Reading the news about how this country (and to varying degrees, many other countries) is descending into a quagmire of madness and stupidity, I was wondering whether I should just take up heavier drinking or to try to read up enough about the forces that are pushing this hand basket to its destination. Then I realized, most wonderfully, that I could do both. But I also re-read Susan Jacoby's The Age Of American Unreason.
I recommend you all do the same, and if you live near Boston you can borrow my copy.
It starts from the very beginning, i.e. the colonization of the East Coast, and goes to explain the trends in religious movements in the US from the Revolution onwards. Lots of explanations on why the North, founded by religious fanatics, produced the Unitarian and Universalist movements, in the heady aftermath of the Revolution, while the South, a secular minded enterprise of the Crown, became the center for fundamentalist religion: because the social order in the South was untenable and could only be maintained if people believed in a literal interpretation of Scripture, one that legitimized slavery. And that goes a long way towards explaining how Boston became the epicenter for scholarship in America, and how the first intellectual refugees to arrive here were Southerners, including the founder of MIT. That same period was also when the oligarchs running in the show in the South established the region's malign neglect of education, purposely, to maintain a paternalistic relationship between the plantation owners and their workers, both white and black.
At the same time, Ms. Jacoby is kind enough to cover the tide of stupid that overcame the secular side of the United States starting shortly after the Civil War: social darwinism. She has a whole chapter. And it's not pretty. The nation's academic elite, with the noble exception of William James, swallowed a particularly ugly ideology justifying the unjust state of affairs in the US during the Gilded Age, and gave the religious side ample justification for regarding secular intellectuals with suspicion from then on.
Then come several chapters about, in short, the Culture Wars. That is, about the actions of intellectuals from William James (the last intellectual not to disgrace himself, it seems) onwards through the 20th Century, their involvement in the Cold War, and how it continues to provide both the National Review and The Nation with fodder for their readers about the long track record of wickedness/foolishness of the other side and why it continues to be important for the rank and file to vote Republican/Democrat to keep the other party at bay. And I'm guilty of falling into the same trap. I have a copy of the Closing of the American Mind
on my bookshelf, with a bookmark at about page 80, as far as I got last time I opened it, but really, as Ms. Jacoby ably points out: the 60s should matter this much. That Allan Bloom had an uncivil encounter with some self righteous student activists in 1967 is no reason for an undergrad today to want to join the Campus Republicans. All that pointless drama is pointless.
Jacoby covers the other side of what developed in the 60's: the Moral Majority and the Republican machine that brought Ronald Reagan into office and continues to run the GOP today, and along with all the historical exposition, goes her take on the title of the book: American Un-Reason. Time for a little blockquote action. Page 216:
What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that anti-rational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century, that it interacts toxically with the most credulous elements in both secular and religious ideologies, and that it has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period. Since the late Sixties, there has been a growing acceptance of social and psychological theories in which great weight is accorded the passionate emotional convictions of believers. In this realm of emotion, absolute value is placed on personal testimony based on personal experience.
It's the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer mentality. And I challenge you to find an appearance on C-Span where a politician speaks for a half hour or more and doesn't pander to it. It's pretty telling that the politician who least embodies the UFL brand of junk thought is Barack Obama, and that's because his Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer schtick is all about how he believes deep down that he needs to find a middle ground in how he seets policy, and try to deal with actual issues. It's a sweet head fake from a man who clearly disdains political theater (and I do admire him for that), but it's a crying shame that a man has to play this ridiculous game to get elected president.
The closing end of the book is what I found most depressing of all. Susan Jacoby picks up where Neal Postman left off. He decided not to write at all about the Internet, retired, and passed away, having written well thought arguments about where the ubiquity of television is taking us, and leaving his readers to hope that the Internet would be a force in the reverse direction. Jacboy takes that hope and crushes it. And, unfortunately, she's right. As things stand right now the Internet has only moved us deeper into the Age of Unreason. I need a drink.
(*) So nice I can console myself by walking down with Emily to the Ebisuya Japanese market. O tempura. O more. Origato.