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The Other Side of 1984

By Tim Dunlop - posted Monday, 15 May 2000

George Orwell is famous for alerting us to the fact that Big Brother was watching. What George didn’t predict was that new technologies would also allow us to watch Big Brother. But it’s going to take a new type of citizen - the citizen intellectual - to take advantage of what’s on offer.

In the future we’ll all be intellectuals.

As new technologies put more information at our fingertips; as more of us are educated to higher and higher levels; and as our ability to make a living increasingly relies on our ability to trade in knowledge, many more of us will cross that line from lower or middle class and will become "new class".


Okay, I’m exaggerating, but...

This in turn will change the very nature of what we mean by the term intellectual. Instead of being an elitist title, a self-conferred badge pinned by certain people on themselves and their peers, the idea of the intellectual will merge with that of the citizen. This is a good thing (though I’m still exaggerating).

Traditionally, intellectuals were an elite lot. That is to say, the title intellectual was generally applied to people with a certain educational level or certain position within society. It was also a category that was always narrowly defined and it conjured in people a particular and rather elitist image.

For both these reasons - a narrow definition and the elitist image - Australians have been particularly reluctant to take on this badge of distinction. It is not unusual to read that Australia doesn’t have intellectuals, or that it doesn’t haven’t very good ones, or that it has them but they’re the wrong sort. Even our intellectuals don’t want to be called intellectuals. Read Robert Dessaix’s recent book of interviews with Australian intellectuals: three hundred pages of men and women denying their own existence! An intellectual? Not me, mate.

Because the category has traditionally been thought of in rather high European terms, deriving from a tradition of either the "gentleman scholar" (Hume or Kant for example) or the radical polemicist (the Dreyfusards), it has seemed that Australia has had few people who could genuinely be called "intellectuals". Combine this with a mixture of cultural cringe and egalitarian quietist and it has been reasonably easy for it to seem that Australia’s intellectuals have gone missing.

Of all these reasons, I think the reluctance to be perceived as elite has been the strongest. This is not to say that Australians - especially Australian intellectuals - don’t have elitist views on things: they clearly do. But it does indicate that there is a cultural reluctance to openly identify as elite. The reason for this is Australian egalitarianism.


Now we can argue until the troops come home about how egalitarian Australian actually is, but as with most things to do with national myth and character, the belief is as important as the reality. The Brits think they’re witty; the Americans think they’re rugged individuals; the Italians think they’re great lovers; the French - well the French think they’re intellectuals. And Australians think they’re egalitarian, and the belief is so strong that it makes us behave in ways that make us look egalitarian - like NOT wanting to be seen as intellectuals.

When they can’t deny being an intellectual, many Australians prefer the term ‘public intellectual’. This term was popularised in 1987 by the American commentator Russell Jacoby in his best-selling book, The Last Intellectual: American Culture in the Age of Academe. The term ‘public intellectual’ has been taken up with a vengeance throughout the western world, especially here in Australia. It nicely captures the tension inherent in the rarefied practice of intellectual work and imbues it with the more democratic flavour and egalitarian cache of the word ‘public’.

But it also misses the point: the very idea of the intellectual is changing. The term ‘public intellectual’, and the equalising ideas behind it, are no longer adequate. This is because the term was always a bit of a furphy. While it attempted to lasso the elitist intellectual to the egalitarian public, it was still always an elitist model. That is, the idea was always that intellectuals (especially those from the universities) should try and make their ideas more accessible to a wider audience. There was no sense in which the intellectuals might actually listen to what the public itself had to say.

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About the Author

Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Adelaide. His PhD dealt with the role of intellectuals and citizens in public debate. He runs the weblog, The Road to Surfdom.

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