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.