Missing in action: Nick Cater and the failure of Australia’s conservative intellectuals

LuckyCulture

Australia needs intellectuals, says Nick Cater. In his new book The Lucky Culture he writes:

A nation is entitled to look to its intellectuals to articulate its common purpose, to pull together loose strands and write a narrative that says where it has come from and where it is going. Only they have the skills of abstraction and gift of eloquence to capture shared emotions, to explain the past, frame the present and embrace its destiny.

Cater argues that Australia’s intellectuals have failed to deliver. On the one hand is a new Knowledge Class that disparages ordinary people’s moral emotions and sense of common purpose. And on the other is a cowardly rump of conservative thinkers who have failed to champion the nation’s culture and defend it against attack.

"If a charge of intellectual cowardice were to be brought against conservative thinkers, the National Museum would be Exhibit One", writes Cater. A initiative of the Howard government, the museum came under the control of the Knowledge Class and became "an assault on the very idea of nationhood."

In Cater’s account the conservatives’ defence of nationhood was half-hearted. They failed to challenge Knowledge Class doctrines like diversity, historical injustice and compassion – "ideas that subvert the democratic principles of an ordered society."

Ideas are what’s at stake here. As Cater writes: "this is not a culture war, if we interpret warfare as a means to attain power. It is a dispute about the opinions that should be listened to, and those, if any, that should be considered beyond the pale."

It’s not hard to see why this war of ideas matters. Those who shape the climate of opinion set the agenda and frame debates over policy. If newspapers and television talk shows programs are full of talk about climate change and same sex marriage, this is because these are the issues intellectuals want to talk about.

According to Cater, the struggle over ideas is also a struggle for respectability. "The new class values cultural wealth over financial wealth," he says, "and accords status to those who observe its mores and obey its morality." But the war isn’t over. Cater says that: "much of the intelligentsia’s orthodox wisdom is challenged robustly in the public square."

The National Museum is one example of the weakness of Australia’s conservative intellectuals. Instead of using their "skills of abstraction and gift of eloquence" to argue for a museum that would articulate our common purpose and capture our shared emotions, conservative thinkers capitulated to the Knowledge Class’ norms of respectability.

What Cater doesn’t explain is why conservative thinkers keep losing ground to the Knowledge Class. The popular explanation in conservative circles is the narrative of victimhood. Conservatives say that the new class controls the schools, the universities, the ABC and most of the country’s intellectually serious newspapers and magazines. When conservatives apply for jobs in these organisations they are discriminated against. And if they are inadvertently hired, they are harassed and bullied. In the end, most give up.

But on the ABC’s Q&A, Cater acknowledged that "the people running the show" include those at the Australian as well as those at the ABC. Conservative intellectuals do have forums where they can make their case. The obvious question is why they have been so unsuccessful at winning over other intellectuals.

One possibility is that conservatives don’t think intellectual debate is worth bothering with. Rather than talking endlessly about ideas, conservatives prefer to get things done. But this isn’t Cater’s view. Cater clearly values liberals education and intellectual argument. Paraphrasing John Henry Newman, he writes:

… universities must aspire to be more than escalators of social improvement; they have a duty to enlarge and develop young minds, teaching their charges to discriminate between truth and falsehood and to value things according to their real worth. A degree should be so much more than a mere qualification; it should certify that the bearer has acquired the faculty of judgment, clear-sightedness, sagacity and wisdom, and has the cerebral capacity for philosophical reach, intellectual acumen and reflection.

You might think that a person who has learned to "discriminate between truth and falsehood" and "value things according to their real worth", is a person whose opinion might carry some weight in public debate. You might think that a person who has acquired "sagacity and wisdom" is a person worth involving in public affairs.

There are parts of The Lucky Culture where Cater seems to suggest exactly that. It’s not that educated people should be running the country, but that the rest of us ought to pay attention to their views. So why does he think the Knowledge Class has too much influence?

According to Cater, the Knowledge Class have the pretensions an educated elite but not the intelligence, knowledge or judgment.

By extending higher education to more and more students, universities have become degree factories. Cater argues that many students drawn into the expanded system lack the mental horsepower to benefit from a traditional university education. The "notion that some people are more intelligent than others passes the common sense test" he says. In an effort to extend the benefits of higher education to more and more young people, universities are dumbing down their teaching and assessment. It’s the only way the weaker students will get through.

Universities have lost their higher purpose, he says. "Two generations of students, and now a third, have been deprived of the enjoyment of intellectual discovery; they follow ever narrower fields of study with fragile and subversive intellectual foundations, antithetical to the journey of a curious mind."

Not only do most of those in the Knowledge Class lack the education and cognitive ability they need to function effectively as intellectuals, Cater argues that they have misunderstood the role they should play. For a start, the Knowledge Class misunderstands culture:

National culture, in so far as it is recognised at all by contemporary intellectuals, is commonly assumed to have little or no bearing on a country’s destiny. It is regarded merely as an instrument of power; a weapon that can be used by oppressors at home and abroad to influence the national mood. A culture imposed from the top, however, is not culture at all; it is ideology and the lesson of the twentieth century is that ideology is short-lived, since it rubs against the grain of human nature.

Unlike the old Whigs who outlawed child labour and abolished slavery, the Knowledge Class is impatient and uninterested in building consensus. They refuse to engage in a conversation with ordinary people. When the views of the Knowledge Class and people in the street clash, the Knowledge Class try to ignore or suppress dissenting opinions. According to Cater, their favourite way of doing this is through shaming.

Cater acknowledges that intellectuals can lead reform. But he thinks they should do so by engaging the rest of the community in conversation and pursuing change patiently. The national culture is where Australian values like egalitarianism are grounded. Values are not grounded in reason but in shared emotion. The correct view on values cannot be discovered through reason of empirical research. Intellectuals have no superior insight into right and wrong. Cater argues that intellectuals should respect the culture and build on shared emotions and identity.

If conservative thinkers are losing the debate, perhaps it’s because they’re not engaging in it. Rather than argue with their opponents they spend most of their time stirring up populist resentment against anyone with intellectual pretensions. People who quote Plato, Machiavelli or Nietzsche are wankers. And suggesting that a liberal education might help people think more deeply or carefully about public issues is an elitist attack on ordinary working people, their commonsense and intelligence.

Much of Cater’s book is devoted to mocking the Knowledge Class, their lifestyles and pretensions. Surprisingly little of it is devoted to explaining why they are wrong. As he says himself in chapter 4: "Belittlement is a tactic best left in the schoolyard, but it has become an acceptable manoeuvre in modern debate, where discrediting an opponent is quicker, and less exhausting, than intellectual rebuttal."

If Cater really cares about intellectual debate he could encourage conservatives to join the conversation instead of belittling and stereotyping their opponents. It mightn’t sell as many books but it would be a lot more constructive.

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Tyler
Tyler
8 years ago

If Nick Cater cared about intellectual debate he wouldn’t have written a lazy denunciation of shadowy ‘progressive elitists’ to make a cheap buck from the up-market sections of the News Ltd crowd.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

And suggesting that a liberal education might help people think more deeply or carefully about public issues is an elitist attack on ordinary working people, their commonsense and intelligence.

Celebrating ignorance as a sort of grassroots, working man’s wisdom is a crucial element of right-wing populism. It’s part of marketing the idea that the world is actually very simple and easily explained, and eggheads who claim otherwise are trying to trick honest folk and lead them away from the safety of the bible and tradition.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
8 years ago

You’re giving this book way more credence than it deserves. He almost certainly thought this one up in 5 minutes. It’s standard News Ltd stick pointing and inverse snobbery with a patina of intellectual pretension. News Ltd is full of careerist culture warriors like him queing to wind up the ‘elites’ on the boss’ tab while proclaiming their affinity with ‘ordinary people’. It’s how Murdoch himself made his billions. Why wouldn’t you ape the boss?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
8 years ago

Mr Denmore – If he’s thought it up in 5 minutes and the intellectual content is all just surface then what better way to make that clear than to take him seriously and push him to explain the argument?

I’d rather see Cater on something like Denton’s old Enough Rope program than on Q&A (where nobody ever has to explain anything). Then maybe we’d find out whether there is an argument.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Don Arthur

The timing is interesting. By all accounts, Tony Abbott is on the way to the Lodge no matter what, so why publish now?

Cater isn’t building a necessary electoral case for the Liberals, so it looks more like trying to kick start some right-wing triumphalism to carry through after the election. You know – the voters spoke out against those “elites” we identified, so we have a mandate to defund higher education and privatise everything in sight.

m0nty
m0nty
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

It is a battle cry to restart the boring old culture wars. Everything Howard would be new again under Abbott. The corpse of Windschuttle will be rolled out and animated like Weekend at Bernie’s. It’s a program for a pogrom, but it’s a stale, musty repeat. Zombie intellectualism.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

It sounds like a book that will sell to the ‘knowledge classes’ that it flatters more than anybody else.

derrida derider
derrida derider
8 years ago

I reckon Cater’s view of what a conservative is and what an intellectual is would make the term “conservative intellectual” an oxymoron. And yeah, post-September we are going to see a lot more of this culture wars rubbish.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago

This sort of stuff is for publishers, similar to Christmas newspaper lists of who were Australia greatest 11 cricketers , nobody agrees so they all buy a copy so as to disagree.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

Heh. There’s a word for that.

john r walker
john r walker(@annesanders)
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

Commentary type media (of all flavors) really took off when 24/7 ‘news’ took off ; it needs a lot of content and ‘My’ opinion on elephants is a lot cheaper to manufacture than going to africa and researching a real story.

Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)
Editor
8 years ago

Nice post Don.

Methinks Nick Cater’s petard go boom.

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[…] Cater has never heard of contradictions, and if he has he does not care. Don Arthur provides unbiased review while noting in passing the […]

observa
observa
8 years ago

Well he’s got a point. Most likely a high carbon economy affords the luxury of large elites in residence, eventually driving such economies into usury as we see everywhere. To then bite the carbon hand that feeds them might well be shooting themselves in the foot, but they probably figure they’ll be the last to have to make sacrifices on that score.

No their role is to make the community more aware and call for the minions to do the heavy lifting as a matter of course. One could only imagine their shock and horror should a Gillard announce that forthwith no publicly paid official would remain airconditioned on her watch, all for the sake of the grandkiddies. No it’s a lot like conspicuous public compassion for boat people and privately counting on one hand their take up of the Home Stay program for same.

I think the rise of the AGW catastrophism was the best barometer of an elites in residence, bloated beyond all common sense or rational scientific skepticism. Not exactly their finest hour with the likes of Lewandowsky being demolished by amateur bloggers yet there’s always another John Cook prepared to abuse taxpayer privilege to have another go and make a fool of himself and those who stand with him. Perhaps stick to hanging about in gender spaces or the carbon content of filtered vs instant coffeee John?

Therein lies the nub of the problem for our ever larger carbon afforded, thinkers in residence. Too many defended the ever growing esoteric tossers within their ranks and now it’s a problem of irrelevance by association for the many. How you get rid of akk these stinkers in residence now is the $64000 question but the sublime irony of sacrificing Gonskis to facilitate an appreciation by Grade 1s of the pedagogy of your boofheaded progeny in the school ed system now, should not be lost on you all. Just hold on tight to the company line that more education lifts all boats while I fret about the rise and rise of the clickons.

nottrampis
8 years ago

This made it!

Robert
8 years ago

Okay, I’m conservative and likely to agree with much of what Nick Cater has written. I’m just uneasy about the tendency of some conservatives to go tit for tat with the left, of being an anti-left, rather than representing a very different tradition and mentality.

I remember when Keating would be hob-nobbing with leading conductors or the latest Booker winner, and Alexander Downer would stand around waving a folder which contained, he said, his own terrific arts policies. ‘Don’t go away guys…look, I’ve got whole binders of ballet and stuff…’ Who was going to win that one? Unless you’re Menzies, and the other guy is Calwell, why go there? Just be a conservative! Go to the footy or the track and indulge your arty side quietly.

Likewise, it annoys me when conservatives do show-and-tell on who’s got the best intellectuals. If it’s that important, maybe they should revive the Australian Democrats. We’re supposed to be a bit suss about intellectuals, no? Even if they’re saying what we like to hear, they’re still theorists, right? The left forms an activist group or research body, so the right feels it has to have “think-tanks”. Maybe a think-tank is more butch, but it’s not conservative. It’s a bunch of theorists, and they’re supposed to have very short leashes and lots of brutal toilet training. They don’t get their own luxury kennels, surely. Not from us!

And let’s not do a Shaka-style sniff-out of conservative values everywhere we go. The next old movie I watch will likely be by some commie who was banned in fifties. Why should I look for conservative art or entertainment when all I want is art and entertainment? Conservatives were urging me to get into the Chris Nolan Batman films because of their crypto-traditionalism or whatever. All I got was noise, bloat, ham and lousy pacing. No thanks. A classic western or noir made by a leftie who had to dodge McCarthy will be perfect.

When conservatives make an issue of the non-warming over recent years and other contradictory climate factors, they are reacting and extrapolating like their opponents, even going with the notion that poorly understood observation sets such as ENSO, PDO etc can be treated as mechanisms. Surely, a conservative’s instinct is to dismiss CAGW as more Posh Left bedwetting on a subject about which little is known – not to start predicting a New Dalton or impending Ice Age as a counter to the other side’s “science”.

In short, let’s be a bit anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical and comfortably so. Less reaction, more tradition. Rather than be “of the right” let’s just be conservative. Liberal views, traditional outlooks, some compromise and no dogmas. Slow to tax, slow to spend, but, hey, you gotta tax and spend.

After Gillard and Swan, the punters are listening. Don’t blow it with social engineering and aimless tree-planting, Tony. And watch those think-tanks!

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Robert

What you’ve described seems to be down-the-line centrism with modern right-wing dogma substituted for the more rational positions of past moderates.

AGW denialism, in particular, has all the trappings of creationism and geocentrism but has come to be regarded as a model of informed scientific skepticism within the conservative movement.

That aside, why do you think conservatism has ended up this way?

Robert
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

Surprise! I manage my skepticism without any reference to creation theory or geocentrism. To the bewilderment of our Green Betters and the Fairfax-perusing classes, I have no trouble accepting basic geology, astronomy etc.

In fact, while being something of a trad guy, I can be a touch irreligious. I draw the line at leaving lavish temple offerings to the latest scholar-priesthood promising to manipulate the climate. Nor do I see any advantage in shipping off billions to GIM, Goldman Sachs – or whoever else we neglected to lock up after ’08 – trusting that their financial manoeuvrings will be able to change the weather. (Even if they can, I’d rather do without the half century of rain deficit which followed the Fed Drought, or the rain which finally came in 1950 and created a sea the size of England and Wales to the west of Sydney! No. Even if you can change the climate – don’t!)

Though clearly no hipster, I even do irony! It hasn’t escaped my attention that the ruinous “initiatives” to mitigate carbon emissions have been funded by gouging and selling off massive quantities of, well…carbon. I’ve even heard that the Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean purchasers of that carbon are not just using it as art installation. Just as well their not burning it in our atmosphere, or the irony would be just too much for non-hipsters like me.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Robert

Ack. So much potential for an honest discussion, but bolted straight to the straw man.

The climate change denialism movement is very similar in style and tone to the creationist movement, and not only recycles many standard creationist arguments, but is heavily populated with actual Biblical literalists who appear to find both sets of ideas easily assimilated and mutually supporting.

What I didn’t say is that all climate change denialists are creationists.

But the question remains: how did modern conservatism get so far from its ostensibly thoughtful and measured roots?

Robert
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

I have never met a geocentrist. The only creationists I know are neighbours and Seventh Day Adventists. The Seventh Day Adventists, as you may know, are strong believers in anthropogenic climate change, as are the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (who are loose or “scientific” creationists.) Many, if not most, millennarians are attracted to climate alarmism, for obvious reasons. It’s become a big conversation starter for the JWs these days. (I live in the bush, and one can’t just slam the door one’s JW neighbours, so I have to hear them out.)

Never having met a single creationist, let alone a geocentrist, who is a climate skeptic, I suppose I’ll have to let someone else offer an explanation in response to your comment. I appreciate that you are referring to the trappings rather than the actual beliefs, but my experience of skeptics is farmers and fishermen, and ordinary working people who know they won’t be voting for Oakeshott, but don’t pretend to know what the climate will be like one season from now. As a bamboo grower, I’d love to know too – but I don’t!

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Robert

The modern geocentrist movement is mostly Catholic, which is impressive. Protestants haven’t quite sewn up the religious extremism market in the west.

You misunderstood, though. I point out that sixteenth century geocentrists, twentieth century creationists and modern AGW denialists are the same thing. The terminology changes, but not the arguments.

After all, did you know that a cabal of extremists is using fake “scientific” evidence to attack the institutions that keep our society prosperous, and that anyone who says the data are accurate is a traitor?

I could write up a comparison, but it’s easier to let someone else explain it in detail. Ignore the provocative title; after The Paranoid Style, it’s one of the best examinations of modern conservatism available.

desipis
8 years ago
Reply to  Robert

Let’s be a bit anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical and comfortably so. Less reaction, more tradition.

I think you’re doing a disservice to conservatism if you’re going to frame it as anti-intellectual. I see conservatism intellectualism as focusing on established and proven theories. Progressivism intellectualism being that which focuses on novel and alternative theories. Conservative think-tanks have a role to play in preventing the erosion of well-founded understandings by a flood of grand new ideas.

I think its equally likely for an anti-intellectual person to be a bible-bashing conservative or a tree-hugging progressive. Neither left nor right is innately more ‘intellectual’ than the other, and political allegiances on either side are far more likely to be founded in emotion than intellect.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  desipis

I think its equally likely for an anti-intellectual person to be a bible-bashing conservative or a tree-hugging progressive. Neither left nor right is innately more ‘intellectual’ than the other, and political allegiances on either side are far more likely to be founded in emotion than intellect.

The distinction between left/progressive and right/conservative is sometimes useful. For example, North Korean communism is leftist by definition, but deeply conservative in practice.

The film Goodbye Lenin! explores some of that.

desipis
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

It’s also useful to make a distinction between conservatism and radical regressionism.

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

I don’t think it is.

In my opinion, Corey Robin has nailed the conservative movement comprehensively. His examination in The Reactionary Mind is to conservatism as the theory of evolution is to life on earth: a robust explanation of why something so superficially diverse returns consistently to the same basic concepts, century after century.