The Age of American Unreason
(Pantheon, 356 pages, $26)
Reasonable men may debate whether we need another book testifying to the dumbing down of America. On my bookshelf I find several titles addressing the topic from both sides of the aisle: Jacques Barzun’s House of Intellect, Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain, Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life, the more recent Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Their lure is strong and undeniable.
As is the promise of discovering some new evidence of or insights into our culture’s alleged hostility toward intellectual pursuits. Just don’t expect to find any in Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.
“American is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism,” Ms. Jacoby asserts. I’ll go along with that, though it’s not like this strain is a new discovery.
Ralph W. Emerson remarked upon it in 1837, when, in “The American Scholar” he observed that, “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” In his study of Celtic folkways in the Old South, Grady McWhiney tells how northern and European visitors to the southern states were amazed at that culture’s disdain of Victorian morality, the WASP work ethic, and, especially, book learning.
Arguably the cultural battle between elite, lettered Yankees and rowdy southern crackers commenced when Andrew Jackson challenged John Quincy Adams for the presidency in 1828 and won.
As Michael Graham notes in Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War, despite temporary setbacks in the War of Northern Aggression and Civil Rights Movement, the hillbillies have been winning ever since.
JACOBY’S TESTIMONY that Americans are hostile to intellectual pursuits includes their denial of global warming (I mean global “climate change”), the teaching of intelligent design, the prosecution of the Iraq War, (though not the Afghanistan War) and a general disdain for the word “intellectual.”
You see the thread here. These are items long atop the conservative agenda. That’s because for Jacoby anti-intellectualism in American Life is synonymous not with — as McWhiney or Hofstadter would have it — the southern cracker culture, but with conservatism.
Jacoby complains that conservatives “have turned the word intellectual into a dirty word,” particularly conservative intellectuals like Tom Wolfe who once quipped that “an intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who only speaks out in others,” or Richard Posner who said that “a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot.”
Of course, the word is good enough in and of itself. It is rather the clowns who masquerade as public intellectuals — the Chomskys, the Naomi Kleins, the Gore Vidals — who have dragged a perfectly fine word through the muck.
A video-playing teenager educated at a locally controlled public school (another bane to Jacoby’s existence) could easily refute her thesis. And that is the problem with the book. For a supposedly serious study, the thing has no balance. No symmetry.
Thus the task happily falls to her book’s many critics. As the reviewer Carlin Romano has pointed out, it is to America where the world’s smartest and wealthiest send their students. America receives the lion’s share of Nobel Prizes. New York, not London, Paris or Cairo, is the literary, cultural as well as financial capital of the world.
Not only are there more television channels appearing each year, but the number of new books published in the U.S. increases annually. There were 291,920 new titles and editions published in 2006.
AS THE AFOREMENTIONED titles by Barzun and Bloom indicate, cultural conservatives too have genuine concerns about the state of American culture. But while some may fret about video games and girls going wild, they are likely to blame liberal social engineering failures and abandonment of traditional mores for our cultural ills.
Jacoby (author of a history of atheism) pins the blame chiefly on fundamentalist religion and resurgent anti-rationalism. Resurgent, because in the ’50s — that decade that is usually demonized and vilified for its bland, mindless conformity — was on the contrary, the golden age of middlebrow culture, before rock and roll usurped jazz, before TV went brain dead, and millions of bourgeois Americans read the Book of the Month.
According to the author, it wasn’t the rise of the ’60s and ’70s counter-culture, but the Reagan Revolution and its evangelical allies that are to blame for this latest round of anti-intellectualism.
Jacoby, not surprisingly, is unable to see the contradictions in her own deeply held convictions. Here is an elitist who envisions an egalitarian society. She longs for a more democratic, Jacksonian nation, but she also expects it to be peopled not by the rednecks who voted for Jackson, but the enlightened litterateurs who voted for John Quincy Adams (and lost).
Like all liberal snobs, Jacoby dutifully admires the poor and the working man, but cannot abide their colossal ignorance, their petty superstitions, their techno-savvy, their bigotry, and worse, their anti-intellectualism. Ultimately, one leaves this book with the suspicion that the only “folks” — to use a word the author rails against ad nauseum — the author can stomach are folks like herself, e.g., Upper Middle Class Overly Educated Atheists.
Jacoby claims she started out to write part two of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Instead of a scholarly study of American culture she produced this bitter 356-page rant.
Now turn off your computer and go pick up a book, you big dummy.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.