[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    elitist project that seeks to impose outdated 'Western values' on to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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