The Age of American Unreason
By Susan Jacoby
(Vintage, 384 pages, $15.95 paper)
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM in Washington about Sarah Palin is that she lacks intelligence and curiosity. This, coming from a city that considers Vice President Joe Biden to be a foreign policy statesman despite his severe diarrhea of the mouth. Supporting Palin was, to these critics, an act of antiintellectualism. That’s a pretty smart way of saying, “You disagree with me, and I’m on the side of smart people. Ergo, you’re dumb.”
Other than George W. Bush, who would want to be anti-intellectual? Just think about it: Somewhere, at this very moment, somebody is being stupid, probably even someone you know and love. In fact, generally the people you know and love have probably done more stupid things that you’re aware of than people you don’t know. (If you’re ever asked about your association with them, just say you’re doing community service. People will admire you for your charity.) In her snooty history of American anti-intellectualism, The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby documents stupidity as an ongoing historical trend. Turns out, Americans are really good at sniffing out smart folk and trying to run’em out of town. Jacoby is one to talk. She has written an entire book sniffing at people she considers her inferiors.
The book is reminiscent of a famous 1972 line by essayist Pauline Kael. Shocked at Nixon’s victory in 1972, Kael explained why it seemed so implausible: she said no one she knew voted for him. This line is almost like a sociological study showing that stupidity is the greatest characteristic among those who are not Pauline Kael. I’m not going to give you the numbers, but I should be emphatic on this point: there are a lot of people who are not Pauline Kael.
Admittedly, it wasn’t a study any more than Jacoby’s book has balance. This is provincialism wrapped up in the worst force multiplier: arrogance. It is the worst because it discards any dissenting voice not just as incorrect but unreasonable and stupid. Very intelligent people do this all the time (See also Jacoby, Susan), and the irony is that it reveals their own brand of social stupidity. The physicist Richard Feynman once said that you have to be ruthless in trying to prove yourself wrong just so that you can be evenhanded.
Jacoby even recognizes that evenhandedness is a virtue. In her introduction, she praises Richard Hofstadter as a “consensus historian”:
I was struck by the old-fashioned fairness of his scholarship—not the bogus “objectivity” or bland centrism” that always locates truth equidistant from two points, but a serious attempt to engage the arguments of opponents and to acknowledge evidence that runs counter to one’s own biases.…Fairness was taken for granted as a [sic] ideal for aspiring young scholars and writers during the first half of the sixties.
This is pure myopia. At the time of Hofstadter’s prominence, academia was a grueling, competitive place compared to where we are now. The very process that forced “fairness” to become a virtue in the first place, peer review, has become intellectually bankrupt in light of the stunning lack of intellectual diversity in college faculties. There’s also no longer a consequence for professors who are unfair. If intellectuals are the vanguard of a society, one that shapes public thought, Jacoby is loath blame them for the coarsening of discourse. The culprits lie elsewhere.
She’s convinced, after all, that we’re pitted against each other in a world governed by “loud and relentless voices of single-minded men and women of one persuasion or another.” (This is hardly a new development. European monarchs were pretty loud and relentless, except they would then start wars that had harsher consequences and higher necklines than an MSNBC shoutfest.) Jacoby laments that Americans are not considering what “the flight from reason has cost us as a people,” and how ignorance affects every issue. For example, she open-mindedly continues, “Americans are alone in the developed world in their view of evolution by means of natural selection as controversial.” Aha! It’s the fundamentalists who have done this to us!
Only two paragraphs after emphasizing the importance of fairness, she immediately ties fundamentalism (which she emphasizes as “again, unique in the developed world”) to what she terms “antievolutionism.” Yet it’s people such as Richard Dawkins and others who argue that “natural selection” necessarily rules out the role of God, since random mutation must be random and cannot be guided by any force. Including God. Is it fundamentalist for a Christian of no particular denomination to find fault with such an overbroad statement that it’s not possible for even God to design something? And are they really objecting to evolution when they express such a criticism?
To Jacoby, it all looks the same to her, because it’s not rooted in reason, it’s based on faith. And faith is unreasonable, at least if we’re to believe any theologian or if we are to watch a sermon by Reverend Jeremiah “Chickens! Coming home! To roost!” Wright. Jacoby’s liberal provincialism seeps into every aspect of this book, and she lacks a sense of proportion. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, for example, she remarks that it “bruised the nation’s ego,” prompting Americans to place value on intellectuals for “both national defense and bragging rights.” Well, it also signaled to the U.S. that an imperialistic nuclear power had the ability to enter space, and worse, the U.S. could not.
In fact, her approach to the intellectual fascination with Communism is a strange dance. While clarifying it better than liberals typically can, she still notes that it was “for most, only a brief flirtation” one that elicited a “resentment resembling the fundamentalist response to intellectuals who promoted evolutionism.” Never mind that the revolution that attended the birth of the Soviet Union was a particularly bloody and frightening one, a theme that would continue in that country and those it annexed for most of the century. To associate one self with that crowd, and publicly, ought to raise a certain amount of concern among passerby. This is too broad a brush for Jacoby’s taste, and so she finds the intellectuals wronged by the prejudice of the masses.
THERE ARE SOME DOOZIES IN HERE. Jacoby finds Unitarians are more reasonable than Methodists, and that the latter religion really only thrived on account of the (false) comfort it provided to people living in the harsh frontier. She finds the lack of formal education among whites in the south unconscionable, assuming that they didn’t feel the need to on account of being “better” than blacks. (This likely had more to do with their parents needing them to help on the family farm.)
In other words, Jacoby, on balance, is imbalanced, offering conjecture where some more research would have done fine. But what could we have expected? This is the Age of Unreason, after all.