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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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad