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.