieved in Australia between morality and politics is therefore mistaken for two reasons. It presupposes a degree of moral agreement in the community that does not exist; and it assumes that there is a morally neutral political balance, fashioned by realism and common sense, that will adjudicate our differences.

James Farrell
14 years ago

I thought that was a particularly gutless attack by Kelly. You don’t often see a high-profile writer like that going after individuals and dismissing everything they stand for, with simplistic generalisations and hardly any specifics. It’s very difficult to defend yourself against that sort of thing.

I enjoyed the post, Ingolf, but was disappointed that you felt the need to distance yourself from ‘intellectuals [who] do hate Howard with an intensity that doesnt encourage sober judgement.’ This kind of caveat only encourages the rightwinger’s tactic of portraying people who consistently and passionately criticise their heroes as obsessive and irrational. When a political leader is as consistently deceitful, divisive and cruel, consistent and emotional criticism response is warranted without apology.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
14 years ago

The best bit of Kelly’s screed was his complaint that intellectuals are pompous windbags.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

AJ
AJ
14 years ago

To me this just the other side of the coin of Kelly’s self appointed role as arbitrator and guardian of the Serious position.

Every op-ed by Kelly I have read in the last couple of years, no matter the topic (US-Aus alliance, Iraq, human rights, economics, health etc) seems to follow the same winding path, of often tortured, reasoning to reach a qualified, but still resolute, agreement with (right-of-centre) conventional wisdom. The logical consequence of this, though, is anyone whose opinion falls outside Kellys tightly cordoned off area of what is serious and legitimate is obviously deeply unserious, and therefore just some sort of crank or whinger.

James Farrell
14 years ago

Re. emotions: That’s fine. As long as we’re agreed that an intense dislike of Howard, Abbott, Downer and Ruddock doesn’t have to be ‘hysterical’, ‘deranged’ or ‘visceral’.

Re. Rafe: I’ll check it out. Somehow I wouldn’t have expected a spitited defense of Gaita, Marr and Burnside from that particular quarter.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
14 years ago

I just watched this video of St Paul of the Oz delivering a boilerplate message about inflation and spending. But about half way through he starts thinking about something else and he seems to get the urge to giggle. I couldn’t help thinking that Paul has private jokes with people – perhaps the camera man/woman – about how light on material he sometimes gets (for reasons I can sympathise with – journos have to pump out way too much stuff).

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
14 years ago

…journos have to pump out way too much stuff

In Kelly’s case from the cosseted feather-bed of his position as “Editor-at-Large” of the National Rupertian.

FDB
FDB
14 years ago

Regrettably easy to quote-mine, but Marr’s Quarterly Essay is indeed excellent.