Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature

17 May

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Given the reaction of the tabloid and ‘quality’ press front pages during the election, you may be forgiven for thinking that today’s public intellectuals are Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson and Russell Brand.

Happily, you’d be wrong on two counts and you can argue the toss with me about Russell. The term ‘public intellectuals’ sit uncomfortably with the British public, too self-congratulatory. The French are fine with it. But, boy, do we need them.

According to historian Susannah Lipscomb at the Swindon Festival of Literature last Friday, public intellectuals are the clever people who emerge from quiet libraries; they don’t endlessly research a particular point that only five other people care about.

They arm themselves with encyclopaedic knowledge, for sure, have a long hard rumination about all of it – then they get out there, tell people what they know and have an opinion about it: “They use knowledge and learning to change our shared world,” says Suzannah. Take note of the importance of an encyclopaedic knowledge and long thought process. This puts Jeremy Clarkson and Katie Hopkins out of the picture; she clearly rejects any kind of research gathering in her infamous cockroach-gate migrant-bashing column in The Sun, April 17: “Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.” You can still argue the toss with me about Russell Brand.

Certainly these three are not afraid to stick their head above the parapet, another quality of the public intellectual, but at least they could have themselves shot for a view with an iota of thought behind it. Do we have a populist intellectual with the appeal to The Sun readers? Enter Russell Brand from stage left, but what of the political right where The Sun resides?

This Festival we have been lucky to see, in addition to Suzannah, plenty of public intellectuals – philosophers, journalists, novelists, activists, a surgeon, a politician, an educator, scientists – at this Festival, some enjoyed hero-worship from their audiences, some were unexpected: Will Hutton, Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, Peter Tachell, Henry Marsh, Robert Hewison, Julian Spalding, Jacqueline Rose, Jules Howard – and boxing trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick and Rory Bremner. Rory and Russell can’t be dismissed lightly.

Comedians come from a long tradition of fools. Way back in the middle ages, the court jesters were the ones who could get away with telling as it as it was; the joke was what made it palatable and rejectable without recourse to the scaffold. Socially commentating comedians like the two Rs above, Mark Thomas, Frankie Boyle, David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker, Dara Ó Briain with his degree in mathematical physics (where are the right wing political comedians?) and the like have to know their subject and then, on top of that, be original and funny.

Fast-thinking funny lady Sandi Toksvig announced at the beginning of the Festival she was leaving Radio Four and starting a new, feminist political party. They’ve the reach, appeal, and brains to be a formidable public intellect. The well-researched, well-imagined novel can change the world.

Alongside economists and scientists, fiction-writer Hilary Mantel has found herself voted as a ‘world thinker’ (same as Russell Brand) by readers of Prospect, the leading magazine for ideas. As well as dead Greek philosophers, Suzannah quotes novelist and thinker Iris Murdoch: “The only freedom of importance is the freedom of the mind.”

We should not be afraid of the label of public intellectual, neither because they are too clever or too dumbed down. The country needs clear thinkers without a eye on a political career, to whom the public can relate; who help us grasp complex issues that trouble our country and the rest of the world, wean us off soundbites and clever headlines that masquerade as information and cure our addiction to, dare I say it, stupidity.

PS Seven people became public intellectuals at Friday night’s Think Slam. I’m proud to say I’m one of them. Merci pour la lecture. Friday 15 April, Suzannah Lipscomb spoke at the Swindon Festival of Literature, Swindon Arts Centre, and co-judged the Think Slam. Words by Louisa Davison.

One Response to “Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Thinking is dead | Agent Louisa - 17th May 2015

    […] may want to read the Festival Chronicle of Suzannah Lipscomb who preceeded the Think Slam; she talked about the role of public […]

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