A synoptic and critical study of “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby.
To read “Blogging American Unreason” in order, see my series page.
Chapter 1: “The way we live now: just us folks”
In this first chapter Jacoby examines four elements in particular that are at the heart of the current state of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in the United States:
- The degradation of modern American English
- The influence of the media on the strangulation of critical thought
- The rise of religious fundamentalism
- The failings of scientific education in the US
These issues form a sort of circular and cross-radial effect of self-sustenance, each feeding the other to create a state of ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.
Manipulating Americans by degrading their language
Jacoby starts chapter 1 by studying the arrival of the word “folks” in political discourse. Indeed the use of this word is a modern addition to politicians’ vocabulary and is used not only to create a false sense of closeness of politicians to their constituency but also to lull Americans into blindly following them. Addressing the American People as “folks” is manipulating the connotation of the word. “Folks” suggests daily things that are not of particular importance; you talk about the weather with the folks on the corner. If our leaders are explaining things to “just us folks”, everything must be ok. Jacoby uses an example that I found very pertinent to emphasize the importance of the connotation of the words used to describe people: an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s a short text so go here and read it then come back.
I’m betting that you were moved by this speech. The reason is that Lincoln’s words have connotations that call on human nobility and the ability of the people to rise up and face horrible situations. He called on the active engagement of the People’s intellect to understand. Lincoln did not patronize Americans of his time
Now let’s take a look at Jacoby’s example. She took the last sentence and “modernized” it with the word “folks”. Once again, observe your feelings:
“(…) 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 original text, Lincoln calls on your lucidity, speaking of the “dead” and your nobility, speaking of the “people”. In the Jacoby example, everyone has been reduced to bumpkins; the use of “folks” makes one feel that there is no need of active engagement in a process of thought or action. Everyone is passive: go talk about the weather with the other folks.
But she doesn’t stop there. She also makes an example of the incorrect use of “troops” instead of “soldiers” for discussing war casualties—because the problem with “soldiers” is that you see faces, now don’t you? “Troops” is a more vague and thus more acceptable concept for justifying the death of American citizens. Once again, information is presented to encourage passivity.
American English is also debased by the systematic lowering of vocabulary levels. Born in low-level pop culture, the lack of efficient vocabulary cheapens discourse and reduces interactions to playground level jabs and jokes. Beginning in pop culture media this cancer in American English has been spreading upwards. Jacoby sites Don Imus’s “nappy-headed hos” comment as a starting point, then moves on to Ann Coulter’s “ragheads” comment concerning Muslims to finally arrive at Vice President Dick Cheney’s famous “go fuck yourself” to Senator Patrick Leahy. Real argumentation becomes impossible in this self-replicating cycle of ad hominem simplification, fed from both below and above.
The media’s not so obvious stranglehold on critical thought
In today’s world of 24 hour television and radio, internet and company, it would seem as if our access to information has become virtually unlimited. However Jacoby argues that it is just this information overload that has degraded America’s ability to critically analyze information.
In the past, information was created and digested in written form. The author was obliged to attentively learn the subject at hand and then carefully structure his or her communication. On the other end, the reader was obliged to read, which is an active interaction with the information given by the author.
Information today is largely delivered only in a passive interaction by visual media, and this as early as infancy. One has the impression of an enormous quantity of information being distributed, but this is an illusion, argues Jacoby. Indeed the hundreds of channels present on modern television are all controlled by only a handful of large corporations. Jacoby contends however that the real problem is how information is presented. News today has to be manipulated to make it fit into the “infotainment” model: images, sound (preferably music) and rapid changes of subject matter all take precedent over explicative content. In sum, Americans do not receive usable information, but the illusion of usable information; there is no depth, no true analysis, certainly no self-criticism, just hypnotic images and sounds with a few token words thrown in that give the impression of absorbing information.
Certain critics claim that the critical reading vacuum created by television has been replaced by the internet. But as Jacoby argues, the web is more so an extension of this self-feeding desire to receive information rapidly without putting in the long groundwork needed for true comprehension of a subject. Indeed one of the main guidelines of creating web content is to avoid long drawn out written articles—like this one. Thus the web is in no way shape or form a substitute for the intellectual study of serious written information. It is as much a creation as a cause of the loss of the desire to invest intellectually in increasing knowledge. Americans no longer search for true knowledge they search for trivia.
This all leads to a sort of innate distrust of those who do understand a topic in-depth, and in so the media has become a bystander tool of anti-intellectualism. Jacoby reminds us that George Bush Jr. has said without the least bit of embarrassment that he rarely reads newspapers because he doesn’t want to be exposed to “opinions”. She goes on to discuss a conversation that the journalist Ron Suskind had with a senior Bush aid. The aid apparently said that the Bush administration considers journalist to be part of the “reality-based community” those who believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality”.
Let that sink in for a few minutes.
He went on to say that “we’re an empire now” and that, in sum, the “reality-based community” is there just to study the reality that they invent.
Let that sink in for a few more minutes.
And because Americans receive the constant gavage of sound-bites and images carefully mounted by a few powerhouse media conglomerates to fit into 2-minute “reports”, they have no desire to go and seek out truly intellectually nutritive information, and this to the very summit of power in America.
The rise of religious fundamentalism
Religious fundamentalism, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible as the word of God himself, stared having influence in the United States after the First World War, largely as a force against teaching evolution in public schools, explains Jacoby.
Today, religious fundamentalism has become a master of the manipulation of modern media, in particular video-based media, which is ideally suited to the expression of fundamentalism’s black and white, belief-based ideology. Mainstream religion, with its shades of gray, biblical scholarship and incorporation of scientifically supported knowledge has difficulty competing in these video media that favor a simple, rapidly (and blindly) assimilated message. Among others, Jacoby points to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ as an example of a fundamentalist approach to the use of video. She explains that this film is based on a Roman Catholic fundamentalist interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew. However this type of Roman Catholic fundamentalism has long been rejected by the Vatican itself and the films core audience in the United States were not mainstream Catholics, but right-wing Protestants. Fundamentalists do not give importance to what major religious leaders and scholars have to say on the meaning of the Bible; their belief in such things as the apocalypse “owes more to films such as The Exorcist and The Omen than to the Bible”, says Jacoby.
She also harshly criticizes the media for their capitalization of American gullibility for the supernatural as well as fundamentalism, both finding their roots in the same anti-rationalism. Their willingness to give equal weight to both sides, even when one side is completely cemented in the delusional, provides a springboard for American problems with discerning facts from beliefs:
“If enough money is involved, and enough people believe that two plus two equals five, the media will report the story with a straight face, always adding a qualifying paragraph noting that ‘mathematicians, however, say that two plus two still equals four’. With a perverted objectivity that gives credence to nonsense, mainstream news outlets have done more to undermine logic and reason than raptureready.com could ever do.”
As her arguments progress, she provides a few statistics:
- More than a third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible
- 60% believe in the prediction of the Book of Revelations
- More than half believe in ghosts
- A third believe in astrology
- 75% believe in angels
- And 80% believe in miracles
This alchemy of chosen fundamentalist ignorance and misguided “objectivity” in the media is worsened further by a misunderstanding of the concept of the freedom of religion in the United States, suggests Jacoby. Indeed this cherished and justified element of the American way of life is often misinterpreted as a justification for forbidding critical scrutiny of religion. Jacoby underlines the fact that our Founding Fathers never intended any cultural institution to be above critical and factual examination; everyone certainly has the right to believe what they wish, as long as it (quoting Thomas Jefferson) “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”. The media, by putting sometimes dangerous religious and supernatural beliefs at the same level as scientifically established realities has become a major contributor to anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism and is propagating “dangerous fallacies that really do pick pockets and break legs”.
The failings of scientific education in the US
The fourth wheel of this anti-rationalism and intellectualism according to Jacoby is the disastrous state of scientific education—and education in general, I’ll add—in the United States.
Looking in particular at the uniquely American “controversy” over Darwin’s theory of evolution, she again provides a series of chilling statistics resulting from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life opinion poll, published in 2005:
- Nearly two-thirds of Americans think that creationism should be taught with evolution in public schools
- Almost half of all Americans reject all forms of evolution, even “guided by God”
- 42% say that all living beings including humans have been in their present form since the beginning of time
- Only 26% accept Darwinian evolution
She points out a statistical oddity: the number of Americans who reject any form of evolution is 15% higher than those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Well, how ’bout that; for a good part of America it was neither God nor evolution that brought about life on earth. Maybe it was aliens.
Thus, according to Jacoby, religious fundamentalism cannot be solely blamed for Americans’ rejection of evolution; the other culprit is the miserable state of scientific education in the American public schooling system. The American system is sadly unique among Western industrialized countries in that the primary and secondary schooling is under local governmental control instead of being controlled at a national level. This has led to enormous regional discrepancies in scientific learning, with rural and southern areas being hamstringed by local religious and conservative political forces, thus getting the intellectual short end of the stick. Jacoby illustrates this with a story of how teachers in these disadvantaged regions avoid teaching evolution for fear of confrontations with the students’—ergo local community’s—beliefs.
Worse still (if something can be worse than this spineless retreat in education professionals) is the fact that often the teachers themselves are ignorant on Darwinian evolution. Jacoby illustrates this point by citing a 1998 survey done by researchers at the University of Texas that found that 25% of public high school biology teachers believed that dinosaurs and humans were present on earth at the same time. This is a terrifying example of how ignorance can enter into a vicious circle, where the blind are leading the blind.
Continuing to a university level academic course can help, but according to Jacoby, not that much. Indeed, “only” 27% of university graduates believe that life forms have always been as they are now, but for those with only a partial college education this percentage jumps back up to 42% and is at 50% for those with only a high-school diploma.
As a result of this lack of basic scientific knowledge, worsened by a cultural and media-driven non-differentiation of the word “theory” (synonymous with “guess”) and the scientific term “theory” (“a set of principles designed to explain natural phenomena, supported by observation, and subject to proof and peer review” as defined by Jacoby), a much-too-large number of Americans have a misguided belief that there is widespread disagreement over the Darwinian theory of evolution. Although certain details may be disputed, the global process of evolution by natural selection is “a settled issue for the mainstream scientific community”, as Jacoby points out.
“Intelligent design” is, of course, the ultimate and very sad example of how the public’s—and media’s—scientific ignorance and inability to differentiate blah-blah from scientifically constructed argumentation can be manipulated in order to forward a fundamentalist, anti-intellectual and anti-rational platform.
Jacoby closes the chapter with the observation that today’s wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism differs from those of the past in that it has swept through to Washington itself. No President before George W. Bush has so openly separated himself from current scientific thought. She quotes a speech by the rationalist Bill Moyers:
“One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime (…) is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe to sit in the seats of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. (…) Voters and politicians alike [are] oblivious to the facts.”
Indeed, it seems as if being ignorant has become the politically correct thing to do.
And finally she asks two simple but very pertinent questions: Why now and why us?
Jacoby points out that past periods of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism were often the result of a longing for a simpler time, a nostalgia-based reaction to the lifestyle earthquakes brought about by modern science and technology. But this time around it’s not clear what we’re running from. Jacoby suggests that this current wave finds its roots in the 1980s. Is America nostalgic for the quieter, simpler times of the cold-war? And then, why aren’t other Western industrialized countries experiencing the same thing? America isn’t unique in this perception of assault by modern life on traditional ideals and other countries are also exposed to the erosion of media.
To understand why, explains Jacoby, one must study the unique historical aspects of American culture that have lead to this state of unreason…
Final wandering electrons
Although I find Jacoby’s analysis to be pertinent and insightful, I think that this first chapter should have been the second chapter. Before explaining a phenomenon, its veracity must first be established. The “angle of attack” (wording is mine) of Jacoby’s book is to illustrate anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism in the US and she has included a number of statistics and stories to illustrate the points that she makes. She nevertheless implies that if these two very closely related phenomena are present in the US, it’s because a much-too-large percentage of American citizens has not been—and continues to not be—exposed to legitimate factual information, sometimes of their own choice, and are thus incapable of differentiating fact from fantasy.
Let’s not beat around the bush: this is a lack of intelligence.
But are Americans truly less intelligent than their counterparts in other countries? In my opinion this should have been the subject of the first chapter. Indeed, Jacoby does not provide scientifically-established data on intelligence levels in the United States as compared in particular to other Western industrialized countries. I’m sure (the irony of “I’m sure” being that it means that I’m not) that studies of this type have been done, and whatever the findings may be, they would have added an additional level of richness to Jacoby’s arguments. Either it can be demonstrated that Americans are less intelligent than others, in which case we already have a root cause of anti-rationalism/intellectualism, or it cannot, in which case we must search a root cause elsewhere.
As we’re only in the first chapter, I’ll put this on the back burner for the moment and observe the progression of Jacoby’s arguments.