by Jennie S. Bev
The "notion" –borrowing Barack Obama's favorite word according to Dr. Lee Thornton, the president of American Journalism Review— that a public intellectual who decides to plunge into the political arena is either inappropriate or committing some sort of "treason" against academia and the public should be erased from our critical minds.
It is not only counterproductive but also overly pessimistic bordering fatalistic. It is a prejudice none of us can afford because it would tarnish the process of progress and would eventually assassinate any good intentions before they blossom in full.
Many current and former American presidents and presidential candidates worked in the academic world, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Ron Paul.
Now that Indonesia is facing its 2009 presidential election, we also see several early bird candidates who belong to this category.
The difference is, while Americans embrace the notion of academic-turned-politician wholeheartedly, many Indonesians see them as a new breed who are naive and overly idealistic in the beginning and likely to change hearts when they come to power.
The presumption of innocence is nonexistent as such a verdict is likely to color their campaign throughout their time in power, if they are elected.
Such pessimism may stem from skeptical empiricism, the belief that knowledge is derived from experiences, and thus any knowledge based on more credible recorded experiences, be they in quantity or quality, is likely to be more valid. And prior to accumulating sufficient evidence, the wise thing to do is, thus, be skeptical.
However, I doubt such skepticism comes from the common people, who make up the majority of voters. Instead, they are likely to be skeptical because, in the past, what they have hoped for is far from being materialized.
And those intelligentsias might not "fit" their perception of "typical" politicians who are expected to deliver. It is a matter of how the deliverance would match the delivery, rather than in being empirically skeptical.
Julien Benda in La Trahison des Clercs, which was translated as The Treason of the Intellectuals, discussed the three reasons why intellectuals are perceived as abandoning their true callings for being "purists" in terms of dedication to knowledge and the metaphysical world alone –academia, that is.
First and foremost is for adopting political passions.
Second is for bringing their political passions into their intellectual activities.
Third is for playing the game of political passions by their doctrines.
At this time and age, I think such schismogenetical tendencies do exist but it is not to be made a big fuss about.
It is time to be open-minded and far-sighted.
We all know that there are "research scholars" who are likely to be hunting for a tenure track position in research universities by publishing tons of articles in journals and other publications, hence being "career scholars."
On the other hand, there are also "scholar practitioners" who are likely to apply their knowledge in the real world, conduct the so-called "participatory observation" research and bring back whatever they found to academia in the name of creation of new knowledge in their field. Some take their passion further by being the people's "source of knowledge" and hold their hands into the future.
The terms "symmetrical schismogenesis" and "asymmetrical schismogenesis" were introduced by Gregory Bateson in the 1930s to refer to behaviors of certain groups in society that would create opposing factions, which is a concept as ancient as China's yin and yang. We can see how both the world of academia and the public have their own divisions of arguments, which are quite evident in the "stigmatization" of intellectual politicians.
Oftentimes, I encounter those who keep ample distance from the world by living in a bubble of exclusivity whose activities are none other than having discourses after discourses. Just like a basketball coach who talks about how winning games without knowing how to play basketball himself. While it might sound too harsh an anecdote, we are human beings first and foremost and for being a member of intellectual caste is a privilege unlike any others.
With our knowledge, we can make big changes and redirect the course of history with a lot of audacity, through being a "purist" or being a "practitioner,” through writing in peer-reviewed journals or widely respected trade books sold in shopping malls.
In most Western and developed countries, it is common knowledge that scholar-practitioners are as much respected as research scholars. Interestingly, the former are likely to be making bigger splashes worldwide, especially since today's media convergence has taken information dissemination many levels upward from two decades ago.
Thus, whenever there are intellectuals who prefer to take a different path by walking alongside the people they care about, we should support them wholeheartedly. Those who have been trained to obtain terminal degrees are likely to be familiar with all kinds of research methodologies and are likely to possess the so-called "in-depth perspectives" of the society.
The key to successfully acting out their new career is the ability to polish their existing knowledge by keeping a good distance while being attached to their works.
Allow me to reiterate: There are many kinds of intellectuals and there are many ways to be useful to society. While "specialist" success is admirable, a "whole package" success is remarkable. I wish those new intellectual politicians the best of wishes.
The Jakarta Post, August 22, 2008