When Did ‘Intellect’ Become a Dirty Word?

October 4, 2007 at 11:36 pm (Uncategorized)

In this month’s Australian Literary Review, Paul Kelly writes a thought-provoking essay on Australia’s status as “the lucky country,” as defined by Donald Horne’s 1964 book of the same name. Kelly’s argument is that Australia has indeed been lucky, because in the time since Horne’s bleak predictions for the country’s future, we have gone from strength to prosperous strength under the fully engaged eye of our great leaders. Okay. That’s one part of the argument, and few would disagree with the idea that we’ve got it good and have done for a while now. Few would argue that whatever their political differences, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and John Howard (Kelly’s move seems to be to generously include the Labor leaders so he can ultimately laud Howard in a “What? I mentioned the other guys too!” kind of way) all made a deep impression on the Australian landscape during their time in office. No one my age is ever going to struggle to recall those three names. And I think Kelly is right to suggest they are all leaders – as repugnant as I find John Howard’s politics personally, I don’t doubt for a moment that a) he is sincere even when he’s lying (this is a man who really desperately wants the job he’s in, and he worked with bloody-minded tenacity to get it) or b) he is the leader of his party and (currently, but I’m counting the days) this country. In many ways what Kelly says of Howard is true.

Howard as our very own ‘Dear Leader’ is not my problem with Kelly’s intelligent and articulate essay. My problem is that Kelly unfortunately spends much of his (rather intellectual, dare I say it) word count slagging off what he calls “Australia’s intellectual class.” This is despite his saying “Of course, it is hard to categorise Australia’s intellectual class because, in essence, it defies categorisation.”

Gee, Paul, that’s a bit soft, isn’t it? Go on, mate, have a crack.

My problem with this “Oh well, I can’t define ’em, but I can peg rotten tomatoes at ’em because I definitely know ’em when I see ’em” approach is that it just gives Kelly licence to slag off anyone who voices their dissent. Kelly variously insists Australia’s intellectual class is wrong, smug, second-rate, analytically impoverished, limitlessly self-righteous and pompous, sulky – it goes on – so he seems to know an awful lot about them, whoever the hell they are, and funnily enough none of it’s good. If you can define something on negatives alone, then I’d say Kelly’s categorisation skills are a wee bit sharper than he’s letting on. He’s probably just being modest. And he does in fact name a few names. David Marr, Raimond Gaita, and Julian Burnside all cop a pasting (and, oh yes, Kelly very smoothly ends the piece by noting Kevin Rudd is an intellectual, which by now we know must mean he’s the pits, just like the rest of those thinking creeps… I mean, is it just me, or is it really strange?), even though the last time I checked, part of being in this wonderfully lucky country meant people were entitled to differences of opinion, and entitled to talk about those differences out loud. I don’t really see what’s so disdainful about citizens of a free country speaking up about their political concerns.

But disdainful it certainly is to Mr Kelly. He does not even remotely attempt to conceal his abject contempt for this slippery old category of the “intellectual class.” I must say I find it wholly odd. For a start, when did “intellectual” become a pejorative term? You can practically hear Kelly’s lip curling every time the word appears in the text – and it appears often – and yet I have always deeply admired intellect in a person. Certainly I want our leaders to be intellectual – much better than the puppet on parade at a White House near you. Now, just to be on the safe side, I am looking up “intellectual” in my magnificent Macquarie Dictionary so we can all be clear on its definition, even if Mr Kelly won’t even try:

adjective 1. appealing to or engaging the intellect: intellectual pursuits. 2. of or relating to the intellect: intellectual powers. 3. directed or inclined towards things that involve the intellect: intellectual tastes. 4. possessing or showing intellect or mental capacity, especially to a high degree: an intellectual writer. 5. characterised by or suggesting a predominance of intellect: an intellectual face. – noun 6. an intellectual being or person. 7. a member of a class or group possessing, or supposed to possess, enlightened judgement and opinions with respect to public or political questions: * this general distrust of the intellectual appears to be a phenomenon in English-speaking societies in particular – ROBERT DESSAIX, 1998.

You can say that again, Bobby!

In case there’s any lingering confusion, let’s look further up the page at “intellect”:

noun 1. the power or faculty of the mind by which one knows, understands, or reasons, as distinct from that by which one feels and that by which one wills; the understanding. 2. understanding or mental capacity, especially of a high order. 3. a particular mind or intelligence, especially of a high order. 4. the person possessing it. 5. minds collectively, as of a number of persons, or the persons themselves.

Right. Well, that still sounds pretty good to me – how can I join?


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