With the primaries in full swing, Americans are discussing the “issues” more than most usually do in an effort to decide which candidate should be given the honor and challenge of stewarding the republic. But how much do issues or the people we appoint to address them really matter if our intellectual capabilities as a society are impoverished? Can our leaders pass cerebral muster? And even if they can, who would be able to tell? The problem of the declining American intellect is addressed, at times with a sharp eye for novel developments in devolution and at others with a frustratingly partisan slant, in Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason.
Jacoby acknowledges her debt to historian Richard Hofstadter from the start, as more than a few of her accounts of what she views as our shared history of stupidity parallel his 1963 Pulitzer Prize winner, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. That isn’t to say she is repackaging Hofstadter as much as she is augmenting his narrative. Jacoby’s most salient contribution is to have taken each era in our history and drawn out those developments that bear most directly on the current state of affairs — most specifically, the new age of infotainment.
Jacoby addresses a great many issues, from the role of religion in politics to what she deems “junk thought” — a specialized form of often politicized ignorance proffered by both the lazy and the ideological, the left and the right. But she is at her strongest when she’s charting the decline of printed words and of Americans’ desire to possess and consume them. From her descriptions of life in the days of the founding all the way up through those of the mid-20th century, an unmistakable theme arises that reaches its clearest expression in Jacoby’s account of “middlebrow culture.”
During the heyday of the middlebrow, Jacoby recounts, a group of institutions came into being which facilitated the upward cultural mobility of those living outside the influence of urban cosmopolitanism and highbrow education. Things like the Book of the Month Club and the Encyclopedia Britannica were vehicles of information that opened minds to a larger world, but they were especially noteworthy because they signaled a high watermark in what she christens “the culture of effort.” Not only were Americans more likely to value and pursue an expansion of their knowledge in subjects like art, politics, and history, the medium of print is structurally significant since print media cannot affect one who does not make the effort to pick up a magazine, book, or encyclopedia. This is not the case today.
Herein lies the most compelling distinction Jacoby draws between then and now, as she contrasts the era of the middlebrow with the current age of visual, video, and infotainment. The strange aspect of our new predicament is that video media now make up a significant component of our habitat as human beings. Nobody, including Jacoby, wants to argue that the viewing of internet videos and television is compulsory. It isn’t that we’re forced to consume video and TV culture; it’s that we are now in a position where one must develop a mechanism that chooses to modify our habitats — an act that itself requires some exertion of effort. But it’s clear that, far from promoting resistance to the hegemony of the visual and passive, many are doing precisely the opposite. Jacoby points to trends such as the fawning over the Baby Einstein concept, which reinforces rather than disrupts the uninterrupted flow of images that increasingly accepts infotainment as environment.
One of the most disappointing things about The Age Of American Unreason is that it could have spent more time speaking to these pressing and current issues, since Jacoby offers a conceptual coherence absent many rants about cultural decline and “the media.” Instead, these novel and exciting forays into the new are punctuated by less coherent, less compelling attacks on elements of American political culture such as McCarthyism, neoconservatism, the most recent Bush administration, and the war in Iraq. This is not to say that there is no place in a study of American unreason for criticizing the persons, events, philosophies, and policies that one deduces are unreasonable. But it is the bias of partisanship more than the bias of reason that seems to guide many of these parts of the book.
One example of this is the position that Jacoby takes against Allan Bloom as she attacks his interpretation of the movements of the 1960s. Bloom’s seminal polemic The Closing of the American Mind falls squarely in the lineage of the history of unreason to which Jacoby is contributing. As such, one might expect to hear, in addition to her disagreements with his feeling that most student protesters in that era of social activism were lazy and drunk on their own power, a simultaneous recognition of kinship with Bloom’s project. Perhaps even a veneration of some of Bloom’s more graceful insights — of which there are plenty — would have been in order. Instead, Jacoby informs us, after quoting one of Bloom’s less becoming opinions, that she can think of no better example of why the right is never to be taken at face value in their discussion of the 60s. How does this logic work, one wonders? Would it be equally acceptable to take a claim about the 60s from a left-wing author with which one agrees and derive from its supposed truth the conclusion that one can think of no better reason to always trust the left?
Jacoby doesn’t entirely fail to criticize the left. She recalls time spent in the Soviet Union that made her understand and appreciate American liberty. She admits that the left has politicized junk science and fostered trends within academia that serve to trample over reason and quell healthy debate. She notes, in particular, certain strains of feminism. But how, one wonders, can there be a discussion of American unreason that fails to confront the wooly-headed postmodern philosophy that dominates literary theory classes and much political discourse of the left? Noam Chomsky managed to say that the British journalist and blogger Oliver Kamm’s criticism of him showed that he was complicit in state crimes — this from a man touted so often as “the world’s greatest living intellectual.” Scan the index for mention of Chomsky’s name and you’ll find nothing.
For an author who possesses such rare and welcome indignation and distaste for the forces of religious reaction, Jacoby’s failure to confront more comprehensively the rather complicated fact that the most strident opposition to the world’s most venomous form of religious totalitarianism has come not from the left but from the American right is also problematic. Chapters of her book could have been devoted to parsing the conservative arguments against Islamist terrorism, many of which sometimes fail to show any respect for reasoned argument or Enlightenment principles. Likewise, there are gutters teeming with leftist apologists for holy violence that constitute some of the most frightening and degenerative affronts to the intellect that U.S. society has seen since the stubborn Stalinists of the 20th century.
Jacoby is fond of asking how a person living in America today can know X and not Y, how they can value things so valueless while failing to appreciate the most precious — but mostly how they can fail to criticize glaring transgressions against reason and good sense. Great questions, but they might be posed to her as well: the track record of the American left in recent years has blemishes at least as hideous as those of the right, but that track record is not met with nearly the bluster that she gives to what she repeatedly refers to as “the right wing.”
The repetition of these words wouldn’t be nearly so disturbing if they weren’t so common in the text and if they didn’t so outnumber the appearances of “left wing.” One gets the sense that, for Jacoby, referring to something as “right wing” is an epithet, which is a problem for anybody hoping to approach a book like this for a sober assessment of what wrong turns America has taken since its inception as one of the grandest — and most successful — experiments of the Enlightenment. As one who is generally disowned by “the right wing” for being a snarling liberal and by “the left wing” for being a neocon apologist for imperialism, I have always taken a great refuge where category is concerned in Robert Conquest’s recommendation that, rather than beating worn-out steeds to death, we should forget about left and right and seek a United Front Against Bullshit. Jacoby’s book most certainly offers invaluable ammunition to this Front, but there are unfortunately times where it feels more like an attempt to revive those horses and ride them into the partisan sunset. In those moments, the book seems to miss its own point, leaving the Front to once again lament its frustrating dearth of firepower.
Josh Strawn is a writer and musician based in New York. His band is Blacklist.