Sunday, 7 June 2009

“The Age of American Unreason”, by Susan Jacoby (Old St. Publishing)

Jacoby-AgeOfAmericanUnreason Dumbing Down & the Future of America and Democracy

In The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby gets to the bottom of a new wave of anti-intellectualism that has saturated American political and popular society. Considering the natures and characters of America’s founding generation – particularly Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams – to suggest that being “an intellectual” is a negative is certainly strange. The United States was founded by a collection of intellectuals the likes of whom have not been seen in decades (if not centuries), yet the current climate is one of acute anti-intellectualism and ideology-infused blindness.

Combining historical context and analysis with contemporary observations, the author dissects an America that is decidedly at odds with its history and the Enlightenment ideals on which it was founded. Jacoby first walks us through a brief overview of her appraisal of America today, taking in such topics as the prevalence of a-literacy in American adults, a lack of scientific knowledge, “the absence of curiosity about other points of view”, and how combined these have led to the political popularity of the “common man”, “average Americans” and McCain’s bizarre pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.

“The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints, or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent, represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions.”

After this quick, very strong contemporary chapter, Jacoby takes us through the various key ages of American intellectual history. At this point the book remains interesting, but it loses some of the impact of the introduction and first chapter (before picking up again in chapter eight). She first discusses the age of the Founders up until the Civil War, when the aforementioned “polymaths” reveled in wide-ranging and diverse study and pursuits. Moving on from there, the author takes us through the years between the Civil War and World War I (and the popularity of social Darwinism – only by another name); the Red Scare of the inter-war years (which bears a considerable amount of blame for American public’s suspicion of intellectuals); the post-war increase in “middlebrow” interests, which the author remembers fondly; the sixties (“unquestionably [a] favourite whipping post”) and seventies.

She also explains the key, consistent, foes of intellectualism and abettors of anti-intellectualism – namely religion and television. Jacoby has a particular objection to television’s impact on attention spans. Fundamentalist religious beliefs (but not more liberal denominations) and obstacles to intellectual freedom and growth are particularly targeted for rebuke: “Regardless of how fundamentalists fine-tune their beliefs, there is unquestionably a powerful correlation between religious fundamentalism and lack of education” (true outside of the US, too).

Of particular annoyance for Jacoby is that many who toe a fundamentalist line frequently “are as ignorant and poorly educated about the particulars of religion as they are about science.” The “Other Sixties”, when religious fundamentalists began their campaigns and proselytizing to help bolster their particular goals, went largely unnoticed in suburbs, where it was taken for granted that religion and the politics of education were separate, and teaching evolution in schools was not in the least controversial. With the marginalisation of once mainstream Protestantism, and the rise in affiliation with stricter Southern Baptism (1980s), which led to Reagan’s victory and open courting of the religious right, things started to change. During this chapter (eight), there is little doubt that the author believes American religious fundamentalists have done a considerable amount of damage to the United States. Things that mattered in the opening decades of the United States weren’t really of great import, but in today’s world they are considerable. For example:

“creationism, which denies the most critical scientific insights not only of the twentieth but of the nineteenth century, has adversely affected public education in many areas of the nation and is one important reason why American high school students know less about science than their contemporaries in Europe and Asia.”

The Age of American Unreason is a very well-written book. Jacoby has a style that is both intelligent and easily accessible at the same time – avoiding all the negative stereotypes certain members of the conservative side of American politics are fond of throwing about. However, she does have a tendency to quote from some obscure authors or thinkers, which don’t always add to her argument or position.

Despite it being obvious that many of her arguments are based on observations of the political right, she is equally unsparing of the political left, and also scathing of the deleterious effect of “infotainment” and the “dumbing down” of American society and culture. Curiosity for varied opinions and points of view is, according to Jacoby,

“essential to the intellectual and political health of any society. In today’s America, intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike, whether on the left or right, tend to tune out any voice that is not an echo. This obduracy is both a manifestation of laziness and the essence of anti-intellectualism.”

What the author has to say is frequently relevant to the UK, much to our despair (particularly the rise of a-literacy, the prevalence of infotainment, and a distinct increase in anti-intellectualism), though there is also plenty within about what makes America so unique and equally baffling to outsiders.

Sometimes funny (particularly when decrying the use of the word “folks” in American politics today), scathing and passionate, yet always clear and well-argued, the book is of tremendous value to anyone studying America, or with an interest in its culture. It has the added benefit of being an enjoyable read, even if the pace (and also my interest) does sometimes lull in certain chapters.

A worthy successor to Richard Hofstadter’s excellent American Anti-Intellectualism (which, the author admits, was an inspiration), Jacoby has written an essential, entertaining and lucid indictment of contemporary American (political) culture.

Essential reading.

Also try: Richard Hofstadter, American Anti-Intellectualism (1973); Nicholas Guyatt, Have a Nice Doomsday (2007); Justin Webb, Have a Nice Day (2008); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant (2005); Mark A. Smith, Right Talk (2009)

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