Age of American Unreason

Age of American Unreason

by Susan Jacoby

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A cultural history of the last forty years, The Age of American Unreason focuses on the convergence of social forces—usually treated as separate entities—that has created a perfect storm of anti-rationalism. These include the upsurge of religious fundamentalism, with more political power today than ever before; the failure of public education to create an informed citizenry; and the triumph of video over print culture. Sparing neither the right nor the left, Jacoby asserts that Americans today have embraced a universe of “junk thought” that makes almost no effort to separate fact from opinion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597227933
Publisher: Gale Group
Publication date: 08/06/2008
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 660
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

SUSAN JACOBY is the author of eleven previous books, including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism and Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. Her articles have appeared frequently in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and in forums that include The American Prospect, Dissent,and The Daily Beast. She lives in New York City. For more information, visit

Read an Excerpt

The Way We Live Now: Just Us Folks

The word is everywhere, a plague spread by the President of the United States, television anchors, radio talk show hosts, preachers in megachurches, self-help gurus, and anyone else attempting to demonstrate his or her identification with ordinary, presumably wholesome American values. Only a few decades ago, Americans were addressed as people or, in the more distant past, ladies and gentlemen. Now we are all folks. Television commentators, apparently confusing themselves with the clergy, routinely declare that “our prayers go out to those folks”—whether the folks are victims of drought, hurricane, flood, child molestation, corporate layoffs, identity theft, or the war in Iraq (as long as the victims are American and not Iraqi). Irony is reserved for fiction. Philip Roth, in The Plot Against America—a dark historical reimagining of a nation in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election—confers the title “Just Folks” on a Lindbergh program designed to de-Judaize young urban Jews by sending them off to spend their summers in wholesome rural and Christian settings.

While the word “folks” was once a colloquialism with no political meaning, there is no escaping the political meaning of the term when it is reverently invoked by public officials in twenty-first-century America. After the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005, President Bush assured Americans, “I’ve been in contact with our homeland security folks and I instructed them to be in touch with local and state officials about the facts of what took place here and in London and to be extra vigilant as our folks start heading to work.” Bush went on to observe that “the contrast couldn’t be clearer, between the intentions of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who’ve got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.” Those evil terrorists. Our innocent folks. Even homeland security officials, who—one lives in hope—are supposed to be highly trained experts, cannot escape the folkish designation. All of the 2008 presidential contenders pepper their speeches with appeals to folks, but only John Edwards, who grew up poor in North Carolina, sounds as if he was raised around people who actually used the word in everyday conversation. Every time Hillary Rodham Clinton, brought up in a conservative Republican household in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago, utters the word “folks,” she sounds like a hovering parent trying to ingratiate herself with her children’s friends by using teenage slang.

The specific political use of folks as an exclusionary and inclusionary signal, designed to make the speaker sound like one of the boys or girls, is symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards. Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls (unless the victims are, in fact, little girls and not grown women). Look up any important presidential speech in the history of the United States before 1980, and you will not find one patronizing appeal to folks. Imagine: We here highly resolve that these folks shall not have died in vain . . . and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth. In the 1950s, even though there were no orators of Lincoln’s eloquence on the political scene, voters still expected their leaders to employ dignified, if not necessarily erudite, speech. Adlai Stevenson may have sounded too much like an intellectual to suit the taste of average Americans, but proper grammar and respectful forms of address were mandatory for anyone seeking high office.

The gold standard of presidential oratory for adult Americans in the fifties was the memory of Roosevelt, whose patrician accent in no way detracted from his extraordinary ability to make a direct connection with ordinary people. It is impossible to read the transcripts of FDR’s famous fireside chats and not mourn the passing of a civic culture that appealed to Americans to expand their knowledge and understanding instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator. Calling for sacrifice and altruism in perilous times, Roosevelt would no more have addressed his fellow citizens as folks than he would have uttered an obscenity over the radio. At the end of 1940, attempting to prepare his countrymen for the coming of war, the president spoke in characteristic terms to the public:

"Tonight, in the presence of a world crisis, my mind goes back eight years to a night in the midst of a domestic crisis . . . I well remember that while I sat in my study in the White House, preparing to talk to the people of the United States, I had before my eyes the picture of all those Americans with whom I was talking. I saw the workmen in the mills, the mines, the factories; the girl behind the counter; the small shopkeeper; the farmer doing his spring plowing; the widows and the old men wondering about their life’s savings. I tried to convey to the great mass of the American people what the banking crisis meant to them in their daily lives.

Tonight I want to do the same thing, with the same people, in this new crisis which faces America. . . .

We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to the task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war. . . .

As president of the United States I call for that national effort. I call for it in the name of this nation which we love and honor and which we are privileged and proud to serve. I call upon our people with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed."[1]

Substitute folks for people, farmer, old men, and widows, and the relationship between the abandonment of dignified public speech and the degradation of the political process becomes clear. To call for resolution and a spirit of patriotism and sacrifice is to call upon people to rise above their everyday selves and to behave as true citizens. To keep telling Americans that they are just folks is to expect nothing special—a ratification and exaltation of the quotidian that is one of the distinguishing marks of anti-intellectualism in any era.

The debasement of the nation’s speech is evident in virtually everything broadcast and podcast on radio, television, and the Internet. In this true, all-encompassing public square, homogenized language and homogenized thought reinforce each other in circular fashion. As George Orwell noted in 1946, “A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”[2] In this continuous blurring of clarity and intellectual discrimination, political speech is always ahead of the curve—especially because today’s media possess the power to amplify and spread error with an efficiency that might have astonished even Orwell. Consider the near-universal substitution, by the media and politicians, of “troop” and “troops” for “soldier” and “soldiers.” As every dictionary makes plain, the word “troop” is always a collective noun; the “s” is added when referring to a particularly large military force. Yet each night on the television news, correspondents report that “X troops were killed in Iraq today.” This is more than a grammatical error; turning a soldier—an individual with whom one may identify—into an anonymous-sounding troop encourages the public to think about war and its casualties in a more abstract way. Who lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Troop? It is difficult to determine exactly how, why, or when this locution began to enter the common language. Soldiers were almost never described as troops during the Second World War, except when a large military operation (like the Allied landing on D-Day) was being discussed, and the term remained extremely uncommon throughout the Vietnam era. My guess is that some dimwits in the military and the media (perhaps the military media) decided, at some point in the 1980s, that the word “soldier” implied the masculine gender and that all soldiers, out of respect for the growing presence of women in the military, must henceforth be called troops. Like unremitting appeals to folks, the victory of troops over soldiers offers an impressive illustration of the relationship between fuzzy thinking and the debasement of everyday speech.

By debased speech, I do not mean bad grammar, although there is plenty of that on every street corner and talk show, or the prevalence of obscene language, so widespread as to be deprived of force and meaning at those rare times when only an epithet will do. Nor am I talking about Spanglish and so-called Black English, those favorite targets of cultural conservatives—although I share the conservatives’ belief that public schools ought to concentrate on teaching standard English. But the standard of standard American English, and the ways in which private speech now mirrors the public speech emanating from electronic and digital media, is precisely the problem. Debased speech in the public square functions as a kind of low-level toxin, imperceptibly coarsening our concept of what is and is not acceptable until someone says something so revolting—Don Imus’s notorious description of female African-American college basketball players as “nappy-headed hos” is the perfect example—that it produces a rare, and always brief, moment of public consciousness about the meaning and power of words. Predictably, the Imus affair proved to be a missed opportunity for a larger cultural conversation about the level of all American public discourse and language. People only wanted to talk about bigotry—a worthy and vital conversation, to be sure, but one that quickly degenerated into a comparative lexicon of racial and ethnic victimology. Would Imus have been fired for calling someone a faggot or a dyke? What if he had only called the women hos, without the additional racial insult of nappy-headed? And how about Muslims? Didn’t Ann Coulter denigrate them as “ragheads” (a slur of which I was blissfully unaware until an indignant multiculturalist reported it on the op-ed page of The New York Times).[3] The awful reality is that all of these epithets, often accompanied by the F-word, are the common currency of public and private speech in today’s America. They are used not only because many Americans are infected by various degrees of bigotry but because nearly all Americans are afflicted by a poverty of language that cheapens humor and serious discourse alike. The hapless Imus unintentonially made this point when he defended his remarks on grounds that they had been made within a humorous context. “This is a comedy show,” he said, “not a racial rant.” Wrong on both counts. Nothing reveals a lack of comic inventiveness more reliably than the presence of reflexive epithets, eliciting snickers not because they exist within any intentional “context” but simply because they are crass words that someone is saying out loud.

Part of Imus’s audience was undoubtedly composed of hard-core racists and misogynists, but many more who found his rants amusing were responding in the spirit of eight-year-olds laughing at farts. Imus’s “serious” political commentary was equally pedestrian. He frequently enjoined officials who had incurred his displeasure to “just shut up,” displaying approximately the same level of sophistication as Vice President Dick Cheney when he told Senator Patrick J. Leahy on the Senate floor, “Go fuck yourself.” As the genuinely humorous Russell Baker observes, previous generations of politicians (even if they had felt free to issue the physically impossible Anglo-Saxon injunction in a public forum) would have been shamed by their lack of verbal inventiveness. In the 1890s, Speaker of the House Thomas Reed took care of one opponent by observing that “with a few more brains he could be a halfwit.” Of another politician, Reed remarked, “He never opens his mouth without subtracting from the sum of human intelligence.”[4] Americans once heard (or rather, read) such genuinely witty remarks and tried to emulate that wit. Today we parrot the witless and halfwitted language used by politicians and radio shock jocks alike.

The mirroring process extends far beyond political language, which has always existed at a certain remove from colloquial speech. The toxin of commercially standardized speech now stocks the private vault of words and images we draw on to think about and to describe everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. One of the most frequently butchered sentences on television programs, for instance, is the incomparable Liberace’s cynically funny, “I cried all the way to the bank”—a line he trotted out whenever serious critics lambasted his candelabra-lit performances as kitsch.[5] The witty observation has been transformed into the senseless catchphrase, “I laughed all the way to the bank”—often used as a non sequitur after news stories about lottery winners. In their dual role as creators of public language and as microphones amplifying and disseminating the language many American already use in their daily lives, the media constitute a perpetuum mobile, the perfect example of a machine in which cause and effect can never be separated. A sports broadcaster, speaking of an athlete who just signed a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract, says, “He laughed all the way to the bank.” A child idly listening—perhaps playing a video game on a computer at the same time—absorbs the meaningless statement without thinking and repeats it, spreading it to others who might one day be interviewed on television and say, “I laughed all the way to the bank,” thereby transmitting the virus to new listeners. It is all reminiscent of the exchange among Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare tells Alice. “ ‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.’ ” The Hatter chimes in, “Not the same thing a bit! Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” In an ignorant and anti-intellectual culture, people eat mainly what they see.


[1] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fireside Chats (New York, 1995), pp. 48-49, 62-63.
[2] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, 76 (London: 1946);
[3] Robert Wright, “Shock Talk Without Apologies,” New York Times, April 14, 2007.
[4] Russell Baker, “Talking It Up,” New York Review of Books, May 11, 2006.
[5] Liberace first used this line in 1957, when he won a libel judgment against the British tabloid Daily Mirror, which published a column calling the entertainer a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” The British court concluded that the article had libelously implied that Liberace was a homosexual (which, of course he was, but there was no proof).

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The Age of American Unreason 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Booknut62 More than 1 year ago
Jacoby's book is a powerful look at the anti-intellectual current that seems to run through our society. As an individual who grew up in the deep South, right smack in the middle of the so-called Bible Belt, her sober look at the idol-worshiping of ignorance and anti-intellectualism, rang true to my own experience. There are many times during my youth when individuals actually boasted about their own ignorance. Jacoby's book for me was a self-affirming vision of my own struggles to climb beyond the close-mindedness of Christian fundamentalism to the freedom found in being able to realize that there are a number of things that I do not know. Jacoby's book is one of those I feel sure I will reread often to gather the bits of wisdom found in its pages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Susan Jacoby absolutely nails anti-intellectualism historically and its reappearance in epidemic form in recent years. She can talk about the Beatles as well as the history of the mind, so she embraces both popular culture and 'highbrow' culture, although she's most concerned with the disappearance of 'middlebrow' culture. This is a brilliant and troubling book, but written with excellent humor and perspective. The farthest thing from a rant.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
This is a stimulating tour of the history of ideas that shaped the United States' intellectual heritage and the social forces that continue to influence it. Susan Jacoby's expansive, provocative book is both personal and exceptionally refreshing. She shows the links among several, major intangible drivers of human behavior - religion, politics, ideology and fundamentalism - and uses them to explain why U.S. society came to devalue reason itself. Her culprits include rising fundamentalism and antiscientific thinking, and an onslaught of superficial stimuli. She doesn't think much of some political leaders, either, for that matter. getAbstract recommends this book to those who care about the U.S.'s intellectual life and the ideas that will shape its future.
Grunt More than 1 year ago
This is a well-written, engaging, and thought producing work which is in turns entertaining, humorous, and enraging. Although it is not as balanced as one might hope (there is a clear political bias at times), no thinking citizen can refute the conclusions drawn here. The main thesis of this book is that Americans, moreso than nearly any other people, are increasingly failing to apply logic and reason to their everyday lives both on the individual and national levels. Ms. Jacoby names several culprits, including the religious right, the ultra-idealistic left, and the ubiquitous video culture, but in the end she lays the blame squarely at the feet of the individual. Each one of us is responsible for the degree to which we have allowed other people to do our thinking for us. This well-researched work traces the history of independent thought in America from the nation's founding. Although it is remarkably thorough, the average reader will have no problem following the arguments regardless of experience with the subject matter. Any thinking person can enjoy this book. In addition to the thorough treatment of the subject matter, this book is enjoyable for the style in which it was written. Ms. Jacoby has a remarkable vocabulary, and her use of language was at least as entertaining as the book itself. One should definitely keep the dictionary close-by while reading. In summary, this is the type of book that thinking Americans should read and discuss. Unfortunately, too many of our fellow citizens will not.
Forester More than 1 year ago
Susan Jacoby in her "Age Of American Unreason" is the Thomas Paine of our time.

I couldn't agree with her more, and she voices the philosophy of any American who uses their brain instead of being a lemming.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very stimulating book about the rise of anti-intellectualism in America. Reading it will make you despair and with good reason. All discourse is now geared toward TV and visual media. Nuance and grey areas are studiously avoided. How are we supposed to say, choose a president when elections are nothing more than a charisma contest? Ms. Jacoby comes across as kind of a grump, but she justifies that grumpiness pretty well. By her lights, only someone with an educational background similar to hers should be reviewing her book. That leaves me out, but I still think it's well worth reading. Challenging.
TulsaTV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found her examination of anti-intellectualism in America informative and persuasive, but she is preaching to the choir. Her overuse of the term "middlebrow" comes off as snobbish, and her indictment of electronic media is light on fact and heavy on personal grievance. These chapters are heavy slogging. The explosion of e-book reading shortly after publication dents her thesis. Another contrary data point: I am told that one of my first spoken words was "Mo", referring to then-ubiquitous TV personality Garry Moore. So you know that I watched beaucoup TV during my childhood. Today, I do a website about local TV. Yet, I have read a huge number of books in my lifetime, including this one.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very weak effort by Susan Jacoby author of the excellent Freethinkers. While her mission and her quest are worthwhile, she relies on anecdotes instead of scientifically gathered information to make her case. Her selection bias is huge, eg she pits a young 21st plagiarist author against a 60's philosopher friend of hers. Her rant against all things modern (video games, TV, cell phones, iPods, rap, blogs, ...) and her abhorrence against changes in grammar and use both obscure the real issue and reveal an unfortunate crazy cat-lady streak. In her youth ... Jacoby is her own worst enemy in getting her message across. She practices exactly what she deplores as junk science and junk reporting.Similar to Al Gore's The Assault on Reason and Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal in intent and approach, a severe case of nostalgia blunt the book's impact and case. The first half of the book continues the theme of the great freethinkers of the 19th century and the countervailing development of fundamentalist religion in the United States. The second half of the book treats the rise of fundamentalism and the erosion of a knowledge culture in the 20th century. But is this really true? Were earlier US generations less religious and more open to science? Was Camelot an age of reason? I don't think so, bur would love to see some data (which Jacoby does not present). In my opinion, she compares the elite of her generation to the current average - which is a mistake. Knowledge has always offered and still offers less prestige in the US than wealth. What you own is more important than what you know. Education in the US is often not a goal in itself but a step in improving marketability (starting salary). The failure of the US education system is amply documented elsewhere. I would categorize US educational failure in three types: Ghetto, Kentucky and Agrestic. The simplest case are inner-city poverty and educational failure (Ghetto), which requires a New Deal package of economic investment, institution building and support. The backwardness of isolated and economically deprived regions (Kentucky, Afghanistan) is probably incurable and only solvable by the demographic flight of the young. As the number of people involved is quite small, it does not merit attention.The most puzzling case is the suburban one (Agrestic), as their knowledge low-balling is not based on economic deprivation but a displacement of conspicuous consumption from education to consumer goods: A beautiful house instead of a beautiful mind. The US is one of few countries where severe lapses of knowledge (Austria/Australia, Shia/Sunni, evolution) are common and do not assign the speaker to the fool's corner. Functional specialization has made it possible to lead successful lives without interacting with the wider world (a return to a medieval pattern), which causes grave problems when politicians have to solve global problems.
nexist on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An entertaining book both erudite and accessible, which today are seldom the same & in fact is the point of the author. She shows how the tendencies of both the left and the right have contributed toward an exaltation of willful ignorance in the US. Be prepared to be angry when you read this book. As it points out all of the things you have been tolerating, you will find your ability to "be reasonable" deteriorating. Stand up for reason.
neurodrew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author is a journalist, and writes very well. She contends that the American public is becoming increasingly unwilling to apply reason to public affairs, and increasingly becoming hostile to experts, scientists and data. She locates most of the fault on the rise of fundamentalist religions in the past 30 years, although also targets diversity programs in colleges, sixties radicalism, the rise of visual media, and the decline of reading. She does review some of the history of a strain of anti-intellectualism in American thought, supposing herself a heir to Richard Hofstadter¿s Anti-Intellectualism in American Thought, published in 1963. It seems her main concern is the rise of fundamentalism and the problems of the Bush administration
yapete on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not bad read, but most of it not too surprising. Unfortunately, most people aren't listening, so things won't change (only get worse).
bingereader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although an interesting work, Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason seems to lack a coherent focus, which is only further marred by the essentially liberal slant. Although I am more liberal leaning myself, I had expected a less political work; in the end, however, Jacoby seems to rail more against the Right and religious fundamentalists than against a sense of unreason and irrationality per se. Although she will sometimes mention the irrational aspects of the left, this a rare occurrence. At times, the book also tends to drag. Perhaps, I am one of Jacoby's generation of video-game playing ADHD types, but I still believe that a book should be able to hold a reader's attention. I generally enjoyed the work, but it was plodding and repetitive at times. Finally, she tends to make sweeping generalizations at times. For example, she rails against the video game industry and the use of electronic media without really considering that these are tools that can also offer other functions. With regard to video games, myself and countless others I know have been inspired by the games we play to learn more about the settings. As an example, playing Age of Empires inspired me to read more about medieval history, while the more recent Assassin's Creed led me to pick up Reston's Warriors of God. And, with regard to the iPod, I have used it frequently to listen to books from and from iTunes. So, though she certainly makes valid points, there are times when her generalizations are far to broad.
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Age of American Unreason is about the dumbing down of the United States in many areas: belief in creationism and in biblical inerrancy, the inability of students to locate countries on a map, widespread innumeracy, civic illiteracy, and the media's promotion of junk science, to name but a few examples. She lays the blame on the video revolution, on the ascendancy of cultural studies in universities, and of course on the religious right.She laments the passing of middlebrow culture, which encouraged non-academics to better themselves with good reading. As a librarian, I'm also sad to see the end of that era, and to see how uninterested the library community is in preserving it. These days, the public library culture is mostly about mass-marketing and giving 'em (the presumably stupid public) what they want, meaning what the publishers tell them to want. Read your James Patterson and like it, you dumb slob, because the library is going to buy 20 copies. Meanwhile, we're discarding our Michener books (Jacoby looks fondly on those fat middlebrow tomes) because they don't circulate enough.
mferg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a book I basically enjoyed. While I agree with her premise, I found at times that I wanted more citations in support of some of her assertions. Without them, her arguments were less convincing.
reannon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had watched Susan Jacoby on a couple of shows promoting this book and have been anxious to read it since, though it wasn't what I was expecting - it was something better. I had expected to be a collection of stories about the decline of knowledge in the country and a plea for change, and it is. By saying that it is something even better, I mean that she gives the reader the context of the current poor state of civic understanding and discourse. Part of the book is an intellectual history of anti-intellectualism in America (neat trick, that) as well as the history of intellectualism, and even of the place the two met for a while, the middlebrow culture of the Book of the Month Club and the Great Books of the Western World series.Not surprisingly, Jacoby sees the key points in the decline of knowledge and understanding to be the decline in reading and in conversation, mostly attributable to the culture of infotainment which began with TV. She explains herself much better than I can, so here is a pretty extensive quote from p. 297:"Liberals have tended to blame the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years and to see an outraged citizenry, ready to throw the bums out, as the solution. While an angry public may be the short-term solution, an ignorant public is the long-term problem in American public life. Like many Democratic politicians, left-of-center intellectuals have focused on the right-wing deceptions employed to sell the war in Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that make serious deceptions possible and plausible - not only about Iraq but about a vast array of domestic and international issues. The general decline in American civic, cultural, and scientific literacy has encouraged political polarization because the field of debate is left to those who care most intensely - with an out-of-the-mainstream passion - about a specific political and cultural agenda. Every shortcoming of American governance, in foreign relations and domestic affairs, is related in some fashion to the knowledge deficit of the American public..."I've believed critical thinking was the answer, but she points out that thinking critically requires some knowledge as well as the habits of rational thought.She does stimulate some curiosity when she talks about that other industrialized cultures don't seem to suffer quite as badly. One assumes it is the educational system that works better, but it would be nice to know if, for example, other countries have lower statistics on amount of television watched. Dare I say it? She needs a blog to answer such questions, a suggestion she would not thank me for.Please read it. Think about it. Discuss it with others. For these things Jacoby would thank you.
theanalogdivide on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm trying to figure out how anyone who didn't already agree with Jacoby's central premise - that the level of discourse in this country has degenerated to anti-elitism, ad hominem attacks and name calling - would have any inclination to pick up this book whatsoever. She lays out a good argument, but it's presented with such a coating of smug self-righteousness, that you realize that this anti-elitism might be completely justified.
nancydotcom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My brother doesn't believe the what, ( 98% of all Scientists?) who've made these studies their life work, about global warming. But he DOES believe what George Carlin, a comedian, says about it. ....... so yes, I think she has something here. The anti-intellectualism mindset in this country is nuts. In this area where I now live, the vast majority of the people are PROUD to be ignorant.
Narboink on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Susan Jacoby gives us a good, clear-eyed view of American intellectual history; particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century. It's not an exhaustive or definitive history, but it neatly contextualizes the current tendency of media (and political partisans) to misunderstand the pedigree of modern political thought. However, in many respects, it's not unlike Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason" and many other self-righteous polemics. Jacoby is at her best when she's exposing the manner by which society's manipulators and profiteers exploit dangerous cultural trends to their own advantage; she's at her worst when she becomes a misanthropic scold willfully ignoring the psychological pathologies that make average citizens vulnerable to the machinations of the market. (Additionally, the stories of her personal literary life are maddeningly self-aggrandizing.)Finally, the book falls apart in the final chapters. Here we are assaulted with the usual parade of statistics meant to convince us of the decline of American education. In addition, she takes wild, generalized swings at the Bush administration without taking the time to contextualize or justify them. While there is undoubtedly truth in her conclusions about the Bush administration, she undercuts her credibility by not taking the time to provide comprehensive explanations of how she arrived at them (and by confusing anecdotes with evidence). Consequently, the last few chapters abandon a scholarly tone and sound more like hyperventilated screaming. It's a decent book, but be prepared to suffer a little.
quantumbutterfly on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is possibly the best book I've read this year. If you're at all shocked at the pride people seem to take in their ignorance, you must read this book. Jacoby has put together a chronicle of American history both showing past desires of the public to be educated, while another portion was content to take part in whatever current trend in anti-intellectualism was in vogue. Where once the public was impressed with a president who put overtly intelligent men in places of influence, now the public seems enamored of candidates who could not even tell you what was in the first amendment of the constitution or locate countries on the map where we are fighting wars.
bkinetic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This books is a survey of anti-intellectualism in America. Jacoby traces the roots of this aspect of American culture and illustrates how it continues. It is especially frightening that ignorance, illogic and emotionalism have managed to be elevated to virtues in popular culture. Effective self-governance in a democracy depends on an educated population capable of making logical decisions based on dispassionate evaluations of evidence, so the anti-rational trends Jacoby describes threaten the basic foundations of a participatory democracy.
Devil_llama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a very good entry into the critical thinking genre, looking specifically at America and the current anti-intellectual currents that reject logic and reason in favor of emotionally charged, fuzzy, feel good argumentation. This book should be in every library around the country.
bragan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this book, Susan Jacoby presents an overview of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in American society. She has some very harsh things to say about modern American politics, and a few harsher things to say about pseudoscience, both of which I believe are fully justified. She also traces the political and religious roots of anti-intellectualism in the past, with a special emphasis on the sixties, and those chapters for the most part strike me as interesting, thoughtful, and fair. Unfortunately, I can't say as much for her discussions of modern media and pop culture, as she all too often wavers from what should be a reasonable examination of the mixed blessings of the Information Age into an only slightly more sophisticated version of, "Stupid rotten-brained kids today with the video games and the YouTube and the inexcusable lack of interest in classical music or listening to me talk about Russian poetry!" I have very little patience with that kind of attitude, and I'm afraid that my annoyance with it colors the entire book in an unfortunate negative light. After all, sometimes "anti-elitism" is a foolish and dangerous belief that just because other people might know more about something than you do, that doesn't make what they have to say about the subject any more valid than your own ignorant opinion. And sometimes, it's a perfectly justifiable dislike of people like Jacoby telling you that if you don't read the same books they do, it means you're stupid. Those two things desperately need to be separated, not conflated more than they already are, and Jacoby is really not helping on that score.Despite my mixed feelings, I do think this is worth reading. But I recommend doing so with a bit of a critical eye.
HollyW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was quite excited to read this book, as I've been a fan of Jacoby's writing in the past, and find the topic to be timely and important. The discussions about elitism, intellectuals, and class divisions that were prominent over the past year in the political landscape made me consider the book with a hopeful perspective - while Obama was widely criticized for his intellectualism, we did, as a people united, elect him into office.Unfortunately, I found one aspect of the book to be quite disappointing. While I think that she made a number of important points, I found her arguments undermined by a broad, un-nuanced generalization of the conservative intellectual establishment. Her unwillingness to engage in a straightforward discussion of how the conservative and liberal groups actually pursue and promote intellectualism made it difficult for me to take some of her arguments seriously. An excerpt provides an example of how she engaged this topic:"By 1980 popular identification of intellectualism with the left was such that the right-wing intellectuals who provided much of the ideology for the Reagan administration were able to advance the fiction - so important first o Reagan the election of Bush the younger - that the so-called elites consist entirely of liberals opposed to old-fashioned American values of traditional religion, unquestioning patriotism, and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. Conservative intellectuals mastered an art that liberals never did : they somehow managed to present themselves as an aggrieved minority even while feasting, as liberals had during the Kennedy administration, at the government trough."I find this to be an inaccurate, and a gross exaggeration. I don't believe that anyone could actually make the argument that The Heritage Foundation, or the American Enterprise Institute, are not obviously intellectually comparatives to the Brookings Institution. She consistently used aggressive language that did not, in my mind, present a fair characterization of both sides of the intellectual/political divide.However, in her discussion of politics and intellectualism, I do think that she makes an important point. Leaving aside the intelligence of President George W. Bush, as I don't wish to engage on that topic here, I'd like to include the entire quote here:"If Bush's election was not a measure of conscious anti-intellectualism on the part of voters, it was certainly a measure of the public's indifference to demonstrable mental acuity and knowledge as standards for the presidency. In this context, it is important to note that most members of the media rarely raise questions, even in a roundabout way, about the intellect of a major party presidential candidate - much less about a man who actually occupies the Oval Office. A president may be described as stubborn, or as impatient, or as a sexual libertine - even, on rare occasions, as a liar - but it would be unthinkable for "objective" reporters, in print or on television, to bluntly raise the question: 'Is this man smart enough to be in charge of the country?' It is a question that ought to be asked openly about every man and woman who seeks high office...This is not to say that the smartest boy or girl in the class would necessarily make the best president, but that there ought to be a higher threshold of intellect, as well as a higher standard of cultural and scientific literacy, than that currently required for political candidates." (Jacoby, p. 285-286).Two items stand out for me: first, that the American people can be described as indifferent to the capabilities and qualities of their primary leader and representative; and secondly, that the presidency demands not only intelligence, but cultural and scientific literacy. To ground this discussion in a timely issue, let us consider the debate between evolution and creationism.A scientifically literate President could be expected to be familiar with the underpinnings of the scientific a
Illiniguy71 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very intelligent book about cultural and intellectual decay in contemporary America. One suspects she is correct about the decay caused by such readily available video entertainment and "infotainment". She has not given us the last word on decay of the public schools, but her comments and implications on that subject are worthwhile. Be sure to read all the way through to the end. I found the last chapter and conclusion especially valuable.
slothman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When surveys show that one in five American adults think the Sun goes around the Earth and two-thirds are unaware that DNA is the medium of heredity, one has to wonder what's going on in our nation. Sudan Jacoby takes up the challenge, and shows the historical roots of American thought and opposition to it, starting in the early days of our nation, moving through the Red Scares and the Sixties into the present day. I found a great deal of perspective in here that my own education lacked, even growing up in Berkeley in the 1980s.