Joan Smith: Cleverness isn't sexy any more

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The Independent Online

President Reagan, Governor Schwarzenegger, but no Prime Minister Ignatieff: the acclaimed novelist and cultural commentator has just led the Liberals to a shattering defeat in Canada's general election.

Michael Ignatieff will be remembered in the UK for his appearances as a presenter on BBC2's cultural magazine programme The Late Show in the 1980s and 1990s but he didn't even manage to hold on to his own seat in liberal, arty Toronto.

Ignatieff has been described as Canada's "sexiest cerebral man", offering a welcome riposte to the lazy jibe that politics is showbusiness for ugly people. But he wasn't sexy enough to bring in the votes, it seems, and his humiliation says something worrying about the decline in status of the public intellectual.

Actors do well in politics – some would say acting was Tony Blair's most significant talent – but intellectuals are having a bad time generally. Even in France, where the philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy has rock-star status, the current President is a hyperactive populist with a supermodel wife. His bitter rival, Dominique de Villepin, is an aristocratic intellectual who publishes poetry, essays and volumes of French history. But it's Sarkozy, not Villepin, who currently resides in the Elysee Palace.

Cleverness is out of fashion, and it's possible to argue that it enjoys (if that's the word) an inverse relationship with celebrity. The cult of personality is all about emotion, not reason, and to succeed in this world you have to sell yourself as much as your ideas.

Historians who want to get on these days need to have their own television series, preferably with their name in the title, and write popular commentaries about events like the royal wedding. If AJP Taylor were alive today, he'd find himself wooed by TV producers who'd expect him to stride up and down outside Buckingham Palace, telling viewers his feelings about the Windsors: "Come on, Alan, try to make it a bit more personal."

One of the problems with a culture that denigrates intellectuals is that it reduces important debates to beauty contests. There's less and less space for anything that needs to be explained in more than two sentences, which means that critics, philosophers and politicians get pushed into more extreme positions than they intend to occupy. Politicians are expected to give Yes or No responses on complex matters such as immigration, and any attempt at thoughtful qualification is treated as shameful prevarication, especially on Radio 4's Today programme.

TV and radio have a great deal to answer for. When the former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody was told she had terminal cancer, I wrote a column expressing unease about the abrupt alteration in public sentiment towards her; she went overnight from being a laughing stock to a saintly figure "battling" cancer.

A BBC producer asked me to go on a radio programme to elaborate on these ideas, which was fine with me until I heard the words: "Oh, and you'll be on with a woman who's in remission from cancer." The registers of the participants in these so-called "debates" are so far apart that there's really no point in doing them.

I've always thought that the Conservatives were smart to go for David Cameron, a man who has the confidence of an Etonian combined with a sneering populism ("Calm down, dear"). Ed Miliband is less of an austere intellectual than his brother David, but he still sounds as though he's only just keeping his temper when he has to field idiotic questions about his personal life or his nasal problems.

Michael Ignatieff was once rated the world's 37th most influential public intellectual by Prospect magazine. I'm afraid that doesn't count for much when the anti-intellectual tenor of our times can be summed up in just two words: Silvio Berlusconi.