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Book Review: The Age of American Unreason: Updated Post-Election Edition By Susan Jacoby

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“An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex.”
— Aldous Huxley

In a book destined to strike at the heart of the good ol’ American ego, Susan Jacoby examines the drift of anti-intellectualism in The Age of American Unreason.

The book was originally published in February of 2008, but went back to press and has returned with an updated and revised “post-election edition.” The restructured edition features a new introduction and afterword, highlighting the impact of Barack Obama and John McCain’s oft-moronic election processes, Sarah Palin, and the propensity of those on the left and the right to tune out “any voice that is not an echo.”

Jacoby’s endeavour to start discussion about why more Americans favour American Idol to learning about the world around them is commendable. In asking if Americans are antagonistic to knowledge, she runs the risk of ruffling more than a few feathers.

But one would have to be exceptionally ignorant not to see an increasing tilt towards the anti-intellectual and the anti-rational. The “empire of infotainment” dominates a redundant 24-hour news cycle, the rise of fundamentalist religion threatens the very fabric of the education system, and American resistance to the elite and the intellectual distressingly verifies Jacoby’s position.

The public has stupidly sneered at “eggheads” for quite some time in the United States, often adding the ludicrous stipulation that one can be “too smart.” The Everyman is idolized, while the scientist is left to putrefy and die alone (doubtless as a virgin).

When a 2006 National Geographic survey discloses that six in ten Americans age 18-24 cannot locate Iraq on a map, something is wrong. When, according to the National Constitution Center, one in four Americans cannot name any First Amendment rights, something is wrong. When the same survey by the National Constitution Center reveals that 62% of Americans cannot name the three branches of government, well… you get the idea.

Jacoby’s book adeptly recognizes the dilemma, names it, and sets out to scrutinize it with the meticulous designs of a scientist looking to get at the heart of the matter. Her exploration of the “dumbing down of America” isn’t political; both the right and the left have played a historical role in the encroachment of anti-intellectualism.

Richard Hofstader’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life argued that the major asset of liberal society (not “liberal” in the political sense, but rather in the sense of being tolerant and concerned with liberty of thought) was that it allowed for the prospect of a variety of styles of intellectual life.

But today’s America, in its unruly fear of The Other, seems to miss the boat on differing thought. Jacoby tells us of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The pair argued often and acrimoniously, despite their respect for one another. “You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote Jefferson in 1815.

Yet in today’s America, with the internet and an unparalleled array of media choices that potentially carry myriad other opinions and ideas, the average citizen is less informed and less engaged in public discourse than ever. The enticement to find commentary and a dense account of the day’s events is mouth-watering for many. With views reinforced via FOX or MSNBC, Huffington Post or Drudge Report, the citizens are free to move about the cabin.

Jacoby does her best to unbuckle the reasons for this refusal to think.

In The Age of American Unreason, she cites two critical “enemies” principally to blame for the rise of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism: the media and fundamentalist religion.

The first chapter explores the way in which Americans are addressed by politicians in a hilarious and frank indictment of “folks.” Jacoby cites President Bush’s insistence on using the expression, whether referring to “homeland security folks” or “innocent folks.” The chapter rips through the lack of linguistic and cultural resourcefulness, using the “folksy designation” as a clever starting point to an invective that rolls through everything from Baby Einstein to the Left Behind series.

With the footing set, Jacoby sets off to study the issues methodically and to hopefully resolve their evolution. She examines the rise of fundamentalist religion and the Second Great Awakening, the use of pseudo-sciences like social Darwinism, the Red Scare and the Old Left intellectuals, “middlebrow culture,” the '60s, and youth culture.

The Age of American Unreason is broad in its scope, but the message is vital. Jacoby is learned, crisp, droll, and resolute. She can come across as snobbish, ostensibly thumbing her nose at anything that exists for the purposes of gratuitous entertainment, but there is stability to her message and a patient, bright reader will find much to aspire to.

Jacoby doesn’t wish for Americans to plainly do away with American Idol and to pick up Dickens, but she does urge for a broader understanding of the world, its history, its art, and its intellectual culture. There is nothing to fear from knowledge, understanding, clarity, and opposing views. With The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby urges Americans (and the rest of us) to take the plunge, reject the infotainment culture out of hand, and explore everything this amazing world has to offer.

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