Calling All Critical Thinkers

Edd Doerr

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-375-42374-1) 356 pp. Cloth $26.00.

In this crucial election year with so much at stake, Susan Jacoby’s new book The Age of American Reason should be on everyone’s must-read list. Jacoby, author of the important 2004 book Freethinkers and program director at the Center for Inquiry / New York City, presents a compelling analysis of what is increasingly recognized as the “dumbing down” of American culture.

Signs of this dumbing down are abundant: the shrinking of newspapers both physically and in circulation; the decline of serious book-reading; the atrophy of mass entertainment; the low percentage of Americans who vote or follow politics; growing civil ignorance—fewer and fewer Americans can name their own congressman or a single Supreme Court justice, much less find Iraq or Zimbabwe on a map. While America is becoming more religious, at least superficially, vast numbers of Bible believers cannot name the supposed authors of the four Gospels or who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and some even think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Few Americans know more than a few tidbits about U.S. history and even less about the histories of other countries.

Jacoby doesn’t hesitate to pin the tail on the donkey.

(I)t is difficult to suppress the fear that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy. During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.

She adds that “America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism . . . aggressively promoted by everyone, from politicians to media executives, whose livelihood depends on a public that derives its opinions from sound bites and blogs, and it is passively accepted by a public in thrall to the serpent promising effortless enjoyment from the fount of the tree of infotainment.”

Jacoby blames this problem largely on the mass media, which offer such an “unprecedented variety of choices” that “it is entirely possible to go through an entire day without being deprived for a second of commercial entertainment.” She identifies the second major villain in the drama as “the resurgence of fundamentalist religion,” which the modern media are ideally suited to help propagate. Symptomatic of this spread of “triumphalist Christian fundamentalism” is the fact that at least half of Americans believe in the sort of wacky “end times” theology like that promoted by evangelist and Moral Majority cofounder Tim LaHaye (whom I have debated) in his widely read Left Behind book series.

“Willed ignorance,” Jacoby writes, “is one of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism,” as is the “powerful correlation between religious fundamentalism and lack of education.” She adds, “Whatever the denomination or religion, fundamentalism has always been defined by its refusal to adapt to any secular knowledge that conflicts with its version of revealed religious truth.”

Jacoby hails this country’s intentionally secular constitution and church-state separation but notes that, ironically, separation paved the way for the spread of fundamentalism while European church-state unions tended to stimulate freethinking and Enlightenment values.

The author deplores the widespread rejection of Darwinian natural selection evolution coupled with acceptance of the Milton Friedman-esque “social Darwinism”—a distortion of Darwin concocted by Herbert Spencer.

Moving on, Jacoby writes that the fundamentalist resurgence “received a jolt of adrenaline” from the civil-rights and school-desegregation movements of the sixties. Particularly relevant is her explanation of how private schools originally set up to avoid school desegregation morphed into a great many of today’s fundamentalist faith-based schools—the sort of schools whose curricula have been explored in Al Menendez’s 1993 Prometheus book, Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach and Frances Patterson’s 2003 book, Democracy and Tolerance: Christian School Curricula, School Choice, and Public Policy.

(An amusing disclosure: Jacoby cites as a key figure in the fundamentalist resurgence and Christian private school movement Dallas preacher W.A. Criswell. As it happened, when I was barnstorming around the country in 1987 speaking out against the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, I was a guest on a talk show on Criswell’s Dallas radio station. When the subject of abortion rights came up, I whipped out a 1973 clipping from Christianity Today magazine and read Criswell’s quotation approving the Roe v. Wade ruling, which I guess bears out the saying that even a clock that is broken is right twice a day. The host of the show was plainly distressed, but he could hardly challenge the guy who owned the station.)

Jacoby comes down hard on “junk science” and “junk thought,” a prime example of which, she cites, is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s narrow majority ruling in 2007 upholding a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, a nonmedical term devised by the powerful antichoice lobby to attack a particular late-term abortion procedure. (The ruling also overturned a five-year-old precedent.) Kennedy based his ruling in part on the notion that “severe depression and loss of esteem” may follow an abortion, though “we can find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” He and his fellow conservative colleagues ignored the fact that medical studies have failed to prove the existence of a supposed “post-abortion syndrome” and that the American Psychological Association has found “no significantly higher incidence of depression or stress-related illnesses in women who have had abortions.”

The author turns next to what she calls the “culture of distraction” produced by “the proliferating visual images and noises of the video-digital age (that) permeate the minute-by-minute experiences of our lives,” which, unlike reading, is “a continuous invasion of individual thought and consciousness.” She adds: “The more time people spend before the computer screen or any screen, the less time and desire they have for two human activities critical to a faithful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.” And all this leads to the “declining amount of newspaper space devoted to book reviews.” The problem is that “the more obsessed people are with infotainment, the less likely they are to read anything.”

Jacoby’s last chapter turns to George W. Bush. The “son, grandson, and great-grandson of rich and powerful men, George W. Bush . . . (is a) walking testimony to unearned privilege (who) somehow managed to convince voters that he was just an ordinary guy and did not belong to the detested ‘elites.’” The issue “is not whether Bush is as s
tupid as he sounds but that he . . . is unashamed of—and even seems quite proud of—his own parochialism and intellectual limitations.” She scorns the “one-sidedness of intellectual participation in the Bush administration,” citing especially his Council on Bioethics, which “systematically excluded” distinguished scientists and bioethicists in favor of people favoring religious fundamentalism. “The real purpose of the bioethics group,” she writes, “was not to advise but to provide academic cover for the administration’s religiously and politically motivated politics.”

Jacoby’s book ends on a pessimistic note. But she has clearly mapped out the problems facing our country. She has swept away a lot of garbage and debris. It will be up to readers, voters, politicians, educators, and communicators to take the next step—and we don’t have much time.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-375-42374-1) 356 pp. Cloth $26.00. In this crucial election year with so much at stake, Susan Jacoby’s new book The Age of American Reason should be on everyone’s must-read list. Jacoby, author of the important 2004 book Freethinkers and program director …

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