By Chet Yarbrough
The Age of American Unreason
By Susan Jacoby
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Susan Jacoby had her book “The Age of American Unreason” published in 2012, long before the election of Donald Trump. The title is apropos today but the substance of Jacoby’s reasoning is suspect.
“The Age of American Unreason” interests baby boomers because it capsulizes events of the “pig in a python” era (babies born between 1946 and 1964).
Susan Jacoby’s characterization of this era of “…unreason” is over-generalized. Jacoby free falls into a blind canyon of liberal bias; beginning with an inference that the word “folks” in speeches rather than “people” suggests demise in American intellectualism. Considering the intellectual difference between Obama and Trump, Jacoby’s “examples and causes” for “unreason” make one gag.
Jacoby writes about conflict between conservative’ belief in creationism and evolution as a cause for “…unreason”. Many, if not most Americans, meld religious belief with evolution. Some are agnostic and skeptical, but they have not lost their faith. Others are genuinely atheistic. Many current books are written to question the existence of God, but what is new?
Jacoby sites statistical studies that reinforce her opinion without conceptualizing the evolution of religious and philosophical thought. Change in religious belief is not revolutionary; it is gradual and evolutionary based on the advance of science. One is more likely to prove that scientific understanding of creation is accelerating rather than regressing to mythical or spiritual explanation. But, what is new? Copernicus and Gallileo are simply replaced by Watson and Crick.
Jacoby insists that television, the internet, and the information age are rotting American minds through distraction and substitution. She believes intellectualism is vilified and popular opinion is more influential and intellectually barren today than in times past. She dwells on American education system’s failure to reject creationism with exclusive scientific explanation of natural events.
A counter argument is that television, the internet, and the information age have been a boon to humankind. Ignorance is mitigated by a more interconnected world. African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and North American populations become better informed about each others lives. Humans of all cultures become more human.
History suggests proving millennial religious beliefs as a mythology is not going to occur in a few generations, if ever. Jacoby cherry picks information, snippets of questionable studies, speech factoids, and apocryphal stories to support her idea of a growing “…Age of Unreason”. Her argument is unconvincing.
Jacoby suggests a diminishment of literary education. Literary education is unquestionably different today than when Ms. Jacoby graduated from college but different is neither good nor bad; i.e. literary education from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Charlotte Bronte, Pearl Buck and other literary giants are still being consumed by the public. Many late 20th and 21st century writers are now, or will become, equally revered.
The medium may be different but the message is the same (after all, Jacoby’s book is available through audio books and e books). To suggest they are not being consumed, understood, or appreciated today is a distortion of reality.
The same is true for science. The intellectual advance of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the science of man is astounding. Philosophy is grounded on advances in science; with continued scientific advance there will be future philosophical intellectuals like Plato, Spinoza, and William James; in fact, they are probably here now but not with history’s perspective.
Susan Jacoby is a highly sought after writer and speaker. One admires her reputation as a liberal but liberality is not a license to write junk thought. Jacoby is right in the title to her book while wrong in substance. We are in an era of “unreason” this part of the 21st century but this century is less than 18 years old. Some might say it is only in the last year and a half that American “unreason” has become extreme.
Today’s literature and science are not diminished by a lack of intellectual pursuit, or by speeches that use words like “folks” instead of “people”. Today’s “unreason” is perpetuated by incompetent leadership; not by a rift between science and religion, or speech. “Unreason” is exacerbated by political leaders’ ultra-nationalism and parochial tribalism. Leadership change will return reason to political debate just as it did in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s; and now in the 21st century.