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A Nation of Dolts, Under God?

By Heather Wilhelm

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The Age of American Unreason
By Susan Jacoby
Knopf Publishing Group, February 2008

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Just how ignorant are Americans, anyway? These days, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone defending the nation's collective intellect--and, in some cases, for good reason. Two thirds of Americans between ages of 18-24 can't find Iraq on a map. When asked what function DNA serves, two thirds of Americans have no idea. And in a recent survey that would have Copernicus turning in his grave, one in five American adults believe that the sun revolves around the earth.

Bashing American ignorance, of course, has long been popular. In 2004, slumped punk band Green Day earned a comeback--and a Grammy Award--with their album "American Idiot." Bush mockery has grown into a cottage industry, giving cash registers a workout across the country. The latest surge of bestselling books, meanwhile ("God is Not Great," "The End of Faith") belittle American religion as a silly refuge for the ignorant masses.

With her new bestseller, "The Age of American Unreason," Susan Jacoby adds fuel to the public bonfire. Americans are not only increasingly knowledge-challenged, she argues: they're also proud of it. "America is now ill," she writes, "with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism." This new, insidious strain--at odds with reason, objective facts, and modern science--has grown over the past twenty years, she writes, and is incredibly dangerous for American culture and politics.

Building upon Richard Hofstadter's 1963 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," Jacoby weaves through various purported causes for American "unreason," including mass digital media, the legacy of the sixties, youth and celebrity culture, and historical egghead-bashing. Some of her explanations are satisfying, particularly those surrounding our rapid-fire "culture of distraction." The majority, however, are clouded by the author's quickly evident and sizable hang-up regarding a well-worn bogeyman: the powerful, united front of intolerant American fundamentalists bent on national control.

For Jacoby, Protestant fundamentalism, particularly in its resistance to the teaching of evolution in public schools, is intellectual enemy number one. While some of her beefs are legitimate--few will deny the reactionary elements among certain hard-core fundamentalists--the book's many passages alluding to alliances "at the highest levels of government" providing "cover" for "rapture-anticipating fundamentalists" seeking a "right-wing Protestant theocracy" should come pre-packaged with their own Twilight Zone music.

At times, Jacoby's tendency to place fundamentalist fingerprints all over American ignorance seems to blind her from the obvious. The disastrous aftermath of hurricane Katrina, she argues, illustrates "the abysmal state of public education" brought on in part by "religious fundamentalism." Apparently, if New Orleans residents had been taught a little more science and a lot more evolution, things would have gone more smoothly. Unfortunately for Jacoby, the real problems highlighted by Katrina--disintegrated families, government dependency, and unchecked urban crime--are likely better ascribed to liberal welfare state policies than to the influence of provincial Southern Bible-thumpers.

Jacoby gives lip service to the fact that "junk thought emanates from both the left and the right," but her prime targets invariably veer to the starboard side, leading her to miss an important point: namely, that those who run against left-leaning orthodoxies often discover a fierce close-mindedness unrivaled by many fundamentalists. Despite continuing debate about aspects of global warming, for instance, even mild skeptics, as The Wall Street Journal's John Fund recently noted, are often put "in a similar moral category to Holocaust denial." Proponents of intelligent design, eviscerated in "The Age of American Unreason," face similar hostility in the outside world--even, as Ben Stein points out in his upcoming documentary, "Expelled," if they're established scientists.

Jacoby's historical reconstruction, while engaging, is also filled with caricatures: conservative reactionaries longing for "nice girls who never used to speak in graduate seminars," free market worshippers of "repackaged Social Darwinism" trampling the poor, and neoconservative puppets funded by "capitalist plutocrats." (George Soros, meanwhile, must be just a nice guy trying to help out the left.) Meanwhile, despite repeated references to the "old American suspicion that knowledge itself could be a dangerous thing" (not to mention frequent allusions to Southerners who don't hold for book larnin') the book holds scant convincing evidence that this suspicion is prominent, let alone influential, in the mainstream population.

This is disappointing, because "The Age of American Unreason" poses fascinating questions about the nature of American ignorance. Are we really getting more anti-intellectual, and if so, why? Why did presidential sound bites drop from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 7.8 seconds in 2000? Why, if America is so religious, are the majority of citizens unable to name the Bible's first book? And is this surge in "unreason" a real change, or are the ignorant, previously rendered to the sidelines, simply getting more airtime?

The book's strongest point comes with Jacoby's analysis of recent technological advances. Video and the Internet, she points out, rose together with several important social developments, not all of them welcome: "resistance to the idea of aesthetic hierarchy," shortened attention spans, and the tendency "to tune out any voice that is not an echo." The last, seen prominently in today's blogging universe, leads to imaginary, isolated worlds where all agree--and where users can anonymously slander those who don't. "The unwillingness to give a hearing to contradictory viewpoints," Jacoby writes, correctly, "or to imagine that one might learn anything from an ideological or cultural opponent, represents a departure from the best side of American popular and elite intellectual traditions."

"The Age of American Unreason," ultimately, falls prey to this very vice. An initially promising book touching on compelling themes is consistently derailed by the author's ever-grinding ax: a real hostility to--and a significant misunderstanding of--American religion. That this is done while largely giving a pass to secular quasi-religions like communism further impairs the argument. Jacoby is indeed correct that a little bit of misinformation can be a dangerous thing. It certainly does its own share of damage to what could have been an intriguing, timely study of American intellectual life.


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