Engaging intellectuals and politicians

When the eminent French sociologist Michel Wieviorka joined our meeting of the Next Left in Santiago last month, he rearticulated an enduring concern: how can we extend the engagement between intellectuals and politicians, between collective actions and institutional expressions, between the instrumentalities of politics and the complexities academics favour?

I agree with his concern, but we don’t always look for answers in the right places. The gulf between theory and practice is not hard to find, of course. Politicians lament the complex phrases academics use; students demand rights that the institutionally embedded say universities can’t afford.

And we can see the effects of these gaps when those in authority decry the populism of left and right and those in opposition express only alienation from those who rule. But we also need to find instances where theory and practice blend. And that is why Santiago is such a powerful place.

In my book, Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, universities, and publics in transformation, I rework familiar notions about intellectuals and their responsibilities. In Chile, this is especially critical, and evidently important in many different ways.

This is most dramatically apparent in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Founded in 2010, this museum is dedicated to recognising the violations of human rights the Pinochet dictatorship committed during 1973-90 and to mobilising reflection on those crimes so that such injustice cannot be repeated within Chile and across the world.

I view this institutional articulation of moral responsibility as a profoundly intellectual, and political, expression.

Using power truthfully

In a way, this and other museums retelling the histories of crimes against humanity reiterate the sense of intellectuals in opposition, of the importance of speaking truth to power, even if that power is now overthrown. But this museum, at least, is more than that too. Intellectuals with institutional authority moved its creation, as well as making other social and political mechanisms to bring truth to a nation deeply wounded by injustice.

This is a ready example of how intellectuals might use power truthfully. To consider how to use power truthfully is a critical question not only for the articulation of past crimes but also for the exercise of institutional responsibility in the present and in the construction of alternative futures.

Intellectuals assume institutional responsibility in many circumstances, from their obvious roles as leaders of universities to the more occasional role as presidents of nations. In Globalising Knowledge, I consider qualities of intellectuality among three very different political leaders – the late Václav Havel, the new president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and Ricardo Lagos, Chile’s president between 2000 and 2006.

To spend time with Lagos in Santiago last month helped me appreciate, once again, how intellectuals with institutional responsibility and cultural authority might narrow the gap between theory and practice.

I am neither from Chile nor an expert in its history or culture. I come from the US and have spent most of my academic life working to understand the struggle against communist rule, and its legacies, in Poland and other places with analogous trajectories.

But when I became vice provost for international affairs at the University of Michigan in 1999, I could not remain in my familiar terrains if I was to do my job properly. I ranged across knowledge cultures and regional referents. I found my way by considering the public consequence of scholarship across the world.

Connecting intellectuals and publics

In my book, I reflected on Lagos’s example for our world, but his exercise of post-presidential, and local, responsibilities has struck me most during my time with him in Santiago.

While his ideas about the importance of multilateral institutions and international rules in the protection of small nations resonated most readily with me as a sociologist in international studies, it was the work of his foundation in the elaboration of communicative rationality and political value that most inspired me as someone who is, of course, also a citizen in a particular place.

I recall during Lagos’s time at Brown University his increasing interest in the significance of that shift from the one-way communication of radio and television to the interactivity of social media.

And upon my arrival in Chile, I learned of his creation of what he calls “The Fifth Power”. Among its functions is the distribution of an app to people in Santiago’s urban districts where they can report directly to their local government problems they see on their streets.

This is more than interactivity between a single citizen and their representative; this also creates a neighbourhood or collective effect, making those on line with the complainant also aware of the issue and the struggle to fix it. This initiative creates various local publics that suture citizens and political leaders, rearticulating theory and practice, connecting intellectuals and publics.

Clearing the streets of garbage or fixing damaged traffic lights is not the same as redirecting climate change, of course. Also, local issues may not be as complex as negotiating international trade agreements.

But this is an example of where those with institutional power can exercise intellectual responsibility to figure ways to bring truthfulness to public effect. And to extend its point: Lagos would be the last person to find in digital activism a solution to every problem the world faces. But I find in this example one answer to Michel Wieviorka’s questions.

Like Michel, I also seek fora where intellectuals and political figures can find meaningful common ground. But I also find that fusion to exist when we can see in political figures the exercise of intellectual responsibility.

Not all politicians have this inclination, nor are they all so equally able. But where they are, we should recognise it. And where they fail to blend intellectual and institutional responsibility, we need to mark that gap, and find ways to reduce that distance.

During this time in Chile, I found many reasons to believe that this is a struggle worth continuing, and one that can move social change for the public good. Universities can be at the centre of not only speaking truth to power, but of using their institutional power truthfully.

* Michael D. Kennedy is professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA. @Prof_Kennedy on twitter. Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, universities, and publics in transformation is published by Stanford University Press.