Friday, January 25, 2008


Another Brick on the Load

Well, this looks like required reading:

In The Age of American Unreason, journalist Susan Jacoby examines just how isolated today's secular thinkers feel. Jacoby's collage of intelligent-design proponents, crusaders against childhood immunisation, and inarticulate politicians ... adds up to an image of monumental disrespect for the life of the mind and the primacy of logic.

... Jacoby, author of the critically praised Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism(2004), picks up where historian Richard Hofstadter left off. In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), Hofstadter argued that, centuries before anyone styled themselves as "intellectual", currents in agrarian American thought (particularly the populist resistance to the hierarchies ingrained in Puritan society) fostered a violent opposition to bookish learning. Waves of revivalist tent meetings galvanised the late-18th-century backwoods citizenry into an ersatz republic founded on camp-side, fire-and-brimstone, anti-elitist notions of community. Jacoby traces the long, deleterious afterlife of that moment, which seems to pop up again and again.

Anti-intellectualism appeared during the period in the 1960s which was still a time of promise rather than a moment of political violence, bungled military adventures, and the eventual dashing of hopes. For Jacoby the decade is key to her story of cultural decline. Conservatives made much of the supposed lack of law and order; college deans tossed out academic standards in favour of ethnic-studies sops. Worse, youth culture gave rise to both a new, noxious form of celebrity worship (gravely anti-intellectual) and an inability to appreciate critical authority (ditto).

The decade, as a whole, "marked the beginning of the eclipse of print culture by the culture of video; the political street theatre of the late sixties was perfectly suited to video, and vice versa". Meanwhile, the fundamentalist right built a network of institutions that burst on to the scene with Ronald Reagan in 1980. For Jacoby, this is as much the legacy of the 1960s as Woodstock. Either way, neither the counterculture nor the counter-counterculture did much to stanch the haemorrhaging of intellectual life.
The reviewer finds Jacoby's list of our present woes overstated.

... faith-based politics; "junk thought", which hucksters can foist on to scientifically illiterate consumers to cast doubt on the reality of global warming or to promote dubious but fashionable ideas; digital culture, "whether … the tunes on an iPod, a picture flashing briefly on a home page, a text message, a video game, or the latest offering of 'reality' TV", which downgrades contemplative reading and conversation. The chapter titled "The Culture of Distraction" is impressive for the sheer number of targets at which Jacoby swings her assault-on-reason stick – from book packagers to the decline of grammar, Sesame Street to Baby Einstein, blogs and Google to YouTube and too much homework for kids.
Some are obviously worse than others, but overstated? ...

I like Jacoby. I'll have to get this book.
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