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 (
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
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
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.