U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jacoby and Buckley

Rather than respond directly to two of Tim’s previous postings, I thought I would start a new thread. Tim noted the publication of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, a work of cultural criticism touching off from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963. Jacoby is a journalist but she brings a strong historical sensibility to this book. Like Tim, I have not yet actually read the book, but Jacoby was in town (Grand Rapids, Michigan) last week, giving a talk before the local chapter of the Center for Free Inquiry, and I was able to hear her summarize her ideas.

She really does seem to be channeling Hofstadter and other mid-twentieth-century New York Intellectuals who, among many other traits, evinced a certain disdain for the mental life of the middle class. Given the McCarthyism they loathed, they had some reason. Jacoby adheres to this tradition, decrying our dumbed down public culture, full of “junk thought” (she was not over-generous with examples in her lecture) and other types of sloppy reasoning. In fact, she argues, we are not just disdainful of intellectuals, as Hofstadter claimed so long ago, we are positively anti-rationalist these days, with two many people ready to chuck all laws of logic and evidence. She attributed our current plight to: 1. Television; 2. Fundamentalism; and 3. Poor schools.

All well and good, I suppose, as far as it goes: Even Al Gore has gotten into the act in his latest book describing the unreasonableness of much of our public discourse. Neil Postman must be some kind of godfather to this movement, as he long ago argued that we were becoming a TV-addled public.

I was struck when Jacoby suggested her membership in a “saving remnant” of those committed to reason. (I presume the Free Inquirers making up the audience all belong, too.) The root of the phrase is biblical, but I immediately thought of the late William F. Buckley, who, among other postwar conservatives, was shaped by the phrase in the 1950s. He learned it from Albert Jay Nock; it was bandied about in the 1920s and was favored by Matthew Arnold as well.

So—Jacoby linked my thoughts to Buckley: Jacoby’s talk did partake of a New York intellectual elitism of an earlier era, and this connection reminded me of the convergence of many modernist intellectuals with this aspect of Buckleyite conservatism. Buckley was a flat-out elitist—famous for his anti-intellectual denunciation of Harvard elites but himself exuding a disdain for the popular mind, which in the 1950s, seemed so enthralled with empty-headed (in Buckley’s view) liberal nostrums. Even as late as the 1990s, when I saw him lecture, Buckley was still ringing variations on this theme, condemning a jury of commoners who awarded a large financial settlement to a woman scalded by some very hot McDonald’s coffee.

Of course, in profound ways, as a traditionalist Catholic and capitalist apologist, Buckley spent his life attacking modernism. It would be interesting to see just how much of the National Review, Buckley-style conservative intellectualism represented a conscious repudiation of the relativist and ironist literary modernism so current in the New York literary circles Buckley disdained and avoided. I suspect that Buckley’s worldview and that of his associates was fundamentally shaped by a reaction against this form of modernism. An additional irony: Many of the same liberal intellectuals were deeply attracted to the antimodernist conservatism – traditionalist, skeptical of reason, wary of the masses – that held a place of honor in the rickety “fusionist” conservative amalgam that National Review fabricated.

I came to think that Jacoby is perhaps conflating anti-rationalism with an ignorant public, a public more content to amuse themselves in front of a television entertainment than to attend a lecture. There really is no reason to think that this mass audience is anti-rational—in fact, a spate of relatively recent “reader-response”-type media studies (published in the 1980s, in any case) found the complacent public to be anything but that—eager to hold forth on what they saw on TV and to debate it with family and friends. Thus, liberals, out of the insecurity born of marginalization, too often dismiss their absent audience as anti-rational.

Buckley and friends, of course, were not long ignored, finding an following across the nation and in unlikely corners of middle America, such as the small coffee klatches of right-wing housewives described by Lisa McGirr, for example. They discovered a very rational if deeply anti-liberal public, as many recent historians have proven. Conservatism went populist, and Buckley’s ultimate contribution was not his elitism but his skill as an organizer, strategist, and publicist.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post. My random thoughts:

    I think Jacoby’s disdain for middle-class intellectuals is based primarily on the fact that they elected—and re-elected—Bush. At least this is how it appeared to me during her Moyers interview. She very much dislikes the present administration.

    “Saving remnant,” huh? Is that a quote from the talk? Does Jacoby really see herself as one of Plato’s “Guardians”? Well, he did include the possibility of women holding some of those posts. I had sensed elitism through the reviews and the Moyers interview, but I didn’t suspect it would rise to the “saving remnant” variety. Bummer.

    My view of Arnold, from my own close reading of Culture and Anarchy, is that he was not so much disdainful of the middling sort, but rather a subset of that class: the Philistine, business-oriented cohort. If Arnold was an elitist, he was of a different variety.

    I agree that Buckley was basically attacking American modernism. I’m upset with myself for not making that very Catholic connection earlier.

    Is there such a thing as conscious and unconscious anti-rationalism? It seems yes, but by nature of the terminology I would say that most is unconconscious. The real question is not whether people are ignorant: all of us are ignorant of ~some~ things. The question is whether ignorance is celebrated in the United States.

    If it is, we’re certainly anti-rational. I personally know of some cases of where this is sadly true.

    If not, then I believe our education system—including informal channels—is at fault. I tend to think that in the U.S. we associate education too strongly with youth. Not enough of us, as our years increase, acknowledge our ignorance. When that happens, we’re sort of reveling in ignorance and we’re anti-rational. – TL

  2. Excellent post Paul. I would agree with Tim that Jacoby’s notion of rationalism seems a close correlative of voting Democratic. If this is the case, then her thesis seems an intellectual variant of Thomas Frank’s political argument in _What’s the Matter With Kansas_. Frank argues, in a nutshell, that working-class citizens in Kansas vote against their economic interests by voting for the Republicans, which is just plain wrong since Democratic and Republican economic policies have proven to be mirrors of one another in this, another superficial party system era. Actually, perhaps the Kansas voters are more rational by voting Republican since at least their leaders give them the emotional release found in irony-free celebrations of nationalism.

    By contrast, if Jacoby is arguing that the entire political and intellectual culture is structured in irrational ways, then she might be on to something. I guess we should read the book!


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