A friend of mine, who is far far smarter than she realises, as well as being just a top person to boot (funny, forgiving, perceptive), told me of the joke made in the dying days of the Soviet Union (and probably earlier). The rouble was turning to rubble, becoming less and less worth anything. So workers would loaf off, but still turn up to work – “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
This conversation was in the context of an appalling book launch in a northern city. It occurs to me that the “social movement” equivalent is …
“They pretend to mobilise us, and we pretend to be mobilised.”
It’s all, imho, collusion, sick collusion. Some academics come out with some “radical”-looking ideas, but no specific way for anything to get done differently. (The ideas actually aren’t that radical. A tolerably intelligent undergraduate would have clocked them 15 or 20 years ago. And many people who aren’t “intelligent undergraduates”, who haven’t jumped through the hoops of formal education, with all the training for obedience and curiosity-suppression that that entails, will have clocked it even earlier. But I digress.)
They create an opportunity for Concerned People to come along and hear fine words. In exchange for being ego-fodder, these people get – in addition to some free wine and nibbles – their monthly/quarterly dose of feeling informed/engaged/morally and intellectually superior.
The tacit agreement is you provide my ego-food, and I won’t suggest you get out of your smugosphere. (After all, if the academic were to get too specific in suggestions of things you ought to do, too challenging to the audience’s comfort zones, they would desert him. It’s a last tango on planet Earth. We butter each other up…)
Not all academics do this collusion all the time. My favourite exceptions that prove the rule –
Noam Chomsky getting sick of telling Canadians how awful America is and instead point out their foreign policy is nothing to crow about.
Norman Finkelstein laying into a Manchester audience of “pro”-Palestinians for their laziness and complacency.
George Monbiot at the 1996 Schumacher lectures in Bristol, banging on about land rights for British people, to an audience of… landed gentry. The most lukewarm, reluctant applause imaginable… (I was there).
And Tom Robinson’s awesome performance of “Sing if you’re glad to be gay” at the Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.
Other examples welcome.