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Paul Kelly writes

October 6, 2007

A brilliant, magisterial essay in The Australian on 3 October. Required reading.

A key passage:

A healthy democracy will see a healthy gulf between its politicians and its intellectuals. But this gulf in Australia is a chasm that demands serious attention. The explanation transcends the immorality of the politicians and extends into the dysfunction of the intellectuals.

As Owen Harries recently wrote in The American Interest, on political matters intellectuals share two characteristics: “They are slaves of fashion and, on the big questions, they tend to get things hopelessly wrong.” He quoted American art critic Harold Rosenberg branding intellectuals “a herd of independent minds”, a sublime vision of contemporary Australia.

The defining feature of intellectual life is its divorce from governance. This is its strength and its flaw. Politicians, by contrast, are driven to find solutions. They have a responsibility to govern and an obligation to win votes. This creates a tension between the public interest and self-interest but it maximises pressure upon leaders to achieve this fusion at the optimal level.

Absolutely — though Kelly could have added journalists to the mix. They too make no decisions, exercise no responsibility, and suffer no consequences, be they never so ignorant, lazy or foolhardy. But his point is nonetheless very well taken.

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