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The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby

(Knopf)

Is the United States an anti-intellectual country?


Many think so. The notion probably unites people who worry about such things in friendly places like Italy, Britain and Germany, in nations that routinely oppose American interests, such as China and Russia, and in outright enemy territory, such as Iran.


Add the vote of American intellectuals such as Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason, and arguably that of the great historian Richard Hofstadter in his far subtler classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), and you might wonder how anyone, anywhere, could disagree.


But one could. Where might the hunt for counterevidence begin?


Perhaps among all those international elites who send their children to U.S. universities because they view our academic institutions as the best in the world.


Or with those foreign publishers who compete each year to grab rights to American books, knowing their own readers prefer work produced here to anything besides that of native writers. A third stop might be to members of Nobel Prize committees, who award more big checks to Americans than to any other nationality.


The issue, in short, is complicated. And the greatest flaw of The Age of American Unreason, a spirited, provocative polemic by a veteran freelance journalist and author who writes books on weighty subjects usually handled by professors (e.g., justice, the history of secularism), is that it feeds the notion of American anti-intellectualism as a no-brainer truth.


“During the past four decades,” Jacoby asserts in her introduction, “America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.


“This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.”


Enter Jacoby as Paul Revere. She regards herself as a “cultural conservationist, committed, in the strict dictionary sense, to the preservation of culture.”


Jacoby’s examples of “junk thought” or “junk culture” encompass an enormous range: religious fundamentalism (her chief bete noire), intelligent-design theory, video and digital culture, iPod cocooning, celebrity infotainment, local control of education, book packaging, innumeracy, youth culture, expert-bashing, the Baby Einstein videos, Social Darwinism, the anti-vaccination movement.


Yet if Jacoby were a more nuanced thinker, she’d be less abusive and more explanatory. Many secular thinkers, after all, grasp that religious thought persists not because believers are stupid or can’t reason, but because concepts like God, faith and design possess logical peculiarities that make it impossible to disprove religious beliefs without prior agreement on how one defines terms.


Jacoby, however, instead of viewing the rich debate between American secularists and believers as proof of our intellectual vibrancy, sees a dumbed-down culture in which rationalists fail to silence believers with muzzles authorized by the Enlightenment.


That perspective unfortunately indicates Jacoby’s general bent. Her specific likes and dislikes emerge not from the solid reasoning she advocates, but from a mishmash of name-calling, confusion between intellectual activity and America’s “genteel tradition,” and unconvincing links between modern communication technologies and “unreason.”


Her style of argument often amounts to hitting the clip file or Google, piling up thrice-told tales of putatively vulgarized culture, then sarcastically inviting the reader’s repelled reaction without examining whether the examples she lays out prove her point. Anti-rationalism, she argues, is not understanding the difference between factual evidence and opinion, but Jacoby’s own judgment about which evidence counts for which assertions is often unconvincing.


For example, she angrily contrasts the use by today’s politicians of the word “folks” with the “dignified, if not necessarily erudite, speech” of older statesmen such as FDR. “To keep telling Americans that they are folks,” Jacoby writes, “is to expect nothing special—a ratification and exaltation of the quotidian that is one of the distinguishing marks of anti-intellectualism in any era.”


But is “folks” really debased language? Leaving aside Jacoby’s own violations of purist usage, she appears oblivious to how her linguistic snobbery clashes with the pragmatism she reveres in bygone thinkers such as John Dewey and William James. If Jacoby delved deeper into their work, she’d find that they considered focus on “the quotidian” a fine description of a philosopher’s first duty before moving on to reform whatever’s wrong with the quotidian.


Jacoby’s exaggerated claim that modern American culture “leaves no room for contemplation or logic” reflects her rhetorical instinct to leap beyond careful reasoning while not catching defects in her own approach. Her book’s overall argument underwhelms because she stacks the deck. She takes the forums of cultural life she disdains—dopey TV reality shows, formulaic drive-time radio, fragmented Internet discourse, and newspapers that pander to lowest-common-denominator tastes—as the markers of American intellectual life. She simply won’t accept that, for American intellectuals, life is elsewhere.


In a nation that boasts more educated people, college graduates, books sold and general literacy than ever before, intellectually oriented people patronize institutions that pay attention to sophisticated print culture—universities, colleges, Web sites, publications, radio shows—and dump those that aim at bottom-level taste. It’s telling that Jacoby piles on The Da Vinci Code and The O’Reilly Factor while ignoring NPR and BOOK-TV. The latter play the same role in the “edifice of middlebrow culture” as many of the media for which she’s nostalgic (e.g., Saturday Review), but because she insists that edifice has “collapsed,” they don’t exist in her inventory.


“It is possible that nothing will help,” Jacoby writes ruefully in her last chapter. “The nation’s memory and attention span may already have sustained so much damage that they cannot be revived. ...”


On the contrary. Jacoby needs to get out of her apartment, stop seething about “junk,” and parlay her books into a professorship. That might introduce her to students—a species with whom she seems unacquainted—who reject her senior-citizen notion that “reading for pleasure ... is in certain respects antithetical to the whole experience of reading on computers and portable digital devices.”


American intellectuals don’t waste their time reading about junk, and neither should Jacoby. Ensconced at a first-class university or college, she’s likely to find that her “Age of American Unreason” never happened.

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Tagged as: susan jacoby
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