Foreign Policy magazine has just published its annual list of the “100 Top Global Thinkers.” Canadians may be sorry to learn that none of their compatriots made the cut. But there is no need to be downhearted – sorties in ranking thinkers are inevitably flawed, and this time around the list looks more like a popular political celebrity ranking with a few serious thinkers and scientists thrown in.
For example, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein share the No. 1 spot, with Tunisia’s President right behind them. These choices are akin to U.S. President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize award within months of his taking office. Enthusiasm, hope and hype often cloud clear thinking.
Likewise, Turkey’s Foreign Minister weighs in at No. 28 this year, five spots ahead of Salman Rushdie – who is ahead of economist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman. Poor old Jürgen Habermas, who is now more cited in the humanities and social sciences than Max Weber and who is ranked by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as one of the most influential philosophers in the world, comes in at a lowly 88.
Canadians may also take solace in the fickle nature of determining the reputations of public intellectuals. Naomi Klein, fifth in Foreign Policy’s 2005 inventory when her book No Logo became a manifesto of the anti-corporate globalization movement, disappeared from the subsequent list. Other one-hit wonders include Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker and Charles Taylor. And when Foreign Policy asked the public to weigh in on their choices a few years ago, rankings succumbed to organized campaigns: Aspirants such as Christopher Hitchens offered links on their websites to facilitate voting; partisans of others, such as Michael Ignatieff, solicited votes on their behalf.
If attempts to hot-list big brains are perilous, though, they do reflect the demand for relevant, informed learning in our increasingly global knowledge society. The problem: The “global thinker” is itself a formless, amorphous notion, a barely recognizable creature.
Asked to write about his role as a public intellectual, David Suzuki, whose syndicated television series The Nature of Things has been broadcast in more than 40 countries, asked: “Could you tell me what a public intellectual is so I can decide whether I’m competent enough to write something?”
Denys Arcand – the winner of three dozen film awards including an Oscar for The Barbarian Invasions, which revisits the aging intellectuals depicted in The Decline of the American Empire – responded with similar self-effacement: “I am not an intellectual. I am an old film director. I tell tales that I don’t always understand.”
Nelson Wiseman teaches political science at the University of Toronto and is at work on an upcoming book about public intellectuals.
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