The exchange of ideas between Britain and Ireland is drying up

Why is there a dearth of public intellectuals in Ireland? Andreas Hess, an American sociologist currently teaching in UCD poses the question in an Irish Times opinion piece pegged to a RIA symposium later this week. The exercise seems prompted by the fall-out from the recession, recognising that the roots of Irish problems lie deeper than in a discussion about money. The interplay of ideas and events shapes the future. In Britain and Ireland we like to preen ourselves as practical folk who avoid high falutin notions like the plague. But as Keynes reminded us :

“even the most practical man of affairs is usually in thrall to the ideas of some long-dead economist”

– and not only economists. Not wishing to play down the contributions of Irish opinion formers from David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole to John Waters (whether they and others would call themselves public intellectuals or not, I’m not sure) Hess’s question also suggests another. Am I imagining it or is Irish national conversation on what it’s all about, far less influenced by what goes on in Britain than it used to be? I can’t recall reading a decent comparison of the British and Irish experience in the recession, for instance, or on Europe, or lifestyle. Granted the imperial legacy has faded, but is this growing separation altogether a good thing, when the two islands share broadly the same culture and intercourse of all kinds should move in two directions ?

Hess for example commends Harvard lectures by the academic lawyer Michael Sandell on The Right Thing To Do without seemingly being aware of the fact that Sandell gave this year’s seminal BBC Reith lectures on human rights this year. OK, that’s hardly a crime. But just look at the list of the “top” 100 public intellectuals readers voted on for the monthly journal of ideas, Prospect magazine. The list voted on by half a million readers worldwide is pretty international and obviously subject to a write-in campaign. Still, it would be great if the Irish Times or some other forum would lead a far wide range of ideas than we’re currently getting. Is it anti-national heresy to suggest that Irish participation in such British debates helps disseminate Irish ideas too? And create ideas which can be called British and Irish? If you take swap national labels you’ll find “British values” are much the same as Irish values.. Maybe just a pioneering website is doing the biz and I’m the last to hear of it?

  • If John Waters is a public intellectual I’m the democratically elected president of Afghanistan.

  • northern whig

    What are we looking for in the Prospect list Brian?

  • Panic, These Ones Likes It Up Them.

    Maybe we should just share out the wealth more evenly.
    Hows that for a good high intellectual idear.

  • borderline

    Brian,

    though I agree with your assertion that “the two islands share broadly the same culture” I am unhappy about it.

    This is because the British culture smashed the Irish culture into smithereens after Kinsale.

    Language, legal system, land ownership, sports and pastimes, music, song, art and literature all flung to western rocky outcrops.

    But we didn’t die off, and many of us hope to restore our native culture to our children, as would any self-respecting people.

    Experience and history teaches me the British have extremely little understanding or interest in this message.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The list voted on by half a million readers worldwide is pretty international and obviously subject to a write-in campaign. ‘

    So international in fact that I did’nt recognise any of the top ten who appear mostly to originate from the Islamic world . Noam Chomsky at no 11 was the first to ring a bell . Not sure whether this list has any meaning other than it tittilates the voters and assuages the reputations of the ‘intellectual ‘ class.
    Mr Universe and Miss World are similar kinds of competitions which however focus on the more physical attributes of the species and most probably the less dangerous.

    I would have said that not only are ideas between Britain and Ireland ‘drying up’ but that ideas generally are ‘drying up’ particularly in the fields of government , politics , democracy , economics and how to run a country without running it into the ground .

    Truth is people are pissed off with experts .We no longer are prepared to believe on the basis of words alone . When the world’s foremost ‘economist ‘ Alan Greenspan – devoted follower Ayn Rand and the selfish individual , can admit in front of a congressional committee to answer for /explain the economic collapse post Lehman’s demise, that he got it ‘wrong ‘ and that perhaps ‘free markets ‘ were not the all self regulating miracle workers of the economy that he thought they were ?

    We see the spectacle of our Finance Minister chewing garlic at the midnight hour to enhance his absorbtion of economic dogma by guru McWilliams ? We see Westminster , the Dail and the Assembly all up to their knees in the public trough of taxpayer’s monies grabbing everything they can while it’s still going ? We look at the Church experts and we see the Anglicans going off in tangents , the RC Church in meltdown and the fundie nutters jerking their way to salvation by lolling in tongues .
    And as if that was not enough we see the spectacle of the latest con men of Knock who somehow persuaded 15,000 feckin eejits that the Virgin Mary would appear at 3.00pm and in a display of awesome galactic power would make the SUN dance in the sky and would then address the assembled ;(

  • Greenflag

    But as Keynes reminded us :

    “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in thrall to the ideas of some long-dead economist”

    Perhaps in the 1930’s . Since the late 1970’s the USA and UK have been in thrall not to the ideas of some long dead economist but to an actual living member of the gypsy fortune teller’s union at least up to Nov 16 2006 , which was the day that the late Milton Friedman founder of the Al Capone sorry Chicago School of Economics departed this mortal coil . Thank you Milt for nothing 🙁

    What a shame he missed the 2008 meltdown and the subsequent nomic crisis . I’m sure he’d have had some fun seeing his credo taking a battering ? Still his chief disciple Alan Greenspan has made his apologies for not understanding that bankers would turn their banks into casinos if they were allowed to , and that there is no point in having banking regulations if they are not enforced .

    The USA enjoyed it’s greatest period of prosperity between the years 1935 and 1980 the years when Keynesianism was to the fore among USA economists . The onset of the Arab Israeli War in 1973 and the resulting oil crisis pushed the USA into stagflation and down the road to monetarist economics and trickle down destruction a la Friedman .

    Since 1980 despite Reagans brief fling and the false dawn of Clinton’s second term the USA economy at least for the American middle and working classes has been in relative decline .During those years trickle up has been working very well with 95% of all American wealth now in the hands of the top 1% in American society and by the time this crisis is over quite possibly it will be 99% in the hands of the top 1%

    For the UK for brief period in the early 2000’s it looked like Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ might have some traction but alas the creeping financial dysfunctionalism set in train back in the 1980’s by the recently dead economist Friedman returned to put an end to the hopes of the ‘third way ‘

    So what can we in Ireland learn from our two great Anglophone neighbours in terms of ‘ideas’ for running an economy ? Not a whole lot it would seem One would think that with all their resources and all their ‘intellectuals ‘ that somehow either the USA or UK would have been able to avoid the grand theft of their taxpayer’s money by the banking industry ?

    ‘Is it anti-national heresy to suggest that Irish participation in such British debates helps disseminate Irish ideas too? ‘

    Not at all- you’ve persuaded me to have a peek at the magazine but it’s more out of curiosity than any real belief that in the political ane economic world there is anything ‘new ‘ on the horizon well nothing more than a revamped Keynesiansim anyway . And while Turkish ‘thinkers ‘ like Gulem may seem to be the present day reincarnations for the Islamic World that Galileo and others were for the late medieval world his answer for Turkey’e travails is not going to find resonance in Ballymena no more than Derry ;)?

  • The Raven

    “This is because the British culture smashed the Irish culture into smithereens after Kinsale.”

    Borderline, I’m in my early thirties and had to go and look up what you meant. I don’t deny that what the British did on this island has ramifications to this day. And as a fairly “green” unionist, I agree with “many of us hope to restore our native culture to our children, as would any self-respecting people”.

    But for better or for worse (worse, I personally believe, though I used to think quite the opposite), this is a global society we live in. You are probably right about British cultural imperialism, but the undeniable influence of 50million-odd people to the right of us on the map pervades everything.

    Making our way down the age range to the early twenties/late teens crowd probably shows the homogenised, MTV-driven, soundbite culture even more clearly, despite best efforts to educate otherwise.

    But here’s my point – it has to be a two-way conversation. And as often happens, one side is going to have to shout a little louder than the other to be heard.

    From We-Think by Charles Leadbeater: “Diverse viewpoints are likely to generate more possible solutions. The right perspective can make a difficult problem seem easy. Innovation often means trying out may vantage points before finding the one that makes solving the problem seem simple. As Thomas Edison put it, “We have found 1000 ways not to make a lightbulb”.

    As you correctly write, Borderline: “But we didn’t die off, and many of us hope to restore our native culture to our children, as would any self-respecting people. Experience and history teaches me the British have extremely little understanding or interest in this message.”

    So what’s a more positive and productive message then…?

  • borderline

    So what’s a more positive and productive message then…?

    You got me there, Raven.

    But the revival of Gaelic culture should not threaten Unionists, green or otherwise.
    For example, trad Irish music has been revived from moribundity to possibly the most popular folk music on the planet without injuring a single Protestant, with the possible exception of those who bought a Michael Flatley DVD.

    Snow Patrol thrived regardless. Along with the X-Factor…

  • Brian Walker

    greenflag.. Prospect is excellent – and diverse. There is a web edition with free older content plus some web only content. Pretty pricey in hard copy ( but monthly), cheaper web sub. NB I have no financial interest.