[Paleopsych] spiked-culture: Down with 21st century philistinism
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Mon Oct 11 22:39:41 UTC 2004
Down with 21st century philistinism
Frank Furedi explains why his latest book calls for a new Culture War.
by Brendan O'Neill
'Dumbing down' is often seen as being about the rise of reality TV and
other dumb culture. In fact, says Frank Furedi, the problem is much
bigger than Big Brother.
'Cultural institutions like universities and galleries no longer
challenge us or encourage us to question what we know. Instead they
flatter us. But flattery will get us nowhere.' Not content with having
taken on risk-aversion, therapy culture and the paranoid parenting
industry in his previous books, Furedi, a sociologist and prolific
author who doesn't suffer faddish thinking gladly, lays in to dumbing
down (or 'twenty-first century philistinism' as he prefers to call it)
in his latest offering.
Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, described by former Oxford don
Terry Eagleton as a 'vitally important book', is a short and sharp
critique of the way in which intellectual life has been degraded. Both
inside and outside the university, argues Furedi, the pursuit of
Knowledge and Truth is today looked upon with suspicion, at best as
the pastime of the fusty, old, out-of-touch academic, at worst as an
elitist project that seeks to impose outdated 'Western values' on to
the rest of the world. Contemporary society seems to value knowledge
(with a small k), culture and education only in as much as they can
play a practical role in people's lives.
'Our society seems to have a big problem with the idea of art for its
own sake, or knowledge for its own sake, or education for its own
sake', he tells me. Instead, such things are deemed useful only if
they serve some other sake - if they work as instruments of 'economic
advance, social engineering, giving communities an identity, or
providing therapy for the individual'.
So a university education is no longer valued in its own right, as a
means of pushing an individual to his or her intellectual limits;
rather, universities are discussed as making an important contribution
to the economic life of nations by providing young people with the
necessary skills and know-how for their future careers. Even Oxford
and Cambridge, those bastions of excellence, are praised primarily for
'the vital role they play in the United Kingdom economy' (that
quotation coming from the Bank of England's monetary policy committee,
no less). In both the UK and the USA, says Furedi, some see filling
the universities as a means to the end of keeping the economy chugging
Similarly, works of art tend to be valued less for any inner merit
they might possess than for their (alleged) role in boosting the
viewers' self-esteem, or even cohering fragmented societies. In his
book Furedi cites Baroness Tessa Blackstone, Britain's former Minister
of State for the Arts, who in a speech in 2001 posed the question:
'Can the arts be more than just frivolous, trivial, irrelevant?' She
answered in the affirmative, claiming that the arts are important
because they can improve employability, eradicate inequality and help
prevent crime. She was also in 'no doubt' that the arts can
'contribute to improving health outcomes' too (1).
'When I use the term "dumbing down" Im
primarily talking about institutions, not people'
When arts and education are reduced to playing this merely functional
role, says Furedi, we end up with cultural institutions more concerned
with massaging individuals' self-esteem levels or striving to improve
community relations than with providing people with an education or
giving us stimulating exhibitions. He argues that 'flattering students
is fast becoming the institutional norm in universities', where the
role of academics is to 'support' students rather than to transform
them, to hold their hands through to the end of the university
His book discusses the example of Tyne and Wear Museum in north-east
England, which adopted policies that 'flatter its visitors'. The
museum has an access policy that 'encourage[s] the display of works
from the collections which may not necessarily be famous or highly
regarded, but have been chosen by members of the public simply because
they like them or because they arouse certain emotions or memories'
(2). This is becoming widespread, says Furedi, where cultural
institutions 'increasingly give us what they think is good for us, and
what they think we can handle. They patronise us, spoonfeeding us
culture and knowledge'.
That's one reason why he doesn't like the phrase 'dumbing down'. His
argument isn't that people are getting dumb and dumber; his is not an
attack on 'Dumb America', the very popular idea that all Yanks are
Bush-voting thickos, or on 'Dumb Britain' (the name of a regular
feature in Private Eye magazine, which lists the stupidest answers
given by members of the Great British public to quiz-show questions).
'When I do use the term "dumbing down" I'm primarily talking about
institutions, not people. I'm talking about the elite, about the
inability at the top of society to provide institutional support for
the pursuit of scholarship, the arts or knowledge.'
For Furedi, this is an 'institutionalised philistinism', written into
government policy documents on the arts, and into universities' and
museums' 'access' policies. It is this top-down philistinism that
gives rise to what some refer to as our 'dumb society' - to the
degraded state of public debate and the widespread sense of political
passivity. So his book is not only for those angry academics who are
disturbed by what is happening to their profession, but also 'for
anyone who takes ideas and argument seriously'.
Furedi's book has been welcomed by serious thinkers on both sides of
the political divide, such as Eagleton on the left and philosopher
Roger Scruton on the right. But it has also been accused of Grumpy Old
Man-ism, described as a book for all those bitter and bespectacled
intellectuals who hark back to the glory days when clever people like
them were taken more seriously. Observer columnist David Aaronovitch
argues that the likes of Furedi want to go back to 'Cambridge 1936, to
that fabulous race of warrior dons who knew everything, to the days
when intellectuals were intellectuals and women were their wives and
mistresses' (3). For Aaronovitch, the 'inclusion' attacked by Furedi
is really a 'new style of democracy', where universities and other
institutions are being opened up to those who were previously kept at
a safe distance.
Professor Sally Munt of the University of Sussex wrote a letter to the
Observer thanking Aaronovitch for his article and arguing that it was
high time that people like Furedi were unveiled as 'grumpy old men'.
(Professor Munt's letter also included the sentence, 'A radical social
analysis should depend upon the recognition of, and respect for, the
dexterity by which most people negotiate an active self in this world'
- perhaps confirming Furedi's argument that some academics have become
dislocated from public life....) (4).
Furedi says that, fundamentally, his views
have remained 'quite consistent'
Furedi's having none of it. He says that he and others who share his
concerns 'are not demanding a return to the past - that is the last
thing we want. But we want to make sure that the future isn't just
more of the same'. According to Furedi, the fact that those who
criticise the present can so easily be discredited as nostalgic
golden-agers suggests there is 'widespread complacency and even
conformism today, a sense that you are not allowed to ask awkward
questions'. He says that the cheap accusation of being in love with an
imaginary past is really 'a call for conformism in the present'.
As for the claim that 'inclusion' is a new kind of democracy.... 'I
take a very traditional view of democracy', he says. 'When people want
to be included they don't wait for an invitation; they kick the door
down, they demand to be let in. The Suffragettes didn't wait to be
included in the electoral system, and trade unionists didn't wait to
be included in collective bargaining - they insisted on it. When
working-class people wanted to learn they didn't wait around for an
"inclusion policy"; they became autodidacts.'
Something very different is happening today, says Furedi. People are
being included for the sake of inclusion, rather than for anything
worthwhile. It is the act of inclusion that matters, whether in the
universities, art galleries or wherever, rather than the question of
what kind of content the 'included' will receive. 'The elite is
saying, in a very Victorian fashion, that we know what's good for you.
To see this kind of "inclusion" as a democratic moment is
fundamentally to misinterpret what is a state-driven project, which
includes people into an inferior version of what existed before. It is
an entirely paternalistic project, masquerading as anti-elitist and
How did Furedi get here? I first got to know Furedi when we both wrote
for Living Marxism, the magazine launched and edited by spiked editor
Mick Hume in 1988. It was published by the Revolutionary Communist
Party (RCP), which was founded by Furedi and others in 1981 and which
developed a reputation for its no-BS stance on everything from
militarism to freedom of speech. In 1997 Living Marxism was relaunched
as LM, which Furedi wrote for and I worked on. LM was forced to close
in 2000 following a libel action brought by ITN, and some of the LM
team went on to launch spiked, with Hume at the helm.
How did Furedi, a man of the revolutionary left, become what you might
call a 'cultural commentator', writing books on issues such as
parenting, therapy and now the devaluing of knowledge? Some of his
detractors claim it is all a ruse to get into the papers; they accuse
him of picking sexy, trendy issues on which he can make a
controversial point or two.
In fact, argues Furedi, fundamentally his views have remained 'quite
consistent'. 'Obviously ideas develop in relation to events, and some
important political disruptions and breaks have occurred over the past
10 or 15 years', he says. 'So the way in which you express your ideas
and make your arguments changes with changing times.' But he says he
remains as committed as he ever was to human liberation and to freeing
every individuals' potential - it is others who have changed.
'Classically the right was pro-state. Now it's
the left that calls for state intervention'
Furedi found himself feeling 'ever-more estranged' from the
conventional left. He recalls three incidents in particular that
suggested the left was moving in a troublesome direction. 'The first
time I felt it was when there were all these demands for "No Platform"
for fascists, that fascists should be censored. I have always been,
and continue to be, vehemently anti-fascist, but I felt that was just
a cop-out, a very anti-democratic way of avoiding debate. I argued
that rather than saying "No Platform" we should take up the fascists'
views and undermine them, instead of opting for this very
authoritarian, censorious approach.'
The second event was the miners' strike of 1984. A key issue in the
strike was whether there should be a national ballot, which would
allow all miners to vote on whether the strike should continue. In
places like Yorkshire miners were striking hard, while other miners,
in particular in Nottinghamshire, refused to strike on the grounds
that there had not been a national ballot. The RCP campaigned for a
ballot; just about everybody else on the left disagreed and the ballot
was vetoed by Arthur Scargill, head of the National Union of Miners.
'I fully supported the strike', says Furedi. 'But I also called for a
ballot, with a rank-and-file campaign to win the vote, for a strike
that could be supported by everybody.' Thatcher supported a national
ballot because she thought it would break the strike; the RCP
supported a campaign for a ballot as a way of strengthening the
miners. 'But others on the left wanted to prevent a ballot in case the
vote went the wrong way. I thought this qualified approach to
democracy on the left was a very big problem.'
The third event that further estranged Furedi from the left was the
Cleveland child abuse scandal of 1987, when a number of families in
the industrial region in the north-east of England were falsely
accused of abusing their kids - often by health and social workers who
considered themselves part of the left. 'I felt very uncomfortable,
very uncomfortable indeed', says Furedi. 'People who I had known on
the left were going around saying that loads of working-class men are
child abusers. This very negative view of human beings took me aback.
The kind of panic about working-class behaviour that would
traditionally have been triggered by the right was starting to become
a fixture of the left.'
Furedi says it is the left that has changed, rather than his own ideas
or motivations. 'People who call themselves left-wing have become very
different. So classically it was the right that was pro-state, now
it's usually the left that calls for state intervention. Traditionally
the right was anti-experimentation and anti-science, now the left is
often at the forefront of that. Traditionally the right explained
developments by conspiracy theory, talking about Jews or communists or
whoever; now it's the left that seems to believe in conspiracies. In
all this confusion, people need to rethink how they position
Furedi scoffs at the idea that he has taken up what appear to be
cultural issues in order to become a media darling. Rather, he says he
is continuing the work started by Living Marxism, in trying to make
sense of 'the way in which social disengagement occurs today, the
growing passivity of the public, the strong fatalistic cultural and
social trends that we see all around us'. But we cannot hope to
understand society, and more importantly how to change it, without
defending the importance of ideas and knowledge against today's
philistines, he says. 'That is what my new book is about.'
Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? by Frank Furedi is published by
Continuum. Visit Frank Furedi's website at www.FrankFuredi.com.
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