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The Age of American Unreason

The Age of American Unreason

3.6 37
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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
In American Unreason Ms. Jacoby, the author of earlier books like Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, proposes to anatomize this dismaying phenomenon, while situating it in historical context. Her book is smart, well researched and frequently cogent—particularly in looking at the causes of American anti-intellectualism, past and present…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Inspired by Richard Hofstadter's trenchant 1963 cultural analysis Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) has produced an engaging, updated and meticulously thought-out continuation of her academic idol's research. Dismayed by the average U.S. citizen's political and social apathy and the overall "crisis of memory and knowledge involving everything about the way we learn and think," Jacoby passionately argues that the nation's current cult of unreason has deadly and destructive consequences (the war in Iraq, for one) and traces the seeds of current anti-intellectualism (and its partner in crime, antirationalism) back to post-WWII society. Unafraid of pointing fingers, she singles out mass media and the resurgence of fundamentalist religion as the primary "vectors" of anti-intellectualism, while also having harsh words for pseudoscientists. Through historical research, Jacoby breaks down popular beliefs that the 1950s were a cultural wasteland and the 1960s were solely a breeding ground for liberals. Though sometimes partial to inflated prose ("America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism"), Jacoby has assembled an erudite mix of personal anecdotes, cultural history and social commentary to decry America's retreat into "junk thought." (Feb. 12)

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From the Publisher
"Electric with fearless interpretation and fueled by passionate concern...brilliant, incendiary, and, one hopes, corrective." ---Booklist Starred Review

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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); www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit.
[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).

From the Hardcover edition.

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From the Publisher
"Electric with fearless interpretation and fueled by passionate concern...brilliant, incendiary, and, one hopes, corrective." —-Booklist Starred Review

Meet the Author

Susan Jacoby is an independent scholar and the bestselling author of many books, including Never Say Die, The Age of American Unreason, and Freethinkers, which was named a Notable Book of 2004 by the Washington Post and the Times Literary Supplement. She lives in New York City.

Actress and director Cassandra Campbell has narrated nearly two hundred audiobooks and has received multiple Audie Awards and more than twenty AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman.

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The Age of American Unreason 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
wordsmithSS More than 1 year ago
This book rang so many bells for me that I'll need to read it again in the near future to do it justice. I am grateful to Jacoby for her lucid truth telling and wonderful prose. The anti-intellectual bias held by so many Americans endangers the freedoms we count on as citizens. Upon my graduation from college, an aunt hissed that it had been "a worldly education, but not a godly one." My family was (and is) divided between intellectuals on the one hand and those who reject science, embracing blind faith and magical thinking on the other. It was a pleasure, start to finish, to read Jacoby's sharp-eyed romp through recent history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As one reviewer has aleady stated, Susan Jacoby is a national treasure. This book has helped to give the words and structure to distance myself from a dark place of ignorance. She has provided an almost endless number of ways to further bring light to this darkness. I remember looking at George W Bush on television moments after he had been declared president for the first time. He was standing in front of a gold colored curtain with the look of a person who was thinking "What the f#&%k am I doing here! " The thought came to me that two years before George's election, a group of obscenely wealthy southerns were sitting together drinking and playing poker. One of them, a highly successful marketiqyng executive declares, "I bet that I could put an idiot in the White House, a total jackass! In fact, I am so confident, you choose the person!" And we all know the rest of the story...
DipsyDmstr More than 1 year ago
Nothing explains the mess America is in today better than The Age of American Unreason. I was hooked from the introduction. I have quoted from the text in my own exhortions for Americans to stop believing and start thinking. Susan Jacoby is an American Treasurer. Keith Taylor former president and chair of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry
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