Rob Riemen is the founder and president of the Nexus Institute, a Netherlands-based leading international center for intellectual and philosophical debate, that seeks to give shape to an informed dialogue between decision-makers and the world of ideas. Riemen is the author of Nobility of Spirit (Yale University Press, 2008).
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Rose Mary Salum: Your book is a long reflection on the active role of intellectuals in society. It plunges into the deep waters of the history of thought and claims the return of the intellectuals. How would you work out the return of intellectuals into the XXIst Century?
Rob Riemen: I studied Theology and I vividly remember the following anecdote from the Gospel when Jesus says “faith can move mountains.” My professor then explained it happens gradually. I personally believe in a steadily change. First of all, it is important to create awareness about the kind of society we are presently living in. How can things that are not important at all be considered so important in our society? Yet, our present failures seem to be shaping our society. Today we’re in Mexico City, and one increasingly reads about the narco culture in which young people are seduced by it because of the promise of excitement and material goods. This is a symptom of the cult of success created and fed by the media. What is ignored in this presentation of an “ideal life” is the fact that life exists on an entirely different dimension. Unamuno, the great Spanish philosopher, wrote this wonderful book about what we seem to have forgotten at the beginning of the XXIst Century: the sense of the tragic. This aspect of life exists whether we like it or not. I was recently informed about the phenomenon in America where millions of young people, kids in their twenties, are using medical drugs without having mental disorders. They are using Prozac, Ritalin. Why? I think because, they cannot live with their own dissatisfaction of life. They feel they are under- performers, that they are not really a success. They have the idea that they are not meeting those standards we mentioned before to be deemed successful in life. Imagine the horror of a society where children no longer learn to have a certain amount of introspection. There is no soul searching anymore. They are no longer developing the language to understand themselves—not to mention that they cannot even understand others. We are heading into this Brave New World phenomenon in which we have to be happy, where the greatest horror is to be unhappy and where success can only be defined in the material terms of cars, sex and money. Now, the price paid is that life becomes totally, utterly meaningless.
I apologize for the long description, but we have to clear the grounds and we have to become aware of what it is actually going on.
Hence, we return to the topic of the intellectuals. For as long as society has existed, there have been scribes, who were the knowledgeable people that reflected on, interpreted and transmitted scriptures. In addition, as a balance to kings and priests, there is always the prophet, the truth-teller. The intellectual, in my perception, is a kind of secular variation of those two types. The scribes are now found in the academic world as the scholar studying, interpreting and writing texts. “The prophets” are found in public intellectuals. They are the people on the fringe of the society questioning where are we going and what are we doing? Or the ones that tell us that the emperor has no clothes as the classic story tells us. In the XX Century we’ve had Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Pessoa even Borges, the kind of prophet-like people who had a lifelong commitment to the search of truth and sought to transmit it through their work. There later came a group of intellectuals—especially in relation to Marxism— for whom it was not as important to interpret the world as it was to change it through power. We can understand the emotions behind this, but we now know the devastating consequences of the kind of society where there’s only one ideology people have to confront. Intellectuals moved into the world of power and became much more interested in power than in anything else. They ignored truth, and as a consequence came this world of post modernism where there is no truth, only social context. Anything goes. That has become the dominant attitude in the academia. We have accepted the fact that there can only be differences of taste. Some like Mozart, others Madonna. Who could care in the end? This attitude has also influenced the world of ethics. We often hear “My ethics are not your ethics. Your laws are not mine.” So we have given up the notion that there are universal values. These are all complex things, and they have political consequences.
So, to wrap up, I would like to state the fact that the intellectuals should understand that they will never be powerful. They have to accept the fact that they will never live the kind of glamorous lives the media offers. It’s perfectly fine if they decide they want to become part of the Obama administration, but at that point they should stop living their life as intellectuals and become policy people. We always need policy people, but we also need good, serious intellectuals. This is where the role of the universities comes in regards to their tremendous responsibility, especially to the realm of humanities which gives students a critical view of the world. Here it is where we could get started.
RMS: You’ve commented several times that one cannot make an absolutely essential, legitimate and necessary criticism of current times in the Western Hemisphere without taking into account a very important factor: the moral difference between good and evil.
RR: Yes. It relates to what I just said. In regards to that, society seems to have become lazy when it comes to being critical. Furthermore, people are afraid or don’t want to seem elitist, but mostly, it is connected to this idea that “anyone is entitled to give an opinion.” And last but not least, the whole politization of society. Good and evil now relates to be left or right: to be a liberal or conservative. That is stupid and it is dangerous. We saw a collapse of the intellectuals in regards to 9/11. Certainly, it was a horrible thing, but nothing new. It’s part of mankind, you know? We have Darfur, the Balkans or Rwanda, but 9/11 was a world event. We had intellectuals being published in the best newspapers of the world: Le Mond, Diplomatic, London Review, etc. who wanted to make the academic claim that we should try to understand why 3,000 innocent people from all parts of the world, be it Africa, Latin America, Asia, were killed. We were told we had to understand it because of globalization and capitalism. And then you arrive at a kind of existential question which is: how is it possible that people, after reading all the books to be read, who had the best university educations, who go to an opera or concert every week, can no longer distinguish the difference between good an evil? We are now in this wonderful hotel and we know there are many uneducated ted people here, but all of them understand it is a bad thing to kill, and it is definitely bad to kill 3,000 innocent people who don’t have a thing to do with capitalism, or globalization.
I write books, I write essays and I run an Institute that, as all universities and cultural magazines—like Literal—, is based on the article of faith that culture does matter. If so many prominent people in the world of culture can no longer distinguish a moral difference between right and wrong, then why should we continue thinking or talking? Because of this question I did a lot of soul searching. It was a quest in which I discovered that the betrayal of the intellectuals is part of the intellectual life. Already Socrates had to deal with it, as later on Thomas Mann did. We also saw it before WWII. The best professors in Munich applauded Fascism! Stalinism was accepted and praised by many first-rate intellectuals, and only few courageous people like Octavio Paz or Albert Camus had the courage to oppose it. Those intellectuals discovered that the bottom line of life is that one must live in truth and have a certain notion of what is good and evil. So the connection to be made is between living the life of an intellectual and having a commitment to truth understanding that this truth must translate into the knowledge of what is good and what is evil. Before the Ten Commandments, there was a time of paganism when we sacrificed children. There has been some moral progress. So don’t come back to me with that kind of intellectual crap in which you say that since we are from a different culture, we can’t understand somebody. No. There are universal values and one of the key values is the right to life. This is a concept in the Gospels, in Buddhism, which was also rediscovered by Kant, and we cannot give this up.
RMS: In your book you mention two possible reasons why an intellectual could stray from his path: desire for power and his own scepticism with respect to the eternal values. Would you say that rationality is the third reason intellectuals are giving up truth?
RR: At the end of my second essay I reflect on why intellectuals are not playing their role or accepting their responsibilities. I give a number of reasons; one of them is indeed the impact of scientific paradigm. Truth is mathematical or empirical, but it’s not longer metaphysical. Yet you cannot reduce all the main qualities of life to empirical or logical definitions. The influence of the scientific paradigm on intellectuals is such that they’ve lost the art of writing. Most of them include excessive amounts of footnotes that no one comprehends. This is good when you’re a scholar, but when you want to deal with ideas, you don’t need to use footnotes.
RMS: But don´t you think that these conglomerates can have a subtle yet rather coersitive pressure against intellectuals?
RR: I agree. We are faced indeed by a very serious situation. There have always been the groups of the power, but even in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, intellectuals were very respected and important. This respect is completely absent, but we must blame the intellectuals first. Also, there is a society-wide censorship created by the world of money. B&N is not a bookshop; it is a phenomenon that kills bookshops. There is no interest at all in a cultural infrastructure. North American culture is collapsing as we speak because of this. Therefore, where can people go to, how can they be possibly informed that there is a new book? The media will not pay attention to it. They are in what one might call “automatic mode.” For them to acknowledge it someone has to be famous or it has to be about power or sex. These problems are not completely new but things are getting worst, and because of this an enormous responsibility lies on the part of intellectuals to keep their integrity and to do what they truly believe in. Literal, your own magazine, it’s important because it is one of the few oases in the dessert, where the transmission of culture can take place. So, only the people who have courage, energy and the passion to continue can go against the current, whether they are independent magazines, bookstores or publishers. The key word is independence. I’m sure there are many companies who have money to support these projects, but there is a lot of work to be done and it will take time. A friend of mine, an old Jewish publisher with whom I started the journal Nexuus, once said to me— and I never forgot it— “Rob, you have to understand that although we live in the late XX Century, on a cultural level, we live in the Middle Ages.” And our journal, Nexus along with the institute, have become one of those secular monasteries where we do our work waiting for better times. It’s important, now more than ever, to keep building and encouraging these secular monasteries such as publishing houses, journals, institutes of fine studies or reading clubs.
RMS: In Dix raisons (possibles) à la tristesse de pensée Steiner claims that the media is subtracting the meaning from words. Do you agree?
RR: John Stuart Mill, published On Liberty in 1859, documents the beginning of mass media. His analysis explains that there cannot be a functioning democracy without free media. Yet the horrible truth is that the media itself has turned into the greatest threat to freedom because of the tyranny of the public opinion and the conformism it inspires. The media is neither interested in truth nor committed to democracy; they are committed to sales and profits. They’re looking for the greatest common denominator, which is always sex, war, crime and violence. That is what they focus on and they call “news.” The rest is of no importance at all. The average concentration span is now down to 26 seconds; therefore any topic on the news has to be dealt with in no more than 2 minutes. The specialist who will tell us about the bailout will likely get less than a minute. All is reduced to bullshit! However, their impact and power— especially because they’re global— is phenomenal. We pay the price of not knowing what’s really going on. There is a money machine behind this, no doubt.
In regards to the decay of language, sure! The media has absolutely contributed to it. The mass media should be more modest and realize what its true and sole function is: to inform us. The New York Times is important because they have international correspondents everywhere. This should guarantee us the true facts about of what is going on in Russia, China and other countries. However, the very moment they get into to the world of making opinions everything goes wrong. Plato made a clear distinction between having knowledge and having an opinion. This is the reason they can’t replace books or bookstores. The same goes for the internet. Bookshops are irreplaceable because in them you discover what you didn’t know before.
RMS: Going back with the media, it seems that once they give us opinions, they become institutionalized by the consent of millions. Then you are far from truth.
RR: And the most horrible part is that they always consciously try, since they are only interested in what the public opinion is. If the media were completely opposed to mainstream public opinion, who would buy their newspapers? Who would listen to them? That’s why they only voice public opinion and so try to influence it at the same time. People are tired of being fooled by the media. So we have to wait and see what’s happening with the creative energy, because some good things might come out of it. I’m quite fascinated by what’s happening in the blogsphere, because it is a democratic tool. Anyone can start their own blog, have it spread itself and even have people become interested. There’s always a person writing about interesting things. Let’s hope that this creative energy will find its own forms and ways. Let the media collapse!
RMS: Talking about your letter to President Obama— I felt fascinated by it.
RR: Not published by The New York Times because it was too historical.
RMS: Unbelievable! They always find their way around things, right? Anyhow, in that letter you remind him that Mann once wrote in his diary (and I’ll quote you) “Roosevelt’s reelection is of the greatest importance for the further course of history. However, the current era makes this unlikely…” Do you think the current era makes it unlikely for President Obama (as well as society as a whole) to return the old principles? Is this ideal a dead song?
RR: I must say the election of President Obama is one of the very few positive signs about the world circumstances. Look at the situation in Russia, the financial crisis, what could have been if Sarah Palin had been elected as president (because, the president would not have been McCain). I was most pleasantly surprised by the American society when, after the Reagan era, after Bush 1 and after Bush 2 twice, they voted for Obama. I think Americans have many reasons to be extremely proud, especially because it was the younger generations who gave Obama the presidency. They went out, they voted and they did the job for him. I’m positive that many young people know that they are being fooled. They are fooled by society, by the celebrity cult, by the mass media and by the education system. They no longer wish to be told what to do. With Obama, it became transparent he was the right guy. Now Obama is there facing incredible problems. Can he fix them? Like he said, not even in four years. Yet, we should remain hopeful that we can change our community, our university etc. How? Just doing the bloody thing. What I mean is, do not accept any bullshit anymore. If you find classes are stupid and boring, don’t go to them. If all the students would decide not to attend for at least three months, the whole bloody system would change in a week. If we don’t buy into the celebrity cult, it will disappear in two days. Our financial elites are so backwards, but we can change them because they rely on us. Let’s use this financial crisis to make some things clear. We’ll buy your goods, but give us quality goods; we’ll go to your university but give us a proper education. My hope is that Obama is the first very positive step. He has to do the right thing. He has to have the courage to go for the right things. Many of his predecessors only cared about reelection, the short term, but we elected him for the long term.
RMS: In your view, do you think universities already became part of this whole market, the consumerism world?
RR: Oh yes, they exist to serve the world of the commerce. Look at the deceitful notion of usefulness. Everything has to be useful now, but go to the mirror and ask yourself “are my friendships useful?” The very moment you think of a friendship as useful, it will be gone. If you think that your kids are useful, there something is deeply wrong with you. It is not useful to be a good human being, either. Will you gain profits from telling the truth? No, you could even lose your job for doing so. This whole notion of usefulness is a lie..
RMS: This a rather personal question, but after our conversation, I wonder what is it exactly that moves and motivates you? You must admit that in a materialist and consumerist era, such ideas could even be suicidal.
RR: I’m very much surprised by your question because it is not my experience at all. In a certain sense, I live on an island because I only meet with people like me. I created my journal, I started my Institute, I wrote my book and I only meet people who are interested in these things, such as you. I’m used to, and demand even, good conversations. Why? I think that the simple answer is life is too short. Why I should waste time? I have a couple of good friends, and I have my very best friend to whom I dedicated my book. Why should I waste time on the emptiness that surrounds us? You know, I love movies, especially comedies. I’m a great fan of Steven Spielberg’s films because I think he’s a genius in translating big questions into a kind of visual language. We shouldn’t underestimate the brilliance of people that work “in popular culture.” The point to be understood is that we only have one task take care of, and that is the phenomenon of emptiness and nothingness. A highbrow intellectual term is nihilism, and a synonym is kitsch, by which we are completely surrounded. It all comes down to the fact that there is nothing in it. You can effect change when you know the kind of energy you are made of. The only thing we can learn from the celebrity magazines is that celebrities are not happy. So you asked why I do what I do, and I say: because life is too short.