Whatever happened to critical intellectuals?


People hold posters with drawings depicting a drowned Syrian toddler during a demonstration for refugee rights in Istanbul PHOTO/REUTERS

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.

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…  

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.

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