The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby


Four stars, read in July 2017.

The most consistent theme of my experience reading this book was oh my god, if she said this ten years ago, what would she say now?

I have minor differences with Jacoby, but her premise is clearly, demonstrably correct: in whatever our current age is called, almost nothing in American life operates based on reason. We make decisions, as a group, not according to logic but to religious faith or political ideology. Her examination of the way this attitude developed over the past fifty years is absolutely fascinating, depressing, and relevant. And in 2017, it’s a little surreal to read her words and think about how much worse it is than the book even knew.

It begins with a discussion of the way our presidents’ interaction with the people has changed over the past several decades. Chapter one is a fascinating look at the word “folks,” which ties in with the anti-intellectualist attitude of Americans that she addresses in later chapters, wherein politicians, in order to be successful, must basically prove that they are not smarter or more qualified than the average American, and are in fact just “one of the boys” (even if they are women). This is blatantly unreasonable behavior, and though Barack Obama seems to have been a reaction against that trend, we have clearly bounced right back.

One wonders whether any candidate, instead of trying to prove that he or she is just one of the folks, would dare to tell voters that the nation needs not an ordinary but an extraordinary person as president and that one crucial qualification for the nation’s highest office is the intellectual ability to distinguish, in times of crisis and on a daily basis, between worthwhile and worthless opinions.

She addresses the historian Richard Hofstadter’s view of anti-intellectualismthat it is not an end in itself, but rather the byproduct of some other goal, and that most people don’t wake up in the morning saying to themselves, “‘Ah, today I shall torment an intellectual and strangle an idea!'” Jacoby has this response:

There are ways of trying to strangle ideas that do not involve straightforward attempts at censorship or intimidation. The suggestion that there is something sinister, even un-American, about intense devotion to ideas, reason, logic, evidence, and precise language is one of them. Just before the 2004 presidential election, the journalist Ron Suskind reported a chilling conversation with a senior Bush aide, who told Suskind that members of the press were part of what the Bush administration considers “the reality-based community”those who “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” But, the aide emphasized, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that realityjudiciously, as you willwe’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too . . . We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” The explicit distinction between those who are fit only to study and those who are history’s actors not only expresses contempt for intellectuals but also denigrates anyone who requires evidence, rather than power and emotion, as justification for public policy.

(This is the quote that is often attributed to Karl Rove, though he denies it and the journalist hasn’t specified.)

The rest of this chapter discusses the two major spurs to anti-intellectualism that have dominated the past few decades: mass media and “the resurgence of fundamentalist religion.” Mass media in particular, as a historically recent development, goes a long way toward answering the question of why anti-intellectualism is so strong right now. But:

An equally puzzling question is why us. People throughout the world must cope with social, economic, and technological changes that call traditional verities into question, and the empire of mindnumbing infotainment knows no boundaries. Yet the United States has proved much more susceptible than other economically advanced nations to the toxic combination of forces that are the enemies of intellect, learning, and reason, from retrograde fundamentalist faith to dumbed-down media. What accounts for the powerful American attraction to values that seem so at odds not only with intellectual modernism and science but also with the old Enlightenment rationalism that made such a vital contribution to the founding of our nation?

This is what I want to know, and I have to admit that my questions were not fully answered by this book. Jacoby does an excellent job describing the historical and cultural forces that shaped our current attitude, and yes, in a way these are answers. But it’s not enough for me to know how perfectly matched all these forces are, how easily they work together; what I want to know is why Americans, more than anyone else, prefer to believe things that cannot be proven; why they are so easily manipulated by obvious propaganda; why they are so unwilling to accept evidence they don’t personally like. To be fair to Jacoby, I don’t think the depth of my bewilderment on this subject can ever be satisfied, no matter how thorough the research.

In any case, there are a number of things specific to American history that do show a clear path toward where we are now.

Like the simultaneous and often paradoxical expansion of both religious and secular influences in the young republic, the development of American education was characterized by contradictory impulses. A deep belief in the importance of an educated citizenry was entwined with the equally potent conviction that education was too important a matter to be left in the hands of the educated.

In Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, he relates his experience being asked to teach at the College of the City of New York, then brought to court by a conservative religious opposition that ended up preventing him from teaching. “Taxpayers think that since they pay the salaries of university teachers they have a right to decide what these men shall teach,” he wrote. “This principle, if logically carried out, would mean that all the advantages of superior education enjoyed by university professors are to be nullified, and that their teaching is to be the same as it would be if they had no special competence.” It’s the same principle that’s applied to politicians, as well. We couldn’t find clearer examples of the cult of ignorance as described by Isaac Asimov: “the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

And then there’s religion.

In the North and on the frontier, the restless American tendency to found new churches with the manifestation of any new vision in the woods created both liberal and conservative sects. Religious restlessness also produced cultlike, unclassifiable denominations like early Mormonism and, decades later, Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the South, however, religious feeling was channeled almost exclusively into fundamentalism. During the early nineteenth century, as the church became a pillar of slavery and vice versa, devotion to freedom of conscience, exemplified by Madison and Jefferson, was replaced by adherence to ultra-conservative religion dedicated to upholding the social order.

I’ve encountered this idea a few times now in my readings—that modern religion’s primary purpose seems to be maintaining the status quo. In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis discusses housework in terms of women’s traditional role in Western societies, and suggests that real equality won’t be possible as long as our social structure prioritizes profit over . . . well, anything else. I found myself thinking that religion’s “focus on the family”—the nuclear heterosexual family, exclusively—is far more about preserving the status quo than it is about what’s best for actual people. It is not a coincidence that religions don’t seem to know any ways of focusing on the family that don’t rely on oppressive gender roles. The concept comes up in Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great, too; he points out that since the invention of the telescope and the microscope, religion doesn’t provide the explanation for anything anymore, and now pretty much spends its time trying to prevent or turn back whatever progress we’ve managed to make. You have only to listen to Republicans speak for five minutes to see this in action.

The growth of fundamentalist denominations at the expense of mainstream and liberal Protestantism, which began in the fifties, accelerated throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties and gave birth to the Christian right . . . In 1960 the Methodist Church alone had 2 million more members than Southern Baptist churches; by the beginning of the twenty-first century, Southern Baptists would outnumber Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and members of the United Church of Christ combined.

Why is that significant? For one example, there is this result from a 2006 Pew survey:

An astounding 60 percent of white evangelical Christians replied that the Bible, not the will of the people, should shape U.S. law. That point of view was held by only 16 percent of white mainline Protestants, 23 percent of Catholics, and 7 percent of those identifying themselves as secularists . . . These findings are particularly striking because they suggest that nonfundamentalists are losing ground within the evangelical movement itself . . . These people may prefer to call themselves and be called by the more socially acceptable name “evangelical,” but they are in fact hard-core fundamentalists dedicated to the Christianizing of American public institutions.

Astounding is certainly the right word, given that the first words of the First Amendment are “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But sure, let’s have Congress write laws based on the Bible. That is exactly what those words mean.

As tempting as it is to blame everything on religion, unfortunately, our anti-intellectualism and love of irrational thinking extend beyond church walls as well. Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, GMO-vilifiers, and people who keep rocks in their vaginas have spread pseudoscience far and wide, and they didn’t need the Bible to do it.

It is impossible to determine whether nonreligious anti-rational systems of thought are more or less prevalent in the United States than they were fifty years ago. We know that the ranks of fundamentalist Christians have grown because . . . churches keep membership records. We cannot, however, ascertain with any degree of accuracy how many Americans today . . . believe in self-help movements whose results cannot be evaluated in any scientific way; physiological or psychological therapies of unknown effectiveness; or, for that matter, in traditional purveyors of junk thought such as astrologers and psychics. One reason why it is difficult to quantify such phenomena is that they are simultaneously amorphous and pervasive, crossing boundaries that used to place limits on the number of anti-rational philosophies people could encompass simultaneously. New age spirituality, a player in the universe of junk thought since the eighties, is much more flexible than traditional religion and enables its adherents to hold logically incompatible beliefs with minimal psychological and intellectual discomfort.

The lack of religious structure makes these kinds of junk thought even trickier to pin down. Semi-concrete ideas of “God” transform into “the universe,” or even worse, “energy,” and then not only is there no evidence involved, we can’t even be sure we’re all talking about the same thing to begin with.

As the astronomer Carl Sagan notes, real science differs from pseudoscience in that the former “thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one,” while the latter involves theories “often framed precisely so that they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated.” Then, when real scientists refuse to accept a pseudoscientific premise, “conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.”

In the early twentieth century, social Darwinism was “the first mass-marketed wave of pseudoscience,” perpetuated not by the uneducated but by “some of the nation’s leading business tycoons and intellectuals, including Andrew Carnegie [and] John D. Rockefeller.” This particularly catches my attention because I kind of think this “wave” never actually ended. For the last several decades we’ve had the Koch brothers, the DeVos family, and others instead of the Carnegies and the Rockefellers—read Dark Money by Jane Mayer for a lot more information about this—and I don’t know that anyone uses the phrase social Darwinism to talk about their beliefs, but maybe they should. Because isn’t that essentially what American conservatism is now? Plenty of the American population actually does believe that black people are lazier and more sexual and more violent, that Muslims are inherently sinister, that brown people in general are more likely to commit crimes. And they vilify social safety nets, calling them the “nanny state” of “big government.” What they want is a society in which the strong prevail and the weak . . . well, don’t. They never really specify what they think should happen to all the people who didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  

Toward the end of the book, Jacoby returns to the subject of political discourse and the stark differences between the speech of past and present American politicians. It would be easy to accuse her of snobbery here, but I think that would be missing the point. It’s not just about elegance but about a level of effort—both the effort put into crafting the speech, and the effort expected of the public to understand and engage with it. 

The quotes from past presidents and politicians, including Robert Kennedy’s impromptu speech on hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., were almost a little shocking to me, though of course I would have heard them in high school. But it makes sense:

Politicians, like members of the media, are both the creators and the creatures of a public distrustful of complexity, nuance, and sophisticated knowledge. It is almost impossible for people accustomed to hearing their president comment on complicated policy issues with such statements as “I’m the decider” to imagine the pains taken by Franklin Roosevelt, in the dark early months after the nation’s entry into the Second World War, to explain why the armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s first fireside chat after Pearl Harbor came in February 1942, and he had asked Americans to spread out a map during his radio address so that they could follow and comprehend the geography of battle.

She mentions a bookstore owner who, in anticipation of this event, bought 2000 world maps to sell to the public—and every single map was sold by the night of the event. People wouldn’t even have to buy a map today, just spend half a second doing a Google search, and I can’t imagine most of us doing that much.

He had told his speechwriters that he was certain if Americans understood the immensity of the distances over which supplies must travel to the armed forces, “if they understand the problem and what we are driving at, I am sure that they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin.”

This would be an absurd thing for a current president to think about the American public. It expresses a trust that, to be honest, I was surprised to learn ever existed in American politics—though I suppose it’s proof that the way things are now truly is not normal. It’s hard trying to learn about politics when you’re young; no one you ask is going to give you an objective answer, so without having been there yourself, you don’t know whether something is unusual or just how it’s always been. When I was attempting this about ten years ago, in the mid-2000s, it was a lot more ambiguous, but I suppose now we can actually thank Donald Trump for clearing things right up. We can see now the way Republicans have been paving the way for him for years with their regressive anti-equality stance, the way divisions between the parties have become far more important than policy or compromise or actual governance. And for some reason, the fact that our representatives refuse to do their jobs does not stop us from reelecting them

The end of this post is difficult for me, because it needs a conclusion and precisely what’s so frustrating about all of this is that I don’t know what conclusion there is to draw. The world is an unreasonable place, the United States possibly more so than anywhere else. And there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it. When people are impervious to evidence, there’s no way to reason with them. And the lack of reason in our cultural consciousness is why we have this book.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I missed this when you posted it, but I don’t know why. I think you nail it for me when you talk about the first mass-marketed wave of pseudoscience, led by business tycoons and intellectuals, not having ended. The rise of the self-made man and the technocrat, instead of producing a fairer society with equality of opportunity, has instead created an elite that believes it knows better, is driven by self-interest, and uses misinformation and a ‘man-of-the-people’ blind to con people into thinking maintenance of the status quo is everything, without revealing that the status quo is damaging to the majority. It’s a clever trick to be an expert and maintain your hold on power by convincing people through your everyman facade that experts aren’t to be trusted. The Conservative Party in the UK is full of such types. The data analysts behind the EU Referendum Leave campaign and the Republican Presidential campaign understand the fear felt by white people in the west that they are losing their privilege, and play on it by telling us that we are the victims and only they understand us. Add to that the fact that liberals who can use their reason choose not to accept that conservatives will allow themselves to be played like that, because we all exist in bubbles of like minded people these days. We don’t want to debate. We don’t want to be challenged. We want to pretend that, if we keep believing what we believe and refusing to interact with people who think differently, everything will come good in the end. It’s the end game of capitalism and neoliberalism. The incapacitating of people through complacency. Universal education was a mistake, the elites now realise, because it enables people to think and reason, and empowers them to act. This is why we’re seeing an active destruction of the education system. In Britain we’re experiencing a rejection of the comprehensive system in favour of faith schools, academies, free schools run by parents, and it’s all to shore up the power of the elite who invariably attend public schools, for which the only entrance requirement is whether a child’s parents are well connected and can afford the fees.

    I love this post, by the way. I want to like it 100 times. Instead, I’m going to reblog it and tweet it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Miri says:

      Thank you, Jan! This really is an excellent book. You’re exactly right about “an elite that believes it knows better, is driven by self-interest, and uses misinformation and a ‘man-of-the-people’ blind to con people into thinking maintenance of the status quo is everything, without revealing that the status quo is damaging to the majority.” That is what’s happening on so many fronts, from gun control to abortion to social safety nets to health care, and yes, to education – by actively dismantling the system and sabotaging the whole concepts of education and reason through ideological anti-intellectualism. It’s incredibly discouraging how effective a tactic this is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jan Hicks says:

        I can’t find a copy in my local library or the city library. I might permit myself to buy it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Weezelle says:

    This is one of the most thoughtful and well written posts I’ve read in a long time. I find it comforting that not only are there ‘academics’ writing about this, but people in America agree and are reflecting on it. Those living outside of America know that lots of people are very unhappy about Trump, but I don’t see a lot of space given to this kind of self-reflection of the more expansive state of the nation. So well done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Miri says:

      Thanks, Weezelle! No, Americans as a whole certainly aren’t known for self-reflection. It’s actually frustrating that Trump is so personally offensive, because people focus their hatred on the easy, meaningless target of his cartoon persona—the hair, the hands, the playground insults—instead of the horrific policies, people, and ideas he’s putting in place. Differing ideologies aside, one thing people seem to share is a preference for melodrama over substance. Which I suppose is exactly why these blatant campaigns of misinformation are so endlessly successful.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Jan Hicks says:

        Coincidentally, The Observer today has an investigative piece by Carole Cadwalladr about the data analyst behind the UK Vote Leave campaign. Cadwalladr makes clear that it was an intellectual exercise for him about how far he could harness technology to swing a vote, and not in the least ideological. The perfect partner for a bunch of the richest people in the west who wanted to swing the vote in their own interests.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Jan Hicks says:

        And this is an earlier piece by Cadwalladr that makes the link to the Trump election campaign The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

        I’ll stop now before I start to look like a conspiracy theorist!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Weezelle says:

        You’re so right about the way the substantive issues are deflected by his appearance. If that’s a conscious strategy, it is pure genius.


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