Intellectuals and their country

Dissent, Partisan Review and the idea of America.


Any "little magazine" worth its salt should, from time to time, ask its contributors to ruminate on the role of the intellectual in modern society (or on some variant of that question -- about intellectuals and politics, say, or intellectuals and mass culture). The model for such collective and public introspection is "Our Country and Our Culture", a symposium held in 1952 by one of the greatest little magazines of them all, the house journal of the "New York intellectuals" in the 1940s and 1950s, Partisan Review.

The participants in that symposium included C Wright Mills, Norman Mailer and Irving Howe, founder of one of PR's New York-based progeny, Dissent. Partisan Review published its last issue in 2003, but Dissent is still going strong. The latest edition assembles a number of leading American intellectuals to reflect on "the culture and politics of our country". That Dissent's editors had Partisan Review in mind when they conceived this forum is made explicit in their introduction:

In 1952, Partisan Review, then near the apex of its influence, held a similar symposium, entitled "Our Country and Our Culture". Its purpose, wrote the magazine's editors, was "to examine the apparent fact that American intellectuals now regard America and its institutions in a new way". Most writers who advocated socialism during the 1930s no longer saw themselves as "rebels and exiles"; in the early years of the cold war, many even agreed that America had "become the protector of western civilisation, at least in a military and economic sense".

But few intellectuals extended their new optimism about the nation to mass culture. "Its tendency," the editors of PR complained, "is to exclude everything that does not conform to popular norms; it creates and satisfies artificial appetites . . . [and] has grown into a major industry which converts culture into a commodity." In our own uncertain era, it is useful for women and men with a reputation for thoughtfulness and creativity to reflect on issues that bear profoundly on both their craft and their country.

To that end, they asked the participants -- E J Dionne, Alice Kessler-Harris, Jackson Lears, Martha Nussbaum, Katha Pollitt, Michael Tomasky, Katrina vanden Heuvel and Leon Wieseltier -- four questions:

1. What relationship should American intellectuals have towards mass culture: television, films, mass-market books, popular music and the internet?

2. Does the academy further or retard the engagement of intellectuals with American society?

3. How should American intellectuals participate in American politics?

4. Do you consider yourself a patriot, a world citizen, or do you have some other allegiance that helps shape your political opinions?

There's much that's of interest in all the responses, and you should read the whole thing, but here are some highlights.

Martha Nussbaum on new media:

I think that it's good if there are some intellectuals who get deeply involved with these media, because this will help intellectuals keep contact with a wider public. It's much harder to do that now than it was formerly, given the decline of print journalism. But I hope not too many will become starry-eyed about these media and forget about the habit of slow reading, which is such a large part of good thinking.

Sometimes the new media can help reading: for example, I now listen to novels on my iPod while I am running, and I "read" a lot more Trollope and Eliot than I used to. Often, though, the new media discourage people from reading books. I see this in many of my students, and it distresses me. We need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.

Michael Tomasky on American patriotism and the left:

I think the old and stereotypical liberal-left view of patriotism as somehow jingoistic or simple-minded could do with some revisionism. And now is an especially good time for it: the Republican Party and the Tea Party right, accusing our side of harboring infectious, alien schemes, is paradoxically sounding crazier and crazier (and more un-American) with each passing year, month and week.

When a sitting governor (Rick Perry of Texas) idly muses about secession; when a member of Congress (Michelle Bachmann) says that Americans should refuse to participate in the census; when other Republican members of Congress refuse to say whether Obama is a rightful citizen, they are themselves taking positions that average folks recognise as alien. There's an opening there to redefine patriotism and rebrand it, as it were, with our stamp.

And Leon Wieseltier on intellectuals and politics:

American intellectuals should participate in American politics truthfully, and with a lasting scruple about the integrity of argument. Alone or in a gang, they should say what they really believe, and proceed to justify it. They should espouse their ideas as if their ideas really might come to power -- they should neither despise power nor worship it -- and they should do so in a language that ordinary Americans can understand. Stifle the aporia and leave the hybridity at home. The analysis of a bill is not the analysis of a poem.

They should learn to respect policy, which is less lofty and glamorous than politics; and they should make their contribution in a manner that may be useful to the makers of policy, even if only indirectly, in the clarification of the philosophical foundations. There is no shame in partisanship, though there is often stupidity, and intellectuals in politics have a particular obligation, obviously, not to be stupid. They should deny themselves the ugly thrill of populist anti-intellectualism: derisive talk about elites and the "new class" and so on.

The anti-intellectualism of intellectuals is especially awful, and none of us work in the mines. They should not condescend to Washington, as if they themselves live in Athens. Above all, they should never lose their heads. (The ecstasy about Obama was disgraceful, even though he was supportable. Ecstasy is not an intellectual accomplishment, which is precisely why it is so often sought.) They should always be prepared to be disappointed, or proved wrong. They owe their loyalty to principles, not to persons.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The attack on Les Bleus was an attack on the soul of France - that's why Euro 2016 must go ahead

As a continent reels politically from the refugee crisis and emotionally from the Paris attacks, football must find a new, confident voice.

After the Paris attacks, the great Bill Shankly’s words have rarely been so tested: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that.”

As bombers detonated their suicide belts outside the Stade de France, French and German football fans cheered what they thought were fireworks. They were unaware that it was the opening salvo in a night of barbarity. One of the bombers had a ticket for the game but, mercifully, was turned back at the turnstile. Had his bomb gone off inside the stadium, the immediate loss of life, plus the panicked stampede and two more suicide bombers lying in wait outside for escaping fans, could have produced a death toll higher than at Hillsborough, Bradford, Heysel or either of the Ibrox ­stadium disasters.

The French intelligence services have yet to conclude publicly whether the attacks were timed to coincide with the prestigious friendly or whether the crowd of 80,000 was simply another target of bloodthirsty convenience on an already preordained date. Either way, there’s no mistaking that an attack on Les Bleus was an attack on the soul of France. In the aftermath, the Germany-Netherlands friendly game was called off and Belgian football went into lockdown.

How should British football respond? To those who think that the sport is just 22 players kicking a ball around a field, this may seem a peculiar question. But ever since the tail end of the 19th century, when football escaped from its self-enforced ghettoisation in Britain’s public schools, it has had a greater purpose.

More than any other sport, football has been intertwined with politics. As Harold Wilson said: “It’s a way of life . . . a religion.” When President Rowhani of Iran wanted to bolster his image as a new kind of leader, he didn’t deliver a speech but tweeted a picture of himself wearing an Iranian football top, watching a match. Franco’s dictatorship clung to the all-conquering Real Madrid and punished FC Barcelona. On Robben Island, ANC prisoners idolised Billy Bremner of Leeds United and successfully demanded the right to play football.

In October, one of the biggest protests against the closure of the north-east’s steelworks was from 10,000 Middlesbrough fans at Old Trafford. When Catalans challenged hikes in transport costs, they boycotted public transport from the Camp Nou. The biggest “Refugees Welcome” signs in Europe weren’t produced by governments but by fans of the Bundesliga champions, ­Bayern Munich.

So while the singing of the Marseillaise at the England-France match at Wembley was a “hairs on the back of the neck” moment, most of us understand that it’s not enough. What is less well known is that this wasn’t the first time that one of the world’s few genuinely inspiring anthems has been performed in earnest in British football. A century ago, bands took to the pitch to play patriotic British, French and Russian music – not out of altruism but military necessity. The British army was under intense pressure at Ypres and urgently needed new volunteers. The War Office turned to football.

For many, the journey to Loos, Flanders and the Somme started with a routine visit to cheer on their local team. Their sport transported them from a home football field to their foreign killing fields. Many clubs, including Everton, held military training on their pitches, while Manchester City’s then stadium, Hyde Road, became a 300-horse stable. Hundreds of players died serving in the Football Battalion.

But for too long our national sport reflected Britain’s lack of ease with diversity. From the 1920s, the religious sectarianism that poisoned the west of Scotland was allowed to fester in Glasgow’s football. The sport’s tolerance of recreational racism became widespread. Outside stadiums, right-wing extremists sold their propaganda while, inside, black players were vilified – even by their own supporters. Football’s racism corroded its heart and was rationalised in its head: it was allowed on the pitch, cele­brated on the terraces and accepted in the boardroom and far too many changing rooms.

And now, as a continent reels politically from the refugee crisis and emotionally from the Paris attacks, football must find a new, confident voice. The sport and its fans cannot sit on the subs’ bench at a time like this.

In a nation where only one in five male workers joins a trade union, football is a rare regular collective experience. It is more authentic than click-and-connect social media communities. Despite high ticket prices, football offers the one place where thousands of working-class men, including many politically disenchanted young men, come together in a common cause.

British football has long since jettisoned its ambivalence regarding racism. But for organised extreme right-wingers, Islamophobia fills the space vacated by the anti-Irish “No Surrender” tendency on the sport’s fringes. Although the number of top-flight British Muslim players is infinitesimally small, the streets of Bradford, Blackburn and Birmingham teem with young British Muslims kicking a football. More clubs can harness their power to inspire and increase their ­involvement in community counter-­radicalisation strategies. Clubs should also take the lead by having zero tolerance for Islamophobia, training stewards and backing fans who stand up to fellow supporters.

And, finally, the European Championships, for which all the home nations bar Scotland have qualified, must go ahead in France next summer. There’s no liberté in cancelling. In the name of fraternité, let’s all back France as our second team. Allez les Bleus!

Jim Murphy is the former Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and leader of Scottish Labour 2014-15.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State