The Australian last Saturday re-published this profile of French celebrity philosopher/public intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy.
Ben Macintyre makes a great point. The UK has a real anti-intellectual culture. Being intelligent and making smart comments on issues is mostly frowned on and “high-brow” culture is seen as something to be avoided with a “they think they’re better than us” attitude.
Newsflash: they are better than you. If they spend their lives learning about and trying to understand the world so that they can make it a better place, that’s hell of a lot better than whatever it is you do. In fact, I can’t really think of anything more admirable than that.
Unfortunately, this passed to Australia, although not quite as severely.
I also take my hat off to Bernard-Henri Levy, may there be an English-speaking version of him some day.
Hard as it is to like this preening self-styled “militant philosopher”, I find it impossible not to admire him. From Bosnia to Afghanistan to Libya, BHL has been a cultural fixture, expounding, criticising, agitating; sometimes wrong, frequently pretentious, but always there, the modern incarnation of the intellectuel engage, the committed thinker.
British intellectuals are simply not engaged in the politics of international affairs in the same way. We expect our thinkers to be scholars, quietly toiling away to explain afterwards what it all meant, but not to hold forth on matters of conscience or affairs of state.
It is hard to imagine a British intellectual rushing to the frontline of a conflict, making contact with the insurgents, badgering the prime minister to recognise them and then ushering the rebels into Downing Street, all framed as a patriotic moral duty. French flags are flying in Benghazi, BHL told Sarkozy, and allowing a bloodbath to take place “would stain the French flag”.