By Chris Trotter*
“A legendary teacher”, was how University of Otago Vice-Chancellor, Harlene Hayne, described Professor James R. Flynn (1934-2020). The thousands of first-year politics students who attended his lectures down the years will certainly attest to the accuracy of Haynes’ description. The stories that grew up around the often slipper-shod professor were as colourful as the man who inspired them. Following his death last Friday, at the age of 86, “Jim” Flynn’s former students will be recalling those stories with that tearful mixture of sadness and pride that distinguishes the passing of all truly outstanding individuals.
Flynn was not just a teacher of university students, however, but of two whole generations of New Zealand leftists. Born in Washington DC, Flynn was that rarest and most admirable of things – an American socialist. There are very few democratic nations in the world where it is harder to ply the socialist trade than the United States, and those who make the attempt require the most extraordinary fortitude.
The man after whom Flynn’ son is named, Eugene Victor Debs, spent years in a federal prison for the “crime” of opposing military conscription during the First World War. Flynn himself, although a prodigiously talented scholar, was repeatedly fired from his university posts on account of his membership of Debs’ Socialist Party of America. It didn’t help his career prospects that Flynn was also an active participant in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Not when the colleges that hired (and then fired) him were located south of the Mason-Dixon Line!
The American South’s loss proved to be New Zealand’s gain, however, when Flynn and his wife, Emily, sought refuge in what was still regarded, in the late-1960s, as one of the world’s most successful social-democratic nations.
The politics department which Flynn brought into being at the University of Otago, and which he would lead for the next 30 years, largely eschewed the sterile empiricism of “political science”, offering its students, instead, a strong grasp of the philosophical and historical origins of political ideas. To do well in Flynn’s “political studies” department, students not only had to be able to count, they also had to be able to read. (Nothing so alarmed Flynn in the latter part of his career than the dramatic fall-off in ‘voluntary’ reading among under-graduates).
Although the contemporary university is legally obligated to be the “critic and conscience” of society, it is an obligation more honoured in the breach than in the observance. That could never be said of Flynn, however, who threw himself into the political life of his adopted country with gusto. He had hardly unpacked his belongings before he was quietly advising the Leader of the Labour Opposition, Norman Kirk, on New Zealand’s foreign policy options. In Dunedin, he soon became one of the leading-lights in the Committee on Vietnam. Whether it be leading an anti-war march down George Street, or debating socialism with his students in the Captain Cook Tavern, the lanky figure of the bearded professor soon became a fixture of the academic left in Otago.
In New Zealand, as in the rest of the world, the “Red Seventies” were roughly shouldered aside by the Neoliberal Eighties and Nineties. For Flynn, one of the most egregious effects of the “free-market” counter-revolution was the re-emergence of “Scientific Racism” – especially the notion that the IQ of Blacks was inherently inferior to that of Whites.
To counter this old and pernicious heresy, Flynn immersed himself in, and mastered, the intricacies of psychology, statistical science and higher mathematics. The result: an empirical demonstration of the social malleability of intelligence “scores”, now known, universally, as the “Flynn Effect”, undercut decisively the arguments of the new “racial scientists” – most particularly, Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray.
It was a genuinely “classical” demonstration of the way in which propositions one believes to be without foundation should be countered. Not for Flynn the contemporary preference for naming and shaming one’s opponent’s on social media; “de-platforming” them from all university venues; and presenting them with the choice of either offering-up a humiliating recantation and apology, or, losing their jobs. Flynn simply went in search of the evidence. If it wasn’t there, then the propositions of one’s opponents could be exposed as academically unsustainable.
For Flynn it was never about “bad people” peddling “bad ideas”: it was only ever about inadequately supported propositions. And, the best way to demonstrate their inadequacy was to challenge them on their own terms, in public, with the evidence.
It is, without doubt, one of the most important intellectual lessons of this “legendary teacher”: that truth is the product of free and open debate; and that any university unwilling to stand up for free and open debate is, ultimately, unworthy of the name.
Arguably, Flynn’s most important political lesson is the principle he did so much to enshrine in both the NewLabour Party, and in its successor, the Alliance. Significantly, it is based on the same intellectual rigour that gave birth to the Flynn Effect.
Essentially, Flynn’s political argument was a simple one. It is ethically insupportable and, ultimately, electorally self-defeating, for a left-wing political party to make promises to the electorate which it cannot show to be fiscally sustainable. Left-wing political leaders, said Flynn, have a moral obligation to demonstrate, by drawing up a mathematically coherent Alternative Budget, how all the good things they are promising will be paid for.
Does this approach have a political cost? Of course it does! Voters don’t like to hear that their taxes will need to be raised and/or new taxes imposed. But, Flynn’s argument was that until the electorate can be persuaded that paying higher taxes is a necessary condition for living in a just society, then any electoral victories on the part of the Left will only ever be temporary. The mission of the true democratic socialist, argued Flynn, was not, primarily, to win votes in the short term, but to effect a long-term change of voters’ hearts and minds – by telling them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Idealistic? Quixotic? Naïve? Flynn was called all of those things in his time. At no point, however, did I hear anyone, from either the far- or the centre-left, demonstrate the fault in Flynn’s operating principles for a genuinely democratic socialism. As he proved in relation to race and intelligence, if the numbers do not stack-up, then neither does the argument.
Though a life-long atheist, Flynn was not above offering his classes and comrades the odd biblical quotation. One of his favourites was from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun that – The race is not to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor bread to the wise, Nor riches to men of understanding, Nor favour to men of skill; But time and chance happen to them all.
I always thought of it as a curiously self-refuting quotation. For if time and chance determine all things, then the quest for truth and justice is vain and doomed to disappointment. But, perhaps, it is in that quote from Ecclesiastes that we find the true measure of James R. Flynn: philosopher, mathematician, socialist. That in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the pursuit of truth and justice remains the only accurate test of our determination to become fully human.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.