Colombo Telegraph

Public Intellectuals – Some Private Thoughts

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

The term ‘Public intellectual’ is a title, a designation, a label and an honorific, given to men and women battling with ideas in the public domain writing, speaking and by just plain thinking aloud.

In essence the expression ‘public intellectual ‘is an opinion arrived at by the general public. In ancient Greece public intellectuals lectured in the agora- a place of public assembly which also served as a market.

In his famous essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isiah Berlin said that intellectuals could be classified as either Hedgehogs which knew one big idea or a Fox that had many ideas. Intellectuals would either relate everything to one idea or explore a diversity of ideas.

One of the books I cherish possessing and reading with a great degree of effort is “ISAAC & ISSAIAH ‘impulsively bought by my daughter Rashmi for my last birthday. In it, David Caute describes the feud and the ideas of the two great public thinkers of the 20th century Isaiah Berlin and Isaac Deutscher. They are great minds but essentially human. Something we must bear in mind.

Public Intellectuals came to prominence first in 19th century France. It was a scandal involving a Jewish officer who was accused of disloyalty to the French state. It is important. Similar travesties are attempted today by leftovers of the national security deep state in our own backyard. Emile Zola in his J’accuse an open letter accused the army and the French state of falsely accusing Dreyfus who was Jewish. The establishment at the time called Zola and others who opted for intellectual integrity over false patriotism as ‘Intellectuals’ in a pejorative sense.

By bowing to reason and intellect over simple patriotism these public intellectuals endeavored to kindle the conscience of general and larger audience.

Yes. Martin Wickramasinghe was a public intellectual. A giant at that. Not only because he wrote the trilogy Gamperaliya, Yuganthaya and Kaliyugaya that captures the social transformation of our society from the twilight years of colonial rule to post independence value reversals , upheavals and revisions. The Koggala Pragnya earns the title because he wrote ‘Bavathranaya ‘that made Sidharatha Gauthama an ordinary human and also because he wrote his life story “Upandasita’ in the form of a social commentary.

Yes. Victor Ivan is a fearless editor who founded and sustained a Sinhala broadsheet weekly, a trailblazing, successful alternative media experiment. He thinks publicly. He campaigns against corruption. But he is not a public intellectual. He is a civil society activist whose vituperative comments and polemics in ‘Chaura Rajina’ places him not a few blocks away in the same town but in a different province altogether. Intellectual rigour is different from polemical prancing.

I can think of two outstanding public intellectuals who stood up to J.R. Jayewardene the first executive president who institutionalized state coercion under guise of fast-tracking economic development. They are Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe and Queens Counsel S Nadesan. That they are not remembered is proof of our sorry predicament. If Bishop Lakshman Wickermesinghe were alive he would not have permitted his nephew Ranil Wickremesinghe to sit on the report on the Welikada Massacre. He would have also enlightened his other nephew Rajiva Wijesinghe how the 18th amendment eroded our cherished democratic rights.

N. Shanmugathasan the Maoist Trade Unionist with his Memoirs of an unrepentant communist and Hector Abayawardena the Trotskyite theoretician with his ‘Categories of Left thinking claim their place in the pantheon of our public thinkers.

Despite occasional foibles, our dear Professor Carlo Fonseka is a public thinker although I will never comprehend why he lends his good name to the mischief of the Buddhist priest Elle Gunwansa.

Reggie Siriwardene and Mervyn De Silva were public intellectuals whose spirit of inquiry went far beyond their professional remit. B.A. Siriwardene was a curious mixture of polemicist and public intellectual. All three spoke truth to power.

Chandra Jayaratne who writes on public finance and Dr. Gederick Uswattearachi writing on Education are two eminent public intellectuals.

Personally I hold Arundathi Roy as a public intellectual on par with Economist Amartya Sen and Historian Ramachandra Guha in neighboring India.

The Oxford English Dictionary elucidates public intellectual as “…an intellectual who expresses views (especially on popular topics) intended to be accessible to a general audience.”

Some public intellectuals speak on any subject that interests them while some take care to confine themselves to domains they claim some expertise on.

Who is a public intellectual? A public intellectual is he or she who earns the recognition of the public as upholding justice, respects life and the cause of life. They help us to recall the past, understand the present and construct our future.

Then again, why do we need public intellectuals? Because we live in an age of Economic Darwinism and tribal politics. We have Charitha Ratwatte and Paskaralingam on one side. G.L.Pieris and Dayan Jayatilleka on the other. Tweedledums and Tweedledees!

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