Twilight of the Pundits

The internet’s welcome transformation of public debate

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

Nelson Wiseman writes:  Last December, my colleague at the Ottawa Citizen, a Parliament Hill reporter named Glen McGregor, wrote a blogpost entitled “Toward a Dogme95 of Political Reporting.” It was a trim little call for a return to journalism’s basics: pick up the phone, work sources, get stories. It asked reporters to stop filing easy stories skimmed from the froth of partisan posturing or from social media, and to be more judicious about quoting the always-voluble “senior party sources.” It was fine advice. But the first bullet point of McGregor’s manifesto caught a lot of people off guard:

No more quoting political scientists:  It’s lazy and signals the reporter couldn’t find any other apparently neutral or objective source to talk. These people work in academics, not politics, so I’m not interested in their opinions on anything but their own research.

This caused quite a ruckus in the cosy Canadian politics neighbourhood of the Twittersphere. A number of professors took the comment as a raised middle finger to their presence in Canadian journalism. It probably does not matter that McGregor’s intention was to criticize journalists, not academics, and was less about telling professors to stay out of journalism than it was about telling reporters to stop relying on professors to pad out their stories and launder their political views. Like most serious misunderstandings, it served the useful function of shedding some light on the relationship between journalism and academic work, and how -technology-driven shifts in our conception of status, influence and research itself called that relationship into question.

More importantly, what McGregor’s post did was call the bluff of the entire social animal known as the “public intellectual.”

The important thing to understand about journalists is that they are the lowest ranking intellectuals. That is to say: they are members of the intellectual class, but in the status hierarchy of intellectuals, journalists are at the bottom. That is why they have traditionally adopted the status cues of the working class: the drinking and the swearing, the anti-establishment values and the commitment to the non-professionalization of journalism.

The important thing to understand about academics is that they are the highest rank of intellectuals. That is why they have traditionally adopted the status symbols of the 19th-century British leisured class—the tweeds and the sherry and the learning of obscure languages—while shunning the sorts of things that are necessary for people for whom status is something to be fought for through interaction with the normal members of society (such as reasonably stylish clothing, minimal standards of hygiene, basic manners).

Despite inhabiting the opposite ends of the intellectual status hierarchy, some journalists always saw some appeal in looking up toward academia (instead of down on the working classes) and some academics saw the appeal of journalism. Professors, after all, have the cachet of smarts. Journalists, on the other hand, can become folk heroes. And so within the media there was a natural alliance to be found between journalists who wanted to give their stories some intellectual heft by quoting a serious researcher on the story at hand and researchers who wanted an audience for their ideas beyond the faculty lounge and the conference circuit.

So far so good. In the pre-internet world of publishing, journalism served as a useful instrument for brokering academic research to the masses. Academic publishing is slow and research is hard to grasp even for PhDs, while a newspaper comes out every day and the language of the broadsheet is educated but relatively straightforward. The reporter who could become an “instant expert” in a difficult field of research or the researcher who had a gift for explaining difficult research in straightforward language played a valuable role in the realm of public debate.

There is a downside to this, though. Journalists work under tight deadlines, and—like everyone else on Earth—they will take the easy path over the difficult when given the choice. Meanwhile, it is tough for the lay reporter to know which experts are the ones to trust and, even then, academics can be difficult to reach (the better ones always seem to be on research leave somewhere other than at their home university). And so there has always been an interest among journalists in professors who are easily accessible and are willing to talk or write about a very broad range of topics, including those outside their areas of expertise. These “public intellectuals” are the quote-for-rent academic pundits that Glen McGregor suggests we can do without.

It is hard to see how any journalist, or any academic, could object to this. No serious journalist wants to be seen as lazy, and no serious academic wants to be considered a lightweight. So why, then, did so many people take offence at McGregor’s proposal?

The problem stems from the shifting place of academics in the popular discussion over the past decade. One of the great benefits of the rise of Web 2.0 was the way blogs gave professors a platform, independent of both mass media and niche publishing, to promote their work and to critically discuss the work of their peers in a forum that was free, public, dynamic and immediate. And while it had the effect of making it easier for journalists to identify and reach useful sources, the more serious consequence (for journalists) was that it threatened to make them obsolete, by eliminating their role as intellectual intermediary.

The rise of the social web, Facebook and, most especially, Twitter has only accelerated this process, and the 2011 federal election marked a turning point in the place of the public intellectual in Canadian life. It was the first election in which a large number of young Canadian academics used Twitter to make direct, unmediated, real-time interventions into the debates over policy and the various party platforms.

These included the economists Mike Moffat (@MikePMoffatt) from Western University’s Ivey School of Business, Stephen Gordon (@stephenfgordon) of Université Laval, Kevin Milligan (@kevinmilligan) of the University of British Columbia and Frances Woolley (@franceswoolley) of Carleton University. There were the political scientists: Philippe Lagassé (@pmlagasse) of the University of Ottawa, an expert on the Crown and military deployment, Peter Loewen (@peejloewen) of the University of Toronto, who helped run the CBC’s experimental Vote Compass project, and Emmett Macfarlane (@EmmMacfarlane), now at the University of Waterloo, who is an expert on courts and rights. There was also Alison Loat (@alisonloat), who runs the media and democracy research organization Samara, and whose project of conducting exit interviews with former members of Parliament has opened an entirely new front in our understanding of public office holders in Canada.

All of these people took to Twitter to engage directly with journalists, party staffers and spin doctors, other academics and the general public. Very little of their content was the usual half-baked horse-race political analysis that journalists truck in. Instead it was hard-nosed analysis of platform items such as the F35 fighter jet purchase or the Liberal Party’s cap-and-trade plan for carbon reductions or sophisticated debates on political advertising, the electoral system and voter-behaviour.

This group is now where the action is when it comes to the public engagement of academics in Canada. It is a sign of how much things have changed, and how much of the status quo has evaporated, that not one of these people makes an appearance (save for Woolley, who is briefly name-checked) in The Public Intellectual in Canada, a new collection of essays, edited by the University of Toronto professor and legendary quote-machine Nelson Wiseman.

As Wiseman observes in his introduction, one of the first difficulties in writing about public intellectuals is finding someone who will self-identify as one. David Suzuki, Denys Arcand and Conrad Black all declined to contribute to this book on the grounds that they were not public intellectuals. All three would have made excellent contributors—Arcand in particular would have leavened the mix considerably. (A piece from Black would have done whatever the opposite of leaven is, but not in an uninteresting way.)

Instead, the book contains essays from what amounts to the golden Rolodex of mid to late 20th-century mostly Toronto-based Canadian media punditry: Janice Gross Stein, Hugh Segal, Sylvia Bashevkin, Stephen Clarkson, Tom Flanagan, Maude Barlow, Margaret Somerville. Philosopher Mark Kingwell and journalist Doug Saunders (both from Toronto) are included as a concession to the existence of Generation X. There are, though, apparently no public intellectuals in Canada under the age of 40 worth hearing from or about.

The essays are grouped into three categories. The first set addresses the question of what defines a public intellectual (Stein) and his or her role (Kingwell). The second set looks at the membership class of public intellectuals in Canada, historically (Wiseman), by linguistic divide (Gregory Baum, Alain-G. Gagnon) and by gender (Bashevkin). The third group contains accounts from people working “on the front lines” of public intellectualhood, either as public-minded academics (Flanagan, Clarkson) or activists of some sort (Barlow, Somerville).

So what is a public intellectual, and what is one for?

Wiseman declares that a public intellectual is “an independent critic,” a “free-ranger who offers of breadth of vision that transcends any one particular branch of a science, art, or vocation.” He or she uses “a publicly accessible manner on issues of general public concern.” But it is not enough to simply popularize one’s research or ideas—the public intellectual must also be motivated by an ethical or political agenda:

Driven by an audacious sense of obligation to himself and to society, he tells the truth the way he sees it, and in a democracy, dispelling ignorance is perhaps his first duty. Social commitment and civil courage delineate him from other intellectuals.

This notion of the public intellectual as someone who brings ideas to bear on matters of great importance to a democracy is the overriding theme of the essays in a third of this collection. The scene setters by Janice Gross Stein and Mark Kingwell agree that the mission of the public intellectual should flow from “their commitment to engagement with the public” (Stein) or their desire “to be good citizens, and to engage the semi-conscious majority with as much self-awareness, wit, and eloquence as they can muster” (Kingwell). On this view, the public intellectual is a sort of hype-man of democracy, someone whose job, ultimately, is to just help keep the conversation going.

That is both true and useful, as far as it goes. Kingwell’s essay, written in the form of a dialogue, is funny and deeply ironic, and his idea of the public intellectual as a “persistent xenocyst”—someone whose presence is indigestible by the body politic—is a clever restatement of Socrates’ self-described mission of being a gadfly in the Athenian polis.

But it is not clear just how far it gets us. The problem arises out of a fundamental tension, embedded in the very concept of the public intellectual, between the virtues of intellectual inquiry and the demands of what Wiseman calls “ethical or political or political concerns.” It turns out that bringing truth to bear on public matters is not as simple as it seems.

Think back to the shiver of delight that swept the front row of Canada’s political lecture hall a few years back when men such as Michael Ignatieff (PhD), Stéphane Dion (PhD), Stephen Harper (MA) and Jack Layton (PhD) strode onto the stage. The reasonable hope was that having some genuinely smart men in charge would drag our national debate out of the schoolyard and into the classroom, where we would finally be able to have an adult conversation about issues of great national significance.

Right. The excitement over Ignatieff lasted only until he actually entered the House of Commons, at which point he found himself mouthing the same banalities and moronic insults that are the currency of parliamentary life. Layton, for all his academic background, was always an immensely talented retail politician. Harper has spent the better part of his time in power doing jumping jacks on the very principled and very dead corpse of the Reform party. As for Dion … well, we know where his commitment to ideas did not get him.

The hope that academics would make for good politicians was always based on a false assumption: that electoral politics is a form of applied philosophy and the ideal model for political debate is the graduate seminar, where everyone goes around the table, putting forth their position and making respectful arguments and objections.

This is a huge misconception of what politics is and what distinguishes it from academic life. In a philosophical debate, what everyone involved is trying to get at is the truth. In contrast, what is at stake in the political realm is not truth but power, and power (unlike truth) is a “rival good”—one person or group can wield power only at the expense of another. This is why politics is inevitably adversarial. Political power is ultimately about deciding who shall govern, and part of governing is about choosing between competing interests.

The public intellectual, as conceptualized by most of the contributors to this volume, is someone who thinks there is no essential contradiction between the two roles of searching for truth and exercising power. The one writer who is entirely clear-eyed about this is Tom Flanagan, whose essay is far and away the most important piece in the book.

Flanagan’s piece divides his career as a public intellectual into four distinct areas: writing books on academic themes for a broader audience, serving as an expert witness in land claims litigation, working as an organizer for political parties and serving as a media pundit. For all their differences, though, Flanagan argues that these roles all share one thing in common, which distinguishes them from academic work: “public affairs are fundamentally adversarial, while intellectual life is fundamentally authoritative.” Put only slightly differently: the first is about getting something done, the second is about getting something right.

Flanagan’s conclusion follows on his recognition that public life and scholarly life are completely separate endeavours: “Overall, there is no particular imperative for scholars to participate in public affairs, certainly no more than for other professionally educated people. It’s a matter of taste and interest, not moral obligation.”

This puts Flanagan at odds with almost every other contributor to the book, but most of all with Stephen Clarkson, whose essay “Personal Success versus Public Failure: The Muting of Canada’s Academic Intellectuals” is a nostalgic and very disheartening look at what he sees as the decline in influence of Canada’s academics. “Responsible scholars,” he argues, “forty years ago felt no compunction about behaving like active citizens.” The suggestion that these roles were somehow in tension, or that one had to choose between them, would have made no sense in the salad days of the University League for Social Reform.

As Clarkson sees it, the public-or-perish imperative, which was imported by American scholars into Canadian universities as the higher education system expanded rapidly at the end of the 1960s, has made it impossible for dedicated scholars to engage properly in a public role. That is not to say there are not academics contributing to Canadian public life. Far from it. What has emerged, Clarkson argues, is a public intellectual star system—a small cadre of professionalized intellectual celebrities—who have speaking agents and newspaper editors on speed-dial, ensuring that if something needs to be said somewhere about something, they are the ones who will be called upon to say it.

According to Clarkson, this class of public intellectual arose out of the confluence of two factors: First, the restriction in the supply of ideas, as the really smart people succumbed to the intramural demands of academic publishing. And second, the restriction in the means of transmission of these ideas in a mass media ecosystem that had journalists—and powerful editors in particular—serving as intellectual gatekeepers.

About this, Clarkson is absolutely correct. But as he remarks at the end of his essay, things are changing. The internet is allowing scholars to circumvent the walled garden of academic publishing by posting their work online for all to see. At the same time, the old media gatekeepers are struggling to adapt to a world of dense social networks, where “everyone with access to the internet can find an expert or be one. Whether these new media break down the present public-intellectual star system remains to be seen.”

Allowing for the lag time of academic publishing, which makes interstellar communications look zippy, we can safely say that the jury has come back, and the answer to Clarkson’s question is: yes they can, and yes they have.

Perhaps the most telling sign of how far removed the contributors to Wiseman’s volume are from the current reality is that so many of them see the rise of the internet and the fragmentation of the media landscape as a threat against which the traditional public intellectual is a necessary bulwark. The exact opposite is the case. The public intellectual, as defined and explored by most of the contributors to Wiseman’s book, is an artifact of a media-intellectual economy whose business model is now obsolete.

The election of 2011 broke the mould of the 20th-century Canadian public intellectual. We cannot fix it, and we would not want to do so even if we could.

Literary Review of Canada

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