Timothy Garton Ash, historian, academic, journalist and commentator, not to mention great mind, thinker and expert, wrote a piece in The Guardian recently, explaining why “intellectual” is missing from this list. The British, he explains, are loath to identify themselves as intellectuals. The term carries unpleasant whiffs of the continent, convoluted theory and all things impracticable.
While the British deny their own intellectuality, Mr. Garton Ash goes on to argue, they in fact possess more of it than their European colleagues. The south bank of the Thames, he claims, is home to more intellectual activity than the left bank of the Seine.
Mr. Garton Ash will not have been surprised nor disappointed that his lob was returned in the form of a French smash. It came from Liberation‘s London correspondent Agnes Poirier, who politely points out that the term intellectual originated in France and refers to anyone, irrespective of class, for whom public debate is paramount – except in Britain. The British, according to Poirier, “feel they must apologise if they want to say something intelligent,” are slaves to the “rampant imperialism of the English language” and live in insular delusions of their own grandeur. Ms. Poirier’s riverside wanderings have revealed that the windows of the rive gauche are open to the world, while those of London’s south bank are closed.
It would be helpful to know more about the intellectual seismograph and ruler that Mr. Garton Ash and Ms. Poirier carry in their respective pockets. After all, quantifying intellect seems to be an increasingly popular pastime. Last fall, Prospect and Foreign Policy published a list of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. The list was charged with being occidentalist, sexist, racist and totally random. The easiest bias to demonstrate, however, was for English-speakers.
Somehow embracing the complexity of Egyptian-born, American-educated, British residents (with Portuguese spouses and tri-national children), the list identified 39 Americans and 14 British among the world’s top 100 public intellectuals. France and Germany were assigned 4 and 3 respectively.
Does this reflect anything more than the addresses of the publisher’s head offices? Does it accomplish anything more than a glut of comment from those people whose names were, were almost or were nowhere to be found on the list but who – in the intellectual tradition – care about public debate?
Trying to catch up with my various magazine, print & online, readings, which is of course impossible. But here’s a worthwhile piece from my favorite online Euro-source, sign&sight, talking to Euro divisions (French/British, really) as to what an intellectual is or should be or could be. It is Naomi Buck, a Canadian freelance journalist and editor of signandsight.com who is based in Berlin, answering Timothy Garton Ash in an article called “The Medium is English.”Below the opening shots; you can read the full piece here:
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