I hail from a family of arguers. Recreational arguers, you might call them. Most would rather argue than eat. My kinfolk are the kind of people who, if you say, “White,” will automatically say, “Black,” even if they don’t know to what you are referring.
Scratch that: Make it especially if they don’t know to what you’re referring.
The goal is to oppose, to counter, to rile up, to square off, to nitpick, to irk, to goad. They want to keep an argument going as long as possible, like kids on a beach vacation trying to keep a plastic ball aloft forever with a series of strategic taps. My childhood memories include the spectacle of various red-faced relatives as they wrangled over politics, sports, cars, music, war, free will versus predestination—and those were just for starters. I don’t seem to have inherited that yen for contentiousness, but nor does it trouble me overmuch; the earliest lullaby cooed in the midst of my infant ears surely was a surly, “Oh, yeah? Well, lemme tell you what I think about that.”
Consequently I come to polemical books with an anticipatory zeal engendered by a lifetime of listening to arguments. I like books that try to change the world, one reader at a time. I like books with bite. I like books with backbone: Books that don’t shy away from controversy or claim all ideas are equally valid, because they’re not, or that we’re all basically the same, because we’re not. Opinions are serious things, and we all see the world our particular way. So I like books that are hectoring and well-researched. Books that are equal parts wrath and fact. Books that take themselves seriously.
Books that—like my relatives gathered around that kitchen table, after the dinner dishes were cleared away and the real feast could begin—lean forward and look you in the eye and say: “Hey, just listen, will ya?”
Two recent books of unabashedly polemicist intent do their jobs very well. They may not change your mind, but they pay you the supreme compliment of assuming that you have a mind, and that it will respond to an accumulation of evidence and a fair and forceful presentation. Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy by Gwyneth Cravens (Knopf, 2007) and The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, by Pantheon, possess sweeping ambitions to change the public perception of their topics: nuclear power, in Cravens’ case, and the nation’s chilling aversion to rationality, in Jacoby’s.
Cravens has given herself a tough task: countering the negative image that clings to nuclear power as a fuel source. Like many people, she was anti-nuclear at the outset, having heard the dire warnings about storing radioactive nuclear waste and about the potential for terrorist attacks on nuclear plants. “Images of exploding nuclear bombs gave me nightmares as a child,” admits Cravens, who is also an excellent novelist.
Armed with her curiosity as well as her misgivings, Cravens embarks on a long and patient odyssey to the front lines of the nuclear energy debate, talking to scientists, touring uranium mines and coal-fired plants, reviewing the vast public literature about nuclear power, which all too often includes a shameful number of errors and misrepresentations. She believes that in a power-hungry world that only grows more ravenous every day, not considering nuclear power as a prime energy source means further endangering the planet from the chokehold of greenhouse gases. Nuclear energy may not be ideal, but it also may not be quite the devil we think it is.
In The Age of Unreason, Jacoby joins the grand tradition of authors such as Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts, angrily eloquent cultural critics who refused to swallow the notion that “visual literacy”—film, TV, video games—is the intellectual equivalent of reading a classic novel. Jacoby’s contribution is to figure out where the train jumped the track, to trace how the progressive Enlightenment values of rationality, devotion to the scientific method and tolerance of freedom of thought unraveled into today’s sorry charade of an empty-headed, circuslike media, declining rates of literacy and infiltration of public policy by religious zealots. As she makes clear, Americans in the 19th century were hungry for insights and challenges; the bedraggled state of the current public arena exists in sharp, sad contrast to the way things used to be. “The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent,” Jacoby states in this cogently argued book, “represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions.”
A brief summary cannot possibly do justice to the depth and complexity of the arguments assembled by these very smart, very determined women. They don’t just throw out opinions and then watch the games begin. They build their cases step by step, fact by fact. Both books are intellectual journeys of the first order. If neither Cravens nor Jacoby is ever quite able to persuade you of the sagacity and timeliness of her ideas—an unlikely possibility at best—still you will not regret having made the trip.
Unlike my Uncle Joe, these authors don’t argue for the sake of arguing. They argue because they believe in what they have discovered, via their research and their interviews with experts and their serious reflections, and they want to share the fruits of their labors. Uncle Joe just wanted to tick me off—and, I am embarrassed to confess, he usually succeeded with ease.
The Age of American Unreason
Power to Save the World