The Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby (2008). Pantheon Books, 356 pages.

Remember the term “Highbrow“? You don’t hear that much anymore. Nor its companion, “Lowbrow“. And never, ever do you hear “Middlebrow“, which was all the rage during the 40’s and 50’s. Nowadays, people use words like “elitist” and “trailer trash” to connote one end or the other of the culture spectrum… when they bother to discuss it at all.

But Way Back When, folks like Virginia Woolf used to write reams about how Middlebrow culture was going to destroy society, by keeping people away from the good Highbrow stuff. Unfortunately for Virginia and all of her friends who used to write long-winded articles for The New Yorker, that’s not at all what happened. Instead, Middlebrow culture vanished almost entirely, and Lowbrow increased its share accordingly.

In a nutshell, that is what The Age of American Unreason is about: How Middlebrow culture has nearly ceased to exist. Reading this book is what prompted my post on elitism a few weeks back.

The book’s first chapter grabbed me right away: “Just Us Folks”. In this introduction to the book, Jacoby outlines how our national discourse has fallen dramatically over the past 70 years. She points this out by excerpting a few of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, in which FDR spoke eloquently and candidly about the issues facing the country. He did not speak using eighth grade words, or patronize to his audience. He described complex problems and the complex solutions that would be required, and assumed that the citizens of the country cared enough to listen carefully. And would carefully discuss and vet the solutions he proposed. And that is pretty much what happened.

But nowadays, politicians try to fall over themselves in showing how “folksy” they are. Instead of speeches to “My fellow citizens”, they makes speeches to “my friends” or “regular folks”. The complexities of our problems are buried and simplified; our leaders demand nothing of us and expect even less. They assume that their listeners are ignorant, and in doing so, create a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-downward expectations. So rather than engender a lively discussion of our banking and credit system, and the myriad little things we should do to shore it up, and the pros and cons of each and their possible long term effects… well, they just say that the whole industry needs a “bailout” and that these things just happen.

Jacoby descirbes how reading for both pleasure and education continues to drop every year. She illustrates this by pointing out how the entire country used to breathlessly await the arrival of the latest serialized chapter of the latest Dickens book – but now, if people here of an interesting book, they wait for the movie or video game version. She believes that this change actually affects our cultural ability to remember things:

Memory, which depends on the capacity to absorb ideas and information through exposition and to connect new information to an established edifice of knowledge, is one of the first victims of video culture. Without memory, judgements are made on the unsound bias of the most recent bit of half-digested information.

Jacoby also believes that the rise and embracing of fundamentalist religions has greatly contributed to the decrease in the reasoning capabilities of many Americans. Since any fundamentalist approach to faith (she argues) requires that its adherents never question any of the tenants of said faith, they cannot learn how to read a text critically. And when she uses the term “critically”, she uses it in the classic scholarly sense of the word: carefully analyzing a text to see what it means.

This chapter reminded me of a childhood Sunday school class. When I was in the 4th grade or so, we were reading and discussing the story of Jonah and the whale (beginning around Jonah 1:17 and continuing to about Jonah 2:10). We read the story critically – what was the message of the story? What was the lesson? What is God telling us in this story? When someone in the class (not me!) asked how Jonah could survive inside a whale’s stomach for three days, what with stomach acids and all, our teacher chuckled and said the story was not a literal factual story, but was instead a parable – like the parables Jesus used on the mount – and we were supposed to discover what the story was telling us about God by carefully reading the story. We were taught how to “read between the lines”, which is the first time I remember hearing that phrase.

That kind of Sunday school teaching, I am sad to say, seems to occur less and less nowadays. Jacoby believes that this fundamentalist approach (mostly in Christian faiths in the U.S., but also in Muslim and Jewish faiths in other parts of the world) greatly contributes to the lack of formal reasoning in adults of our era. And yet, almost no one ever addresses this issue when we talk about education (or religion, for that matter):

One of the most powerful taboos in American life concerns speaking ill of anyone’s faith – an injunction rooted in confusion over the difference between freedom of religion and granting religion immunity from the critical scrutiny applied to other social institutions. Both the Constitution and the pragmatic realities of living in a pluralistic society enjoin us to respect our fellow citizens’ right to believe whatever they want – as long as that belief, in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”. But many Americans have misinterpreted this sensible laissez-faire principle to mean that respect must be accorded the beliefs themselves. This mindless tolerance, which places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy, has play a major role in the resurgence of both anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.

The book moves on to cover the rise of pseudoscience: how various scientific-sounding ideas became pop culture sensations. One prime offender is the completely non-scientific idea of “social darwinism“. This is the notion that human interactions are similar to, or even caused by, biological evolution – i.e., that “survival of the fittest” is either a goal to strive for in society, or else is a cause of behavior that cannot be changed.

The chapter on this subject is fascinating, and shows how most Americans don’t understand what the term “science” really even means. Darwinism is strictly a genetic, scientific, biological process: It has nothing to do with psychology, culture, nationalism, religion, or any other aspect of human behavior at all. And yet more and more we see the terms “evolution” and “Darwinism” used in discussions that have nothing to do with biological speciation over time.

Another chapter talks about the “Red Scare” of the 50s, and how this was another attempt to make scary any sort of “high falutin’ book learning”. After all, if you’ve read The Communist Manifesto, so the argument went… then you must have instantly believed it and become a “fellow traveler“. For years, people were afraid to even read the book – for fear they’d be accused of actually being a communist. This, in turn, led to more questioning of “suspect” reading habits and learning in general. It starts with an accusation of treason if you read one certain book – and expands into a suspicion of people who read any books.

And if you think this is esoteric and doesn’t really happen in real life? Well, as I write this, on the eve of the 2008 election, for example, one candidate is claiming the other is a “socialist” and a “Marxist” – and it is pathetically obvious that the accuser has never read Marx and has no idea what a “Marxist” even is. To them, these are just scary words to throw at an opponent. And I’m sure if you suggested to Sarah Palin that she should at least read Marx and study his writings a bit before she uses such terms… well, I’m pretty sure she’d dismiss such a suggestion out of hand.

My favorite chapter, however, and the one that I think is the true heart of the book, is the chapter on Middlebrow Culture. Here Jacoby writes about all the little things that we used to do to educate our families: The Book-of-the-Month Club. Encyclopaedia Britannica in the home, carefully purchased one volume at a time. Attending lectures on important subjects. Visiting the art museum to see the popular pieces. Seeing the ballet, the symphony, or the opera when they came on tour to your town. And so many others in this vein.

Ironically, Highbrow culture used to frown and dismiss all of this Middlebrow stuff as dumbing down important topics for a mass audience. Jacoby’s main argument here was that the end result of these attacks were the virtual elimination of Middlebrow culture entirely, and the rising up of Lowbrow culture to become the common “Pop Culture” we have today.

In short, Susan Jacoby has written an eye-opening book about the rise of anti-intellectualism and the decline in reasoning. If you, like me, are worried that our current embrace of ignorance combined with arrogance is a deadly combination… then I urge you to read The Age of American Unreason. The book is written in a witty academic style that, true to its premise, never dumbs down its approach, but doesn’t skip opportunities for humor at the same time.

I think Virginia Woolf would probably approve. I know Franklin Delano Roosevelt would.

Now stop reading this and get out there and vote.

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