Western society has grown compliant and weak. Unless we face the truth of what we’ve become, there will be no truth left to revive . . .

 

At long last, Leonardo DiCaprio has won an Oscar. After a career in which he has consistently made outstanding project selections, and built himself into a fine actor and an excellent movie star; a career he has leveraged with a groomed and subtle notoriety, Leo has a statuette for his mother’s mantle. So he stood upon the stage, with the applause of a legion of fans and neutrals resounding in the crowded cyberspace around him. And then he did something quite daring and in keeping with the record of his priorities, given the immersion of this year’s Academy Awards in racial tensions: he started speaking about climate change.

Climate change has become a recurring popular preoccupation; one can never be too sure whether it is this generation’s many nursing pets or a true concern. Think of the Paris and UN Global Goals initiatives, countless council-managed recyclable waste programs, and the platform of every other candidate for every other political office, and it becomes clear that climate change is certainly an issue we’re keeping ourselves busy with. But the strain of climate change that one finds most concerning, one that has a direct feeding conduit into the way we are appraising and moving to tackle ecological climate change (as well as a host of other issues), is the change in our intellectual climate.

The changes in our intellectual climate, detected via the processing of estimates and observations made over the past several decades, is so worrying because it is passing us by unheralded. In a way it is as — if not more — evident to us minute-for-minute in our daily lives than ecological climate change; and yet, because of the pathway of our development as a society since World War II, it seems so much less tangible.

London and New York have been drowned by the more dreadful repercussions of intellectual climate change as other large cities, if not entire nations for that matter, have been threatened by ecological climate change. Intellectual climate change is less remote than the one that concerns fracking and air currents. However we go about fixing our world’s intellectual imbalances, it starts with me and it starts with you, not with environmentalists or taxes levied on oil companies, or with subsidised ecological think tanks getting the ball rolling for us. We ignore the deterioration of our intellectual climate at our own peril; neglect our own most powerful destiny-shaping tool, and we’ll soon find our social and ecological problems growing, both in their variety, their depth and their reach.

You might say there are three pillars to the intellectual climate:

  1. The forum of public discourse, discussion and debate; that is, the intellectual integrity of the media and press
  2. The level of funding allocated by various bodies, state and private, for the purposes of furthering intellectual achievement; that is, how keyed in figures of governance are to the worth of intellectual endeavour
  3. The level of importance a society places, both macro- and microcosmically, on its artistic and scientific achievements, and how it measures the said importance

Of course, this is a subject that could be plumbed and taken off in a thousand different directions, so for the sake of expediency let’s look at these pillars one by one.

And let’s start with the people: the voting, buying, reading, patronising public and their stance on all things intellectual. The problem with issues regarding a public intellectual climate is that most people do not want to hear about it. It is, for all this Western society’s dreadfully conscientious expressions, one of the things it seems far too comfortable jettisoning, precisely because it is not convenient, and convenience will prove to be a very pushy player in our present climate.

It is moot to start making our macro measurements by looking at books, because people are not buying and reading Thomas Paine or Kukai or St. John of the Cross nearly as much as they’re buying and reading Danielle Steel or Janet Evanovich. Not that buying or reading them is a bad thing, quite the opposite; they are vital to the broader dynamic. So, let’s address television and what that says about society’s intellectual values. At a glance, the two most broadly watched and followed television shows among Westerners at present are: a fantasy series, based on novels, about quasi-Medieval power struggles in a fictional Middle Ages that spares none of the period details; and a political drama giving psychological profiles to individuals stalking the corridors of power. So far, not bad.

It is, however, a fact that these shows rely on excess for their appeal. The key to the pulpy thrill of House of Cards and Game of Thrones is not the ‘thrill’ but the ‘pulp’, the easy buttons of sexy, violent sensations. There is a gulf in priorities between a society whose favourite show is The Wire to one whose favourite show is Breaking Bad. When talking about the writers of popular fiction, it is not a crime or a shame to enjoy any of those television shows; they are not a sign that our intellectual climate is, in a word, dead. They are, more suggestively, pointing towards a society that associates intellectualism with vice, and values intellectual product for its ability to create a rush.

That which reaches the people must of course be funded, and funding does not stand, and never has stood, at odds with intellectualism. Indeed, looking at the beautiful ceilings of any of humanity’s Ages of Reason, from the Florentine Renaissance to the pre-WWI West, you’ll see them supported by shafts of capital; we’d have had neither the Sistine Chapel nor the Van der Graff generator without it. The problem with our intellectual climate, as it is with so much else in our world today, is that it has to co-exist with unregenerate capitalism. You’ll know from the consumer end that this is a problem; a culture that turns out pure buyers, but it’s an even more fundamental problem from the productive end.

Take the narrow empirical qualifiers you find on any literary or scientific grant up for grabs today and export them back through intellectual history, and count up how many fundamental gains in intellectual fields humanity would lose as a result. Their research would have negligible immediate impact on economic models, ‘innovation’ (i.e., consumer product design) or, ironically, climate change. And so we could kiss goodbye to the funding that facilitated Poincaré, Conway, von Neumann, and probably Einstein too. Too focused on the fundamentals, the scientific sublime; not enough triangulation, not efficient enough. Never mind that going by the same logic, Maxwell’s equations would never have been solved and the discovery of relativity never foregrounded; the human race would have lost centuries of its intellectual, and therefore its technological progression if the scientists of the past were forced to manage themselves in these precise, present conditions.

Unfortunately an intellectual climate, provided it is oppressive enough, is one of the few things with the potency to stifle the proud genius of man. One might comfort themselves under these considerations by noting the triumph of the mind over adversity, remembering the old adages that the cream will always rise to the top, that genius, like the truth, will dependably shine forth. To say that this is not necessarily the case is not conjecture, but observable fact. For our age is not the only one to have had an inhospitable intellectual climate (though it is almost certainly among the worst, in this regard, since the Enlightenment). Carl Friederich Gauss, in the course of his work, stumbled in 1813 upon the principles of what would become non-Euclidean geometry, one of the fundamental building blocks of relativity, as well as one of the great bridging keystones in the progression from Classical mechanics to the era of Quanta. Despite the profundity of his discovery on NEG, one of the great examples of a set of insights that could free other minds from axiomatic thought in one great swoop, Gauss did not publish for fear of ridicule; and his was a much kinder age compared to ours.

But this is not even the worst consequence of our decaying intellectual climate; the worst consequence concerns the final pillar of the climate model, namely the state of the forum for public discourse. It’s alarming when a society doesn’t put a great deal of real value on great thoughts, and still more so when their governments reflect that devaluation. However, society is introduced to an entirely new depth of squalor when its intellectual climate is so feeble that it cannot even support free and open debate. What is occurring in the West at present I would liken to the final days of Mars; a climatic atmosphere growing vitally weak and thin, on the cusp of eroding away entirely, at which point the human estate has nothing sat between it and the bludgeoning solar winds of ignorance.

The media have a key relation to this. Not long ago at all, they stood as a formidable paradigm: they were against their readers much of the time — sometimes fairly but usually not — and, most importantly, against their nearest dresser boxes of power. Presently, social media is causing a massive shift in this paradigm. The media, in order to keep themselves profitable in that aforementioned capitalist environment that offers no protection to anyone, has started to conform to a hard-nosed realpolitik that centres around the indulgence of their readers’ most base tendencies. The result is that the media no longer interrogates power, but rather interrogates the public, or members of it, on behalf of the rest of the clicking, reading, commenting public.

The fruits of this are fraudulent apologism in culture for artistic products bereft of artistic value. A shrinking of the scope of social dialectic (that’s to say, the size of the challenges that we’re willing to face as a society), and a halting of intellectual progress. We live in an age of supreme comfort and complacency, and fronting towards intellectual achievement is far too much of a risk. When the risks are as manifold as they are today, and often so pettily small, banal and non-negotiable, it is foolish to expect any advance. A working musician lives or dies by their credentials; unpublished poets and authors die by them; as do young scientists chasing the fundamentals. Business is more keenly subsidised, businessmen given greater respect than artists or scientists instead of being compelled to work in symbiosis with them. It’s no wonder so many brilliant young minds pursue pure business instead of seeing the attraction of, say, those very universities where (such is the lack of basic respect and formality in dialogue between individuals in science and thought) a veteran scientist can have his career destroyed over a T-shirt or a bad joke despite their record or general reputation.

Kélina Gotman, who once taught me, contended that the contemporary university was an anti-intellectual experience; that it was processional and transactional, with the currency in question being not ideas but actual pounds and pence. To make the most profound of understatements, she had a point; and yet, the sentiment, though strident was delivered within the closed environment of the classroom.

Deviations from conventional logic are as important now as they ever were; so if Gotman believes that this is the case, she should have the forum to express it, in the same way that musicians should be able to stand up and debate whether identity politics, meme culture and free culture are ruining popular music. One should be able to have a reasoned, expansive debate on, say, the finer points of Putin’s foreign policy, or the responsibility of the American Left to deal with Trump, or black-on-black violence, or the historicity of climate change, or homeopathy or vaccine side effects — another words, just as easily as one would be able to debate on sexier issues. Our climate is afraid of what disagrees with it, and a succumbing to that is a regression for us all towards one of the very basest defects of our human biology. The devil’s advocate is dead.

Just as the focus on the lack of black nominees in this year’s round of Oscar nominations caused a complete obliviousness to the total absence of Latin or Asian nominees, so in addressing the problems in our world we risk missing the scale and nuances of the whole forest during our vociferous advocacy of a few particular trees. Our closed, safe-space engendered intellectual climate in which the ‘truths’ (not necessarily facts) that people hold are made of the same snowflakey randomness that it would appear they themselves constitute, prevents many of us from seeing a great deal of the bigger picture.

Our culture is beholden to the passionate feeling of illogic, of overcompensation; and make no mistake, what is now Western culture is fast becoming global culture, such is the immediate attraction of its instantaneity. The Western machine didn’t get so lucrative for nothing, but it has come at a cost; it takes a great deal of effort to climb to the lip of the parapet and peek over it. The reason that Latin and Asian film productions didn’t get a great many nominations from the Academy is that their film cultures are not interested in combining with the Hollywood machine; this provokes its own interest, and is fine. The reason that black actors, directors and productions do not tend to get as many nods in a given year is because proportionally, there are fewer black men and women making or starring in films in America.

Alas, many of us do not even have the collective apparatus, it would seem, to make intellectual conversions as basic as these, let alone to then consider the retrograde nature of the idea of aggressively separated ‘White’ or ‘Black’ or ‘Latin’ film cultures.

But, so long as things are as they are, so narrow and driven towards transactional profit in currency or signalled virtue or esteem, our intellectual climate will never find balance and we will rapidly find ourselves making as moronic a set of decisions towards the future of climate change, social ethics and private medical healthcare, as we are in spending so much of our time and energy devoted to a purely pointless Oscars ceremony. Yes, those Oscars, in which a man of already enormous esteem was bestowed with hallelujahs that he may not have been all that concerned with; that have been beset with insulting displays of ransom-note tokenism despite having an exemplary record over the past 15 years in recognizing the work of black actors, writers and directors.

These are our limits, ladies and gentlemen, our safe spaces; what we feel big enough to take on. Dishonouring as it does the real gains from which our grandparents and parents bore us, our intellectual climate as it is now, does not paint us in a light of responsibility that fills one with faith for the future.