Who Is A Public Intellectual?

Filed under: Colombo Telegraph,MORE OPINION,Opinion |

By Rohan Samarajiva

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

Dr Siri Gamage has raised some important questions worthy of broader discussion: . . . especially before Presidential or Parliamentary elections, some university academics affiliated with major political parties appear on stage or in press conferences as ‘intellectuals’. Does the media use this term correctly? Who are the intellectuals? What should be their defining features and role? Has this term been vulgarised in the Sri Lankan context to mislead the voting public? If so, where are the true intellectuals? These are some questions we need to discuss due to the ‘incorrect usage’ of this term in the popular media today.

The above “problem statement” refers only to intellectuals, but the real focus is on “public intellectuals,” the subset of intellectuals who shape public discourse.

University degrees do not intellectuals make. Simply holding an academic appointment in a low-quality university surely does not. Martin Wickramasinghe was Sri Lanka’s greatest writer and a powerful shaper of public discourse through the editorship of leading newspapers and his own writing. He lacked formal academic credentials.

If the university has no role in certifying intellectuals, we cannot then appeal to another credentialing authority. There can be only one test of a public intellectual: recognition in the eyes of the public.

One does not have to agree with the views of a person to recognize her or him as a public intellectual. Here is what I wrote about the person I consider to be the most effective public intellectual of our time, Victor Ivan: He, more than anyone else, is responsible for shaping the contemporary discourse of Constitutional reform. . . . I do not fully agree with his diagnosis. My conclusion is that an executive presidency, subject to the right kinds of checks and balances, including an independent judiciary and an empowered legislature and provinces, is the optimal solution for a country at our stage of development and with our multi-ethnic character. I disagree with Ivan’s analysis, but as one who seeks to shape public policy through ideas, I cannot but admire his achievement.

My use of two newspaper editors as exemplars underlines the importance of media. One cannot become a public intellectual without reaching the public.

In Martin Wickramasinghe’s time, this meant that one had to write; and some editor/gatekeeper had to decide that what one wrote was worthy of publication. For the past few decades, it meant that one had to be given time before TV cameras, though newspapers did not become completely irrelevant, as proved by Victor Ivan. But the role of gatekeepers continued to be important. Wickramasinghe and Ivan were gatekeepers themselves, so one could argue that they had an advantage, at least in building their “brands.”

Has this changed with new media? China, where the gatekeeping is very strict in the government and party dominated media, public intellectuals such as Han Han have emerged based solely on blogs and social media. There are some signs of such public intellectuals emerging in present-day Sri Lanka as well. Ajith Parakum Jayasinghe comes to mind. Dr Nalin de Silva made his name through main stream media (MSM) but one may argue that he maintains it through social media.

So the weakness of my argument about public intellectuals being decided on by the public lies in the role played by gatekeepers. Are they neutral and disinterested, allowing the “true” intellectuals to communicate to the public and thereby have a chance of becoming public intellectuals? Or do the gatekeepers distort the process, privileging some (unworthy) voices and suppressing (worthy) others? Even if we discount bad motives, do they possess the knowledge and the judgment to recognize worthy voices? Are social media a viable alternative to MSM yet? Will they ever be?

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27 Responses to Who Is A Public Intellectual?

  1. 4
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    Prof. Rohan Samarajiva asks: Who Is A Public Intellectual? Definitely not Dayan, Wimal, Gota, ….. Shamindra Ferdinando, Rajpal Abeynayake, ……………..

    Native Vedda
    March 16, 2017 at 12:52 am
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      A public intellectual is a critical thinker and advocate for social and economic justice who MUST SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER. Today’s so boru intellectuals, do the opposite and sell their souls to politicians for power and or perks!

      Dinuk
      March 16, 2017 at 4:55 pm
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        ‘An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.’ – Charles Bukowski Wouldn’t it be best for the country if all the intellectuals were artists; say their piece in few simple lines? Or would they still prefer to write as if some professor is still marking their work from a scale of 1 – 100? Is their a point in an intellectuals life where he/she drops the pretensions and becomes an artist? Is there room for transformation or has one gone too far out on a limb?

        nimal fernando
        March 16, 2017 at 6:02 pm
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    Public intellectuals include criminals like GL Peries, Dayan Jeyatilake etc. Their are doctors in creating bloodbath in the soil, creating a dictator to destroy the nation.

    Ajith
    March 16, 2017 at 2:31 am
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      Their are doctors in creating bloodbath in the soil, creating a dictator to destroy the nation. //// yeah the like of Prabhakaran and his supporters were preventing blood bath neda?

      sach
      March 16, 2017 at 1:20 pm
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    I think sSri Gamage did not have guts to accuse or say Sinhala buddhists. Instead he said sinhala people are the intellectuals.

    jim softy
    March 16, 2017 at 3:40 am
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    95 MPs have failed GCE O/Level. 145 MPs have not passed GCE A/Level. But, there are intellectuals among them. Latest, the one who makes his ministry pay Rs. 21 Million rent monthly, without actual occupation, of/for a building. The ‘head’ intellectuals – President and Prime Minister ignore this – while some citizens eat only once a day & have no place to live in.

    justice
    March 16, 2017 at 4:08 am
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    Yes, Of course, Victor Ivan will be fit to become the best Sri Lankan intellectual – after the blood of 1971 is washed off with several bars of Sunlight and a good disinfectant! Do our ‘bloody’ intellectuals know what they are talking about?

    Point Blank
    March 16, 2017 at 4:40 am
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    Can I see your first degree? Without appointing University as an emeritus you can not use Prof. title. Then how can you use Prof. title. Is it self given one or….

    Sharma
    March 16, 2017 at 5:48 am
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      Sharma, “Can I see your first degree? ” Don’t be silly. Do your research before you post garbage. Dr.Samarajeewa was the first (qualified ) chairman of the TRC, after a distinguished career at a US University. It is so easy to Google, or have you never heard of that?

      old codger
      March 16, 2017 at 10:20 am
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        Old Codger should know the real reaon behind asking for the first degree.Some people dropping out of our local Universities for not studying and doing politics and subsequently qualifying elsewhere is now irrelevant. . Let us concentrate on what he has penned now. It is a typical analysis of a problem which does not involve quantities. This article is worth reading and provides food for thought. To that extent it is intellectual, stimulating one’s brains. The author may not be an emeritus prof or visiting prof or an honarary prof but out of courtsey I call him THE PROF.

        Jeremy Ludikins
        March 16, 2017 at 2:12 pm
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        Fake public intellectual exposed.

        Sharma
        March 16, 2017 at 5:05 pm
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          Sharma, It is not my business to be advertising Dr.Samarajiva’s qualifications, but here goes: Samarajiva was Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Ministry for Economic Reform, Science and Technology (2002-04) responsible for infrastructure reforms, including participation in the design of the USD 83 million e Sri Lanka Initiative. He was Director General of Telecommunications in Sri Lanka (1998-99) and a founder director of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka (2003-05). Most recently, Samarajiva was Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Post and Telecom in Bangladesh (2006-09). He was Honorary Professor at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka (2003-04), Visiting Professor of Economics of Infrastructures at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (2000-03) and Associate Professor of Communication and Public Policy at the Ohio State University in the US (1987-2000). Is that enough exposure for you? Next time, CHECK before you post.

          old codger
          March 17, 2017 at 8:42 am
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    Ninety four MPs have not passed their GEC (O/L) examination while there are only 25 graduates among the 225 legislators in the present Sri Lankan Parliament, former Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, Prof. M O A de Zoysa said yesterday. Parliament had O/L failed intellectuals. Once they become a minister they are most intelligent. E.g. wimal Weerqawansha

    jim softy
    March 16, 2017 at 6:28 am
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      “94 MPs didn’t pass OL”. None of those MPs are from TNA.

      AJ
      March 16, 2017 at 6:37 pm
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    Dr S. says: “. For the past few decades, it meant that one had to be given time before TV cameras, though newspapers did not become completely irrelevant, as proved by Victor Ivan” TV channels have their own pets to whom they give airtime., particularly the Sirasa network. They often feature Azath Sally, Sajith Premadasa, Dayan Jayatillaka, Dilan Perera, Shanthini Kongahage, etc., Are these intellectuals then? I wonder what Dr. Samarajeewa thinks about their current vendetta against the ICTA and Google Loon?

    old codger
    March 16, 2017 at 8:42 am
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      Dr. Samarajiva allowed himself to be used as part of this crusade!

      Nishan
      March 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm
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    Who? DJ says he is. The Archbishop of Canterbury was in the room when it was said. So he is. Quod Erat Demonstrandum. :-)

    Luxman
    March 16, 2017 at 1:14 pm
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    All are individuals. One become an intellectual when he/she command genuine respect from public for educated discourse in any field that is beneficial to the society.

    Adrian
    March 16, 2017 at 4:12 pm
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    what is a Public Intellectual? 94 MPs in the Sri Lankan parliament have no ‘O’ Levels. only 25 out of 225 are graduates. these are not public intellectuals but public idiots

    Rajash
    March 16, 2017 at 4:20 pm
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    A very nice lady in Bambalapitiya once described the many ‘intellectuals’ that she had counselled. When I enquired whether they were ‘public intellectuals’ she must have misheard me. She replied; “when they come to me they are more like pubic intellectuals alright!”. What did she mean? Say no more! No names, no pack drill.

    Spring Koha
    March 16, 2017 at 4:46 pm
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      Spring Koha “She replied; “when they come to me they are more like pubic intellectuals alright!”. What did she mean? ” Old chap, what were you doing in Bambalapitiya with the nice lady in the first place?

      Native Vedda
      March 16, 2017 at 5:43 pm
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    Public intellectuals are the present day politicians without a basic ordinary level certificates. There are already 93 members in parliament today , according to latest reports.

    Sellam
    March 16, 2017 at 6:44 pm
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    In my comment relating to the article of Dr. Siri Gamage, I said, an “Intellectual” in my opinion is a person who has inculcated three qualities, viz. (1) Morality (2) Concentration and (3) Wisdom. Do people need to be “Graduates”, “Professors” or “Academics” to acquire the above three qualities? I don’t think so. I have seen all these qualities overflowing in my mother who never had such high type of education. Also, in my village, most of whom were farmers, carpenters, masons, artisans never had high educational qualifications, but endowed with qualities of Morality, Concentration and Wisdom. That entire social structure, to me, was a blessing to live and develop. In today’s society the so called “Professionals”, “Academics” etc. who have taken over or usurped the status of “Intellectuals” have brought us nothing but misery to the entire country. That is why this question “Who is a Public Intellectual” has been raised. Even Dr. Siri Gamage raised this question in a different but in a powerful way, viz “Where are they”. This question of looking for the “Intellectual” has gone astray, because we do not know where to look for them. Still there are a very many in large numbers engaged in their daily routines in the paddy fields, workshops, village homes and walk daily among us. Unfortunately, our “Researchers” cannot find them. Why? Because all of them have engaged with only the so called “Academics” and no one dares to admit such “Academics” categorized as “Intellectuals” are the worst corrupted who have no Moral Values, lost Concentration Acumen and Prostituted Wisdom. I can give thousands and thousands of examples of “Qualitative Intellectuals” from among the ORDINARY PEOPLE who are fortified with qualities of Moral Values, High Sense of Concentration and abundance of Wisdom who still carry on in the midst of trying conditions of day to life, but for the restrictions of comment policy.

    Douglas
    March 16, 2017 at 7:37 pm
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      Best answer!!

      Athula
      March 17, 2017 at 3:35 pm
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    Martin Wickremasinghe was a honourable man in the by gone years when society looked at decent, educated men/women through different a prism. The fruits of his labour that brought forth the finer qualities of Sinhala village life to the country and the world ad that enriched the culture of the entire Island qualifies him to be called an Intellectual to be respected for all time by the country. Not so the opportunistic half-baked Marxist Victor Ivan. To start with the political philosophy he and his mislead comrades pushed down for decades through the throat of several hundreds of thousands of young innocent Sinhala youth only brought them and the country ruin. That was the end of his political flirtation. While initially Ravaya proved to be a worthy journal claiming to be an instrument of social reform, it was later found that Ivan was just as venal as the politicians he was assuring the public he was trying to change. CBK says she fell out with him over a deal involving a modern multi-million dollar printing machine. The racket he was involved in the selling of Ravaya Shares further diminished what was left in his shattered non-reputation. He is as corrupt as the society he tells us he wishes to change. Backlash

    Backlash
    March 16, 2017 at 8:33 pm
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    I would like all of you to watch a TV programme that aired on 15-03-17 (available in Social Media) the subject matter of discussion was “Do the present Parliament Members behave and act responsibly and accountable to the voter”. The panel was composed of five different “Intellectuals” (in Sinhala introduced as VIYATH). I listened and viewed with great enthusiasm to learn. Alas, when it came to the fourth (in sitting order from left to right) he turned the entire discussion to a different direction by questioning the non recognition of the “Joint Opposition” as the Official Opposition and “scheming” by the Government to grant that status to one of its allies. From there onward the discussion was a “Free For All” worse than Mariya Kade business. I was watching that programme with my village bakery owner, Jemis Maama. At the end these were his words: “Munda Aape Viyaththu Kiyanne” (Are these our Intellectuals). Please listen to it and then you will learn who the real “Intellectual” is. In my opinion he was my neighbor Jamis Maama.

    Douglas
    March 16, 2017 at 9:16 pm
    Reply

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