Beyond Reason


By Susan Jacoby
384 pages. Pantheon. $26.

In The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby’s sweeping critique of American “ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism,” Jacoby paints a bleak picture of a nation whose intelligence is pitched somewhere between Homer Simpson and Jessica Simpson, a dumbed-down, info-obsessed, can’t-find-Iraq-on-a-map culture of ignorance where “evolution” is a dirty word and Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? is prime-time distraction.

It’s enough to make you crave an episode of Sex and the City for the sweet release it would bring.

On the other hand, Jacoby, who calls herself a “cultural conservationist” (as in, preserve yesterday’s culture; throw out today’s), has produced a vivid, engaging history of American anti-intellectualism. But she’s also written a brief championing a secular-minded—i.e. curious and enlightened—citizenry. Infusing American Unreason is the belief that America loses ground when it abandons the Enlightenment ideals—skepticism, the pursuit of worldly knowledge—of its founders. “These values belong at the center, not in the margins, of the public square,” Jacoby claimed in Freethinkers, her elegant history of secularism in America. Secular values inform American Unreason as well. Today, Jacoby writes, “the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to a functioning democracy.”

But first things first. Is Jacoby right? Is the U.S. really experiencing a Great Dumbening?

The answer would seem to be a resounding “Duh.” Jacoby cites the “perfect storm over evolution,” as well as the death of literacy, the “decline… of live conversation,” our microscopic attention spans, poor concentration—etc., etc. How did the birthplace of the Bill of Rights become the home of Creationism and Bill O’Reilly? Put another way, how did a nation with 40 words for “dork” (dweeb, nerd, egghead, snoot, Poindexter—Jacoby names them all) become so boldly, willfully stupid?

The answer is complicated, but suffice it to say that America has a rich anti-intellectual tradition. As Jacoby writes, “Suspicion of highbrows… has always been a part of the American psyche.” But not just “suspicion”: From the 18th century onward, intellectuals were smeared, and frequently found themselves in situations they couldn’t think their way out of. In the 1950s, the HUAC hearings both engendered and fed on “suspicion of liberal intellectuals.” In the 1800s, faux-scientific theories were legion (“social Darwinism”—ideology cloaked as science—was an especially pernicious strain). By the 1960s, the stigmatization of liberal intellectuals as effete, elitist snobs had begun… by conservative intellectuals.  

Somehow, American soil seemed to nurture these hostilities. Why? One cause was the simple yet biblically tinged notion that “knowledge itself could be a dangerous thing.” Other reasons were more Freudian. “Darwin’s theory of evolution… tapped into a vague resentment most people feel toward experts on whom they depend but whose work they do not understand,” Jacoby writes. Meanwhile, intellectuals didn’t always help their own cause. Like pesty grad students, they stridently claimed “to know what is best for society,” often “by virtue of having read more books than the average person.”  The New York Intellectuals were a case in point, Jacoby argues, stewing in “their own importance and the importance of their twenty-year-old political and personal feuds.”

This is fascinating history, though it’s mostly prologue to more recent intellectual trends. Jacoby covers a lot of ground quickly. Regarding the 60s, which saw the rise of pop culture (the Beatles: charming but not so intellectual), her feelings seem to roam between disgust and nostalgia (and sometimes both at once). Either way, that decade laid the groundwork for the 70s, when leftists sought to dislodge the canon—the vessel for the Western intellectual tradition. The resurgence of fundamentalist religion (which began in the 60s and carried into the 70s) was a blow to both secular intellectuals and more “liberal intellectual trends within churches themselves.” “Like William Jennings Bryan and his followers… the new fundamentalist generation was also saying no to intellectualism and modernism,” Jacoby writes. Fast-forward to the present day’s fundamentalist presidency. Jacoby’s favorite sign of intellectual decline is the Bushism “folks.” (As in, “I’ve been in contact with our Homeland Security folks…”) “Folks” is a vector for stupidity, Jacoby writes: hear it once and you’ll start using it. Moreover, it’s a symptom of “the debasement of everyday speech”—itself a sign of the “coarsening” of American culture.

From “folks” to William Jennings Bryan, Jacoby casts a wide net. An earlier chapter includes a eulogy for middlebrow book culture (we’ve traded Tom Wolfe for US Weekly, essentially). And a later chapter contains a blunt, funny dismissal of nearly every form of attention-sapping media, from TV (all dreck) to the ‘net (vile medium) to video games (please) to iPhones (don’t get her started). As Jacoby has it, today it's "more insulting to call someone a Luddite than to call her a cheat, a drug addict, or a slut."

Jokes aside, though, this is a serious work, with a scholarly bent and an aversion to ideology. Jacoby’s style can be self-consciously overwrought (her metaphors tend toward the epidemiological: “Folks” is “a plague”; dumb expressions are a "virus"; coarse language is a "low-level toxin”), but this isn’t a screed, or a list of Things that Irked the Author when she Sat Down to Write.

Jacoby leaves us with the notion that “we, as a people, have become too lazy to learn what we need to know to make sound public decisions.” Which brings up my one quibble with American Unreason. The dumber we get, the more we hear about it, but to what end? In a coda, Jacoby herself seems to realize that there’s little to gain from a frank, but pessimistic, assessment of American intellectual life. It leaves you wondering just what might have been gained had Jacoby poured her efforts into, say, solving the Iraq war, rather than lamenting the stupidity that got us into it.