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Whatever happened to critical intellectuals?

by C J Polychroniou, 4 September 2015

A time not so long ago, public intellectuals in Western democracies loudly denounced war and imperialism, oppression and the violation of universal values (truth, justice, etc) whenever and wherever they occurred.

True, critical/oppositional intellectuals were always few and far between in the modern Western era, but there were always giants in our midst whose voice and status were not only revered by a fair chunk of the citizenry, but, in some cases, produced fear and even awe among the members of the ruling class.   

In this context, well known 20th-century names like John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus easily pop to mind. They were thinkers of immense intellectual prowess, independent of those in power, who spoke out against social evils and abuses of power.

Equally important, the stance they took on public issues mattered because it mobilised thousands of ordinary citizens to participate in political advocacy.

'The right side of history'

Scientists and artists like Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, respectively, can easily be included in the above list as they were also public figures who were interested in issues of common concern and did not hesitate to stand on what they believed to be "the right side of history": Einstein consistently supported anti-war movements and highlighted the dangers of nuclear war while Picasso was a committed anti-fascist.

Much closer to our own time, the list of names of world-renowned critical/oppositional intellectuals that stand out has been getting worriedly smaller and smaller, especially since most of them have passed away (Harold Pinter, Howard Zinn, Edward Said, Pierre Bourdieu). 

Indeed, the world's greatest critical/oppositional intellectual who is still alive is undoubtedly MIT Professor Emeritus of Linguistics Noam Chomsky, and he clearly represents a dying breed. When he passes away, there is no one able to fill his shoes.

The reality is that, with small exceptions, today's Western world is dominated by functional/conformist intellectuals, ie, thinkers whose mission is not to inform the public about social evils, abuses of power and the threat they pose to freedom, democracy, and dignity, but to enhance their own careers and material wealth by preserving and reproducing the existing order and the dominant power relations.

Functional/conformist intellectuals focus on narrow, highly specialised and technical areas, and do not dare to challenge the status quo or speak out against social evils out of fear of losing their job, being denied tenure and promotion, or not having access to grants.

Conformist intellectuals

If asked, conformist intellectuals will probably say that it is not their duty and responsibility to speak out against, say, US militarism, imperial policies and the destruction of entire nations (Iraq, Libya, Syria), the abomination known as Guantanamo Bay prison, police and state violence, Israeli oppression of Palestinians, predatory capitalism and Wall Street crimes, authoritarianism and inequality.  

But the true explanation is that they are simply cowards.

Those members of society with the best access to knowledge do have a duty and responsibility to speak out and take action to support peace, freedom, democracy, and the common good.

As Chomsky wrote in his famous essay: "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", published in The New York Review of Books on February 23, 1967: "Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us."

The disappearance of critical intellectuals can be attributed to several interrelated developments.

For starters, universities have abandoned their traditional role of preparing students to be caring, active citizens, and, instead, aim almost exclusively towards preparing them for the global marketplace. Accordingly, most universities produce professionals these days rather than graduates as critically engaged citizens who will play a leading role in their communities and in the struggle for a better world.

Decline of political advocacy

The absorption of writers and artists into the academic world has also enhanced the trend towards the disappearance of the critical/oppositional intellectual.

With neoliberalism as the dominant ideology shaping our world today, notions such as democracy, social justice, equality, and the common good have taken a back seat to a crude individualism which is driven by consumerism, social apathy and self-aggrandisement, thus further reinforcing the decline of political advocacy and the divorce of the intellectual elite from the pursuit of universal values like truth, justice and peace.

To the list of factors contributing to the rapid disappearance of engaged political cultures in Western societies with critical/oppositional intellectuals at the helm, one must add the corporate takeover of mass media whose main mission is the manipulation of public opinion and the shaping of a politically apathetic culture.

The dominance of neoliberal ideology combined with the disappearance of critical/oppositional intellectuals spell a bleak future for Western democracy and its cherished values.  

In fact, silencing those voices that speak out against social evils and the abuses of power seems to have become the norm.  

Indeed, how far we seem to have come from the time when leading critical/oppositional intellectuals not only challenged the status quo, but actually had the capacity to inspire awe to the status quo itself, thus prompting someone like French President Charles de Gaulle to mock at the idea of arresting Jean Paul Sartre for inspiring rebellion by saying: "One does not arrest Voltaire."

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Teach your daughters about Tulsi Gabbard!

(this just in from her return from Syria)

(and Jimmy Dore on the response by the establishment media)

Tomorrow's Daughters by jojo22

To go with the herd is easy, but to speak out for the right thing when the establishment is doing its best to ignore it, and to get you to ignore it too, that takes real guts.

Let's be honest.  All of us, certainly those who are woken up enough, are afraid that speaking out against the 'establishment' will result in some kind of punishment.  This is what really keeps us silent.

So we look for a way to find our courage and to break the silence.  When we see someone like Gabbard break the silence, it gives us courage.  This is a meaningful way to say 'we won't be silent'. We won't be silent to others having their country invaded and their people killed for geopolitical gain.

Gabbard went to Syria, on an unannounced trip, a fact finding mission.  So did Dennis Kucinich and his wife.  We didn't hear much about that because it was drowned out by coverage of privileged women wearing pussy hats and chanting slogans.  But yet, them going there was an important step to stop the hidden wholesale slaughter and enslavement of many women and children.

We didn't hear much about the women of Deir Ezzor or Yemen, who were vowing to fight alongside their men because they are immediately facing starvation, genocide, enslavement, etc.  Yet their voices, their desperation to be heard, were there.  Their voices also got drowned out by the women's march.

So I want to challenge women of the world, to say:

We won't just sit in our trendy cafes with our head in the sand, or post feel good pics to our FB feeds that do everything but acknowledge the wrongs that are happening by our taxpayer coin, and the suffering it is causing many women and children around the world.

We won't be so sure of our own superiority that we will support our values being willfully imposed on other countries, ignoring whether or not they will actually fit there, or the devastation that is caused in trying to impose them. We will respect that countries develop at their own pace, and you know what? They actually relax a lot faster when they are not under constant threat of attack.

We will respect where we stop and start, and where others stop and start. We will respect their boundaries in the same manner that we would like our own to be respected.

We will respect international law, that is put in place to protect all of us equally. We will recognize that it is not good enough to have one rule for us and another for others, and that to speak of equality while allowing this shames us into hypocrisy.

We will realize we are better at having the answers for our own lives than we are at having the answers for the lives of strangers.

If we see that only some people's voices are being heard, while a great many others are not being heard at all and simply dismissed under an avalanche of collective demonization, and that those great many others are suffering because of that, then we will recognize their humanity as well and demand that they have an equal chance to have their voices heard.

This is how we show love, this is how we show courage, this is how we build bridges toward peace, this is how we show solidarity with other women. We don't speak for them, we don't only give a voice to the ones that agree with us and dismiss the others with a word like 'apologists', but we stand up for the right for their voices to be heard whether they agree with us or not.

I believe this is a crucial way to stand up for all women's rights, and by doing so, to strengthen our own.

Just thought I would give a general update.  I'm pretty sure anyone following the news about the 7.8 earthquake in NZ has heard of the damage that it caused in various places.  Near the epicenter, paddocks were ripped up leaving cows stranded on islands of land:

Cows-rescuued-619-386 by jojo22

The cows were rescued, and all of them will lead long lives, no going to any meatworks or anything, you will be glad to hear.

Furthermore, the seabed near the epicenter was pushed up by more than 2 metres in places.  So we've had a bunch of sea life dying because they are no longer in water, although people have tried to rescue some.  But the environment they are going back to won't be the same as the one they were living on, so yeah, whether they will survive is questionable:

1479428798466 by jojo22

It was amazing we lost only 2 human lives.  One from a house that collapsed, another from a heart attack due to the stress of the event.

The epicenter was the upper South Island, but there was quite a bit of damage in the lower North Island (Wellington, Hutt Valley and the Kapiti Coast).  Some buildings in Wellington have been pegged for demolition as a result.  This was also because the quake triggered a bunch of fault lines.  New Zealand basically experienced an earthquake storm - quakes were going off left, right and centre on both islands.

If you follow this link, you should be able to view a video that shows a timelapse in 30 seconds of the number of quakes that happened over a 48 hour period:…

The aftershocks seem to have died down in intensity and number recently, at least where I am I do not feel so many anymore.  There have been a total of 1078 aftershocks to date.  But you know, everyone is aware that a big aftershock or even bigger quake is a possibility.  So we are a bit more relaxed, but still cautious. 

Response to the quake was also hampered by bad weather sweeping in, heavy rain that led to flooding.  This cut Wellington off for awhile, basically trapping people in a city that was constantly being rocked by aftershocks.

I think people would have spent quite a bit of money this week investing in, or padding out, emergency supplies, setting strategic plans for their homes.  I've done a lot of that sort of work.  My house is peppered with things I've moved down on to the ground.  I might just put some of that stuff in storage. 

I've been pretty quiet since the quake because it took a physical toll on my health.  I ended up with a painful swelling on the roof of my mouth, that affected my ability to eat and swallow and also caused the lymph nodes in my neck to swell up.  It began to develop within hours of the quake hitting.  By Wednesday I was off to the doctors, in tears of pain, then off to the dentist after that, who seemed all too ready to rip a couple of my teeth out even though he could find no evidence that my teeth had caused the issue. 

Luckily I did not go along with that, and still have my teeth! (All of which are perfectly fine, no pain associated with any of them).  With the aid of painkillers, antibiotics and a little bit of time, the swelling burst, deflated, the lymph nodes went down and I am pretty near back to normal now.  So yeah, that was pretty intense, and I was pretty miserable, like really miserable, for a few days there, hence why I haven't communicated much with people online (but have had some great support offline).

With events like this, even if people don't experience material loss, it does really traumatize them quite a bit, so I think there are quite a lot of us in NZ that have been quite shaken by these events, and that plays itself out through health and emotions over time.  Still going on high alert everytime I hear the house creak.  Sometimes you feel like the ground is wobbling underneath you when it is not. 
No details emerging about the epicenter yet or if any major damage has occurred.

Located in Levin.  Nothing fell off the shelves (found a number of things that almost had though), but it went on for a long time.

Ran outside (cat bolted first), could feel the earth wobbling under our feet like jelly, trees swaying.

Multiple car alarms went off around the town.

Have packed the car up with some emergency essentials and moved it relatively clear of any hazards.

Gonna be a bit hard getting to sleep tonight.  Very scary.

Update: Couple of small aftershocks have occurred.

Update: 12:57am Seems there have been a number of sizeable earthquakes in different parts of the country.  The big one appears to have been near Kaikoura, some more near Seddon, also one in Taihape (smaller).  We keep heading outside each time we feel a new shake, just in case it escalates.  Other people have said they've felt near continual shaking since midnight.  Outside, we were staring up at the sky and realized we were looking at the Supermoon.  Supermoon, are you causing these quakes?  Damn you supermoon!

(Ironically, someone was talking about the possibility of tidal waves and earthquakes being generated by Supermoons only a week ago, but assured us the scientists said such a thing would be unlikely - well apparently not).

Six severe quakes listed since midnight:

12.02am - 6.6 - Hamner Springs
12.16am - 5.6 - Culverden
12.24am - 5.6 - Kaikoura
12.32am - 6.2 - Kaikoura
12.33am - 5.5 - Seddon
12.41am - 5.6 - Seddon

There was one listed 55km West of my town at 12.33, 5.5, listed as strong.  Didn't really feel that one strongly.  Suspect the big one we felt was the 6.6 at Hamner.  A lot of rattled people in NZ at the moment.

Other quakes also reported in Taupo, Picton, Wellington, Pukekohe, Ohakune, Taumaranui - all within a 48 minute timespan.

Update: 2 metre Tsunami hits coast of Kaikoura, more waves expected.

Latest update - initial big quake has been upgraded to 7.5 magnitude.  This is similar to what they originally thought, then they dropped it to 6.6, but now we are back up around 7.5 (now up again to 7.8! - so I don't know why this is getting changed around by such a large amount, but there you go, it was much stronger than I initially reported.  There have been 3 earthquakes over magnitude 6 since then, the most recent one was 50 minutes ago (current time 3.22am).

Update - 8.27pm, Monday NZT.  Still feeling aftershocks sporadically.  I think everyone is still quite jittery, expecting to be feeling shakes for awhile.  Spent the day stocking up on emergency supplies and strategically locating stuff around the property.  Feeling very tired after not resting well last night.  Hope to rest better tonight.  Have hung a wind chime in my bedroom, which should wake us if another big one starts.

A dam was breached down south by one of the aftershocks.

Eh, getting sick of being on constant high alert.  Every time the house creaks, or you think you detect a wobbly feeling.  Is this another one?  Should we run outside?  We've had a couple of severe aftershocks in the last hour.


Artist | Hobbyist | Varied
New Zealand
Poet, digital artist, odd bit of painting, sculpture and photography.




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KangTengri Featured By Owner 2 days ago   Photographer
Thank you for the faves :bow: 
deepgrounduk Featured By Owner 5 days ago
Hello Jo, and thank you so much for faving The Gherkin, really appreciated as always :D Have a great day and weekend ahead :hug:
DanNeamu Featured By Owner Sep 7, 2017
Thank You - very much appreciated! :iconmyheartplz: :iconthesundiver:
deepgrounduk Featured By Owner Sep 7, 2017
Hi Jo, many thanks for faving God's Rays, much appreciated as always :D:heart:, Tony
cricketumpire Featured By Owner Sep 5, 2017  Hobbyist Photographer
The squirrel's really saying "Sorry to trouble you - but the bird feeder is empty..." :squiziila:  

Thanks for faving the cute little fellow, it is really appreciated    :relapsefive:      

Glad you enjoyed the fun submission Jo    OMG MOAR POEMS!    
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