The intellectual catwalk

It seems to be list time again – but then it always seems to
be list time. It is hard to remember a month over the past ten years
when one opened a newspaper or magazine without being confronted by a
list of somebody’s favourite something to adjudicate on. Even
publications at the higher end of the media food chain like Foreign
, the doyen of politics magazines, are in on the act.
No problem. If it helps us think about people, issues and things – and
it is a bit of fun on the side – it is a happy convention.

Time Magazine has just published its latest
100 "world influencers" to stir up debate and now Foreign
and Prospect magazine have teamed
up again – they
did it last in 2005
– to identify the world’s top "public
intellectuals". How do you qualify for this accolade? Well, by the
rules of the game you have to be (a) living, (b) active in public life,
(c) have shown distinction in your field and, (d) have shown an ability
to influence debate across borders. So when all that is taken into
account the field narrows considerably and excludes most of us.

To help us along, the magazines have published 100 names whom
they deem to be the intellectual movers and shakers in the world today.
They are asking us to send them our top five from their list and
offering the opportunity to add a sixth if we feel there is a case for
someone they have left out. Voting can be done by logging on to Prospect magazine. You can check out the unfamiliar names in the
potted biographies given on the websites.

The list makes interesting reading. It is a kind of snapshot
of the intellectual ferment prevailing in the world today. There is an
additional article by Christopher Hitchens
in this month’s Prospect in which he analyses the implications of the list and how the
picture it presents has changed even since 2005. "A notable change in
the past few years," Hitchens observes, "has been the disjunction of
the term (intellectual) from its old association with the left, and
with the secular. Eric Hobsbawm was ranked 18th out of 100 in 2005 – he
was 88 years old – but this year, with the exception of Slavoj Zizek
(Slovenian sociologist and philosopher), I don’t think there is a
single person on the list who still self-identifies as a Marxist." What
hard times for that school of philosophy!

He notes as evidence of the erosion of the secular lobby –
despite his own best efforts to downgrade God with his God is
not Great
book last year – that the Pope is on the list as
are a number of committed Muslims. Charles Taylor, Canadian philosopher
and defender of religion, offers a counterpoint to Richard Dawkins and
Hitchens himself. Both are on the list and came in among the top ten in
the 2005 poll. It will be interesting to see if the poll results show
the same change in composition as the offered long list shows.

Needless to say, the poll is not asking whether you approve of
what an intellectual says. Rather it ask for your assessment of their
influence – regardless of whether one considers it influence for good
or ill. But it seems inevitable that the final result will reflect
approval and some kind of identification with those voted for. On that
basis the list of top ten (with votes garnered) from 2005 might be a
little puzzling.

1 Noam Chomsky 4827
2 Umberto Eco 2464
3 Richard Dawkins 2188
4 Václav Havel 1990
5 Christopher Hitchens 1844
6 Paul Krugman 1746
7 Jürgen Habermas 1639
8 Amartya Sen 1590
9 Jared Diamond 1499

10 Salman Rushdie 1468

One suspects that marketing might be as much a factor in the
choices made as the actual thought of the poll leaders.

In that poll Pope Benedict XVI, elected just six months
earlier, came in at number 17. Where will he be this time? Surely the
power of his mind and the quality of his thought, not least in the
powerful analyses of the human condition and human society and its
needs on his recent visit to America will have raised his rating.
International affairs, civic responsibility and the nature of civic
society, education, moral behaviour, family and society were all
covered. Is there any intellectual in the world today who is presenting
a picture of ourselves as we need to have it presented as he does?

The results will be released on the internet in late June and
in the magazines in the July editions. I can’t wait.

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.


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