U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason gave me hope that the definitive statement for which I had long been waiting had finally arrived. Despite the current academic celebration of popular culture as a tool of resistance to the hegemony of American capitalism, I have difficulty seeing the prevalent concern over American Idol results, Barack Obama’s flag pin or Miley Cyrus’s shoulder as evidence of anything other than the idiocy of our national discourse. This sense is bolstered by my experience in the classroom, where the biggest impediment to introducing critical thinking to young minds is the fact that students themselves often see little value in questioning the conventional wisdom, which has provided them with text messaging, reality television and the other most important parts of their lives. Jacoby, I had dared to dream, would succinctly and rigorously slaughter the sacred cow of American self-congratulatory anti-intellectualism.

Apparently others were equally excited. The book’s release prompted a flattering profile of its author in the New York Times, and on this very blog, Paul Murphy and Tim posted on aspects of the book. Both of my colleagues, however, admitted that that they had not read it; presumably they, like me, were excited about the topic and the advance buzz. (The Times writer, Patricia Cohen, characterized Jacoby as one who is speaking unpleasant but necessary truths. “She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. ‘I expect to get bashed,’ said Ms. Jacoby.”) Unfortunately, after having read the book, I can only hope that the fate of reason in American life is in better hands than Jacoby’s, because her book functions more as personalized invective than reasoned cultural criticism.

I have two particular concerns with this book. The first is that Jacoby’s ire is disproportionately aimed at conservative examples of “unreason.” The first chapter, for example, is on the debasement of language in U.S. culture. Focusing particularly on the increased use of the term “folks,” she notes that “there is no escaping the political meaning of this term when it is reverently invoked by public officials in twenty-first-century America.” (3) The implication suggested by this way of speaking is, of course, that there are some of us who are “folks,” and others–presumably intellectual and cultural elites–who are not. Yet the populist worldview articulated by this rhetorical trope is much more strongly representative of a conservative cultural orientation than a broader American one. By criticizing it, Jacoby comes across as taking sides in an argument rather than, as she intends, offering a criticism of the debate itself. Another example concerns what appears to be Jacoby’s bête noire (it comes up repeatedly throughout the book): the fact that the settled scientific consensus over evolution can actually generate a controversy. This issue, she writes, “owes its existence not only to a renewed religious fundamentalism but to the widespread failing of American public education and the scientific illiteracy of much of the media.” (22) Again, the challenge to evolution comes exclusively from the right.  Criticizing it, therefore, clearly constitutes an argument against a specifically conservative form of anti-rationalism.

To be sure, Jacoby takes on liberalism for its anti-rational tendencies as well. But her chief targets on this score–the blindness to the evils of Stalinism in the 1930s and 1940s, and the anti-intellectualism of the campus revolts of the 1960s–happened an awfully long time ago. The accumulated weight of Jacoby’s examples suggests that she views conservatism as the prominent force responsible for the contemporary “dumbing down” of America. If Jacoby wanted to make such an argument, she certainly could have–probably with some success. But that would have resulted in a different, and less important, book that the one that she claims to have written. Instead, she implies that “unreason” is primarily a conservative phenomenon, without providing enough evidence to justify such a conclusion; the overall impression is that Jacoby finds anti-rationalism where others might see political disagreement. (While Jacoby seems to identify with a certain strain of crochety “Great Books” cultural conservatism, and never specifically identifies herself as a political liberal, it is nonetheless difficult to imagine, for the reasons given here, that she is not one.) As a result, she compromises her own credibility as an authority who can diagnose the nation’s intellectual ills.

My second beef with the book is that many of Jacoby’s own observations–often in the form of asides–are every bit as unreasoned as those found on a political blog or cable talk show. At one point she declares that “anyone who says that he or she was unmoved by Armstong’s walk on the moon is either lying or was stoned at the time.” (218) In another passage, Jacoby laments the fact that American political life defines intellect and education as a liability.

Facing off against both Gore and Kerry, Bush was seen by a majority of voters as more of a ‘real person.’  Perhaps Kerry’s fate was already sealed weeks before the election, when a majority of undecided voters told pollsters that Bush was the kind of man they would rather have a beer with (if Bush could stop at just one) than Kerry.” (286)

Jacoby’s irrelevant, petty and ad hominem attack against a recovering alcoholic hardly rises above the standards set by the anti-rational and anti-intellectual culture she criticizes. Similarly styled comments are peppered throughout the book, and they significantly impugn the author’s qualifications to judge the standards by which reasoned discourse should take place.

One might compare this book to recent “God-bashing” works from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, which have produced no shortage of secularists who wish they had not been written. (Perhaps tellingly, Jacoby’s last book, Freethinkers, is a history of secularism in the United States.) Similarly, I tend to think The Age of American Unreason is right in most of what it says, but its unsupported biases and frequently snide tone make it a poor standard-bearer for a movement that would increase the status of reason in American cultural discourse.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I just started listening to the book on tape. The first chapter, which focuses on the debasement of our language seems–like a lot of essays arguing that the language has become debased–to be based on some fairly questionable research.

    To take three of Jacoby’s examples:

    1) The proliferation of the word “folks” in our political language.

    Jacoby suggest that this is something entirely new, but her core evidence for this is the suggestion that presidents wouldn’t have used this word until very reasonably, an assertion backed up largely by quoting extensively from FDR’s Fireside Chats. Certainly presidential oratory has changed a lot over the years (and FDR had a lot to do with those changes, even if he never used the word “folks”). I’m entirely prepared to admit that presidents themselves didn’t use the word “folks” until fairly recently. But it’s certainly played a part in our political language.

    A quick search of the New York Times archive from 1900-1950 receives 18,327 hits, including, for example, a January 12, 1900 editorial entitled “Bryan and Atkinson?” which begins: “The anti-imperialists appear to have clasped hands with the silver folks.”

    And American political culture in the New Deal era, which Jacoby seems to praise, was full of celebrations of demotic speech (see, for example, John La Touche and Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans”).

    2) The use of “troop” to indicate an individual soldier, which Jacoby dismisses as simply incorrect and probably the result of some military official deciding that “soldier” was too masculine to describe both male and female members of the military.

    As far as I can tell, Jacoby’s explanation is pure speculation (though the printed version of the book might have notes that are not available to me).

    A quick search of the OED shows that “troop” has a long history as a slang term denoting an individual member of the military (the earliest citation is from the 1830s). The OED feels that the origin may be as a shortening for “trooper,” a term for an individual soldier that goes back to the 17th century.

    My guess (and it is only a guess) is that the use of the term “troop” for “soldier” is an instance of a term moving from military slang to civilian usage, like the use of “GI” for a soldier during WWII. And I have a hard time seeing “troop” as any more debasing than “GI,” a term that really does suggest (ironically) that a soldier is an object.

    3) Jacoby suggests that the the phrase “I laughed all the way to the bank” (which she declares to be nonsensical) is a recent, debased corruption of Liberace’s much funnier quip that he “cried all the way to the bank” when critics attacked him.

    “I cried all the way to the bank” may indeed be funnier than “I laughed all the way to the bank,” but Liberace was reported as saying both versions during the 1950s. According to the New York Times, the “I laughed” version was originally reported in a 1954 issue of TV Guide. “I laughed…” is not a recent debasement.

  2. A slight correction to my comment above:

    “Jacoby suggest that this is something entirely new, but her core evidence for this is the suggestion that presidents wouldn’t have used this word until very recently….”

  3. Thanks for posting on this Mike. I am currently reading Jacoby in my spare time, and am 3 chapters in. I agree that the book deserves serious criticism, especially from historians, since she makes grandiose claims about the history of unreason (or anti-intellectualism) in the United States, and yet she willfully ignores anything written on the topic by a historian since Richard Hofstadter. She at once sees herself as carrying on the spirit of Hofstadter, which is fine, but also seems to think, by implication, that nothing of value has been offered on the topic since Hofstadter. (Again, I am only 3 chapters in, so perhaps she addresses recent historiography in later chapters.) Let me give two examples, drawing from educational and religious history, which she treats in similarly formulaic fashion.

    Along educational lines, she acts as if Adolphe Meyer, who’s _An Educational History of American People_ was published in 1957, had the last word on nineteenth century educational history. Thus, her rendering of this complex history boils down to a black-and-white morality tale between the forces of reason who seek to educate the illiterate masses, and the forces of ignorance, who resist formal education because they are, well, ignorant (or because their leaders dupe them into remaining ignorant). Never mind that, as numerous historians since 1957 have shown, people often resisted formal education for other reasons, including class, since the educational bureaucrats of the 19th century trying to get children in schools shared the class and regional background of those trying to get workers in factories. To grasp such a fundamental argument, Jacoby needn’t have dealt with recent historical literature, averse to it as she seems. She could have read and digested the arguments made by Michael Katz in his 1968 groundbreaking work, _The Ironies of Early Education Reform_.

    In terms of religious history, again Jacoby attempts to stuff square pegs into round holes. She is a master of ahistorical and anachronistic thinking. For instance, she refers to all evangelicals across US history (or, all non-moderate, non-“mainline” Protestants) as “fundamentalists” who prioritize religious doctrine over scientific evidence in their understandings of the world. She notes that the term “fundamentalism” did not come to be used until the twentieth century, but maintains its appropriateness for describing the religious and secular beliefs of nineteenth century Americans, failing to recognize that the etymology had an historical rationale, that is, it came into being when a sizable group of religious leaders did in fact question religious fundamentals.

    As such, again, she makes simple that which is paradoxical, and thus religious history becomes another story of good versus evil, or rather, rational versus irrational. The good, rational people are those who adjust their religious beliefs to the ever-changing modern world (mainline Protestants), the bad, irrational people are those who maintain a religious absolutism (“fundamentalists,” Mormons, Catholics, etc.) Again, never mind that many of Jacoby’s so-called fundamentalists sought God as a form of resistance to Mammon. (And what about abolitionists such as John Brown? Was his religiously absolute opposition to slavery so irrational? If so, let us all be so unreasonable.)

    Had Jacoby nodded to recent historiography, such as the brilliant and controversial work of Charles Sellers (_The Market Revolution_) she might have, at the very least, been compelled to grapple with the fact that debate exists on these historical issues. Reasonable and rational people have cause to disagree vehemently with her narrative.

    Jacoby’s problem is that she replicates Hofstadter’s mistakes by conflating political and religious differences with psychological abnormality. And yet she fails to replicate Hofstadter’s qualities, namely, taking history seriously on its own terms, not merely as clay to be shaped to narrow contemporary pursuits. If Hofstadter stands for historical paradox and complexity, Jacoby stands for ahistorical simplicity. And there’s nothing rational or intellectual about that.

    Cheers. Andrew

  4. Mike, I’m not defending Jacoby’s book (which I have not read), but I’m curious. You say: “By criticizing it[the populist worldview], Jacoby comes across as taking sides in an argument rather than, as she intends, offering a criticism of the debate itself.” Can someone take sides in a debate and still be doing cultural criticism? Didn’t Hofstadter take sides?

  5. That’s a good call, but the “as she intends” is a very important part of the statement. I think either approach is legitimate, but confusing the two can be intellectually disingenuous.

    I don’t want to get bogged down in a term that I might have used rather haphazardly, but I would say that “cultural criticism” takes as its subject the undercurrent of thought that can be said to represent the assumptions of a significant number (and establishing that number is always the hard and controversial part) of people in that culture. If you’re criticizing the ideas of a certain subset of people, then (in this context) you’re essentially writing political commentary. Both styles of writing have their merits, but they require different kinds of evidence, and I think readers evaluate their claims differently.

    Jacoby, on my reading, is trying to have it both ways. Her self-presentation as a disinterested cultural critic allows her to argue that the people with whom she disagrees are not just wrong, but anti-rational. That is her point: that there are no “two sides” on, say, the scientific merits of evolution, and it is only scientific ignorance that allows this debate to continue. (As a pragmatist, I always reject this claim: there are two sides to any issue on which significant numbers of people take opposing positions.) This is the same kind of argument that Sam Harris makes with regard to the existence of God: since no reasonable standard of evidence could support such a belief, religion has a place in the public square only by dint of a special pass, of sorts, that he does not believe it should receive. Harris’s point is inherently inflammatory, and he writes in a correspondingly aggressive manner.

    Jacoby’s point about American ignorance of science is not nearly as controversial, and she goes out of her way to make it so. Can one talk about scientific ignorance without placing the politically- and religiously-charged evolution controversy at the center of one’s narrative? I think so. In fact, one could argue that a lack of awareness over evolution, which is not terribly likely to affect a middle school student’s future, is actually a pretty bad example of the horrors of scientific ignorance. But a book filled with more relevant evidence about the decline of scientific literacy (lower test scores and the like) and why this is bad (high tech jobs fleeing the country and so forth) is not nearly as sexy as one lambasting those who take positions on the issues of the day.

    On the other hand, Jacoby could have written a book that more explicitly argued that Republicans and socialists are stupid and wrong. It would take its place next to all the books like it: from Eric Alterman, Paul Starr, Peter Beinart, etc. But Jacoby claims to be doing something significantly different from this. In the final analysis, however, I don’t think she is. If she did not make that claim, I think I would not have the problems I do–but I also never would have read the book.

    As for Hofstadter, David is absolutely right that he did “take sides.” And he has been fairly criticized over and over again for pathologizing those whose views he found politically disagreeable. Also, I find him to be far more upfront about claiming that the “paranoid style” and anti-intellectualist tendencies about which he wrote were right-wing phenomena. That, in my view, gives his work greater import and rigor.

  6. Mike and Andrew,

    I’m sad to learn that you both have found the book to be—ahem—less than scholarly. I’m not sad because I wanted her to be right, but rather because I wanted her to be rigorous. I hoped to see Jacoby point out places in our public discourse where reason or detailed argumentation might’ve led to progress rather than stagnation or regress. It’s a shame that she either did not do this, or didn’t do it enough.

    Mike, you wrote: “While Jacoby seems to identify with a certain strain of crochety “Great Books” cultural conservatism, and never specifically identifies herself as a political liberal, it is nonetheless difficult to imagine, for the reasons given here, that she is not one.”

    Thank you for attempting to couch your great books association with “certain strain” and “crochety.” I know a number of social and political liberals here in Chicago who are fans of the great books idea. Perhaps it’s just the case that in the heart of great books country there exist many varieties of great books enthusiasm? But having the term “great books” attached to your outlook (or hobby list), in my experience, is no guarantee of your intellectual temperament or political affiliation.

    I do sense, from my research, that lovers of the great books are not generally also lovers of unreason. On that grounds alone it might not hurt our culture to more closely embrace some version of the great books idea (whether purely Western or not).

    – TL

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