The Age of American Unreason 1st Edition, Kindle Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- ASIN : B0013SSPWS
- Publisher : Vintage; 1st edition (February 12, 2008)
- Publication date : February 12, 2008
- Language: : English
- File size : 649 KB
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- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 433 pages
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- Best Sellers Rank: #375,726 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Top reviews from the United States
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Well -- if you haven't read this fine (if deeply unsettling) book yet, there's no better time for it. Jacoby is smart, witty, and passionate about the dead-end direction so many Americans are taking today. As for the complaints about her use of anecdotal evidence, this is as much cri de coeur as it is thoroughly researched study. It's meant to make you feel as well as think, and then think some more. Civilization can be a thin & fragile veneer, all too easily lost when not enough people uphold & defend it. Start here -- most highly recommended!
1. The Preference for Video over Print Media
A reading culture is being replaced by a video culture. Reading is increasingly a minority activity. As Susan Jacoby points out, if nothing is else lost, intellectual conversation is at least lost with the decline of reading. The author notes that the decline in reading for pleasure or improvement is an across the board phenomenon that includes all demographics of wealth, age, sex, etc. Susan Jacoby points out that an increasing amount of conscious time is devoted to screen time with the corresponding denigration of reading time. This creates an all-consuming commercial entertainment culture where variety and choice are more of an illusion than a reality. Intellectual substance is replaced with a cacophony of noise. The only subjects that do lend themselves to a hyperbolic video culture are those that appeal to thought, reason and logic. An interesting historical parallel that I see to this modern trend in the decline of print was in the decline of book learning found in the rise of Christianity to cultural and political dominance in the fourth and fifth centuries. The leads to point 2 found below.
I think the danger with this, not spelled out in the book, is in the subordination of the active engagement with ideas, words and language found in reading to the passive reception of condensed visual images found in compact video feeds. That is, passive receiving replaces active seeking - this is the cable news business model. Although higher quality screen time can be found and is desirable, there is still an intellectual loss when the mode of engagement moves from the active to the passive, the quality and quantity of the material notwithstanding. This is the worrying aspect of the shift from the print to the video culture. The consumers of information go from active seekers to passive receivers. It is not a matter of misplaced nostalgia for books and print or a matter of snobbish intellectual elitism that prefers books to screens (though I take snobbish, elite and intellectual to be compliments) the worry is that it is much easier to program, device or fool passive receivers of information than it is to program, device or fool active seekers of knowledge. Propaganda and ideology depend on there being passive receivers of the correct information. As people grow accustomed to passive reception, they lose, or never acquire, the skills, discipline and attention span needed for active acquisition of knowledge with the discernment and skepticism this acuity develops. It is just easier to be passive so there is a natural inertia in this direction that cannot be overcome. When children are started on screens from their earliest years, no matter the quality or subject of the content, they are being trained to be passive consumers of prepackaged messages, not active seekers or creative doers. But it is the active seeking and creating that is most beneficial to the developing brain. The problem becomes more acute when the videos consumed and electric games played become mind numbingly redundant.
2. Fundamentalist Christianity
Not a conspiracy, just a cabal, an unholy trinity of neoconservative Jews, fundamentalist Protestants and right-wing Catholics. The passive culture is a perfect target audience for religion of every type and ideology of any stripe. A passive video culture makes the world safe for reality denying Christian fundamentalism which is one of the most easily identifiable features of the American anti-intellectualism and unreason with willful ignorance as the clearest defining characteristic of Christian fundamentalism. For example, Biblical creationists are still denying the proven science of the 19th Century. There is the civic danger inherent in so many people accepting the passive media culture, it allows for the normalizing and thus mainstreaming of Christian beliefs that should be consigned to the lunatic fringe. Fundamentalist Christianity and evangelical revivalism are emotional states which appease and appeal to the uneducated and unread. Fundamentalists, in an astounding display of willful ignorance, turn away from any form of learning not in agreement with the literal words of the Bible and their fantasy beliefs in personal salvation. It is anti-intellectual, non-rational and science defying. Christian beliefs are at war with science and contrary to the way in which we actually find the world.
An interesting point made the author is that fundamentalist churches (the Christian right) have grown so much in the last forty years because they focused on growing membership through evangelization and conversion whereas the traditional liberal or progressive churches focused more on using their existing membership to generate support for social and political issues. Most of the fundamentalist growth came at the expense of the more mainstream liberal denominations. The primary fault line between the fundamentalist and more liberal denominations is the literal interpretation of the Bible insisted upon by the fundamentalists and rejected by and more liberal denominations. This magnified the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalist of the fundamentalists as they receded into their own, but rapidly expanding, echo chamber. Fertile ground for fundamentalist recruitment and conversion is found among the down-and out so to speak, anyone unhappy, disillusioned, burned out, unfortunate, at a low point in life, they take advantage of these people by offering them the false consolations of deliverance and salivation. This became the army of the New Right. Add to this the strange and uniquely American bizarre cults of Mormonism, Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witness and we can see that religious fundamentalism is the real American exceptionalism. They offer the temptation of certainty for anyone uncertain.
3. Non-Religious Ideologies
Fundamentalist religion is not the only anti-intellectual path to non-rational thought or unreason. Actually, one can be ‘intellectual’, even overly intellectual about a subject, and still lack rationality as seen in many political ideologies from both the reactionary right and lunatic left. Their social convictions and economic paradigms are treated as articles of faith. One can use the tools of intellectual inquiry as the basis for non-rational ideas. That is, not all intellectual efforts come to rational conclusions but all anti-intellectual efforts come to non-rational conclusions. The economic paradigms of unrestrained capitalism and universal communism are both built upon a pseudo-philosophical foundation and confirmed with pseudoscientific principles. However, market capitalism is as a normal American value while communism is seen as alien and anti-American. Both are ideologies, but the former is accepted unquestioned and later is rejected out of hand.
4. Suspicion of the Experts and Education
Now comes the pathological skepticism of experts and expert opinion where a high level of esoteric education is seen as alien to the American values of doing and pursuing. A chronic suspicion of experts coincides very nicely with folk beliefs in the wisdom of the common folk. Worse yet, many people do not stop at simply mistrusting experts but engage in the narcissistic self-deception that they know more than the experts. Worse again is the increasing number of people who take pride in their ignorance as a display of the freedom from experts and a sign of their independent thinking. When this happens, reality itself becomes destabilized. It becomes increasingly difficult to know what is ‘going on’ in the world and around us when there are many competing narratives of the truth. Where we this today is in the controversy over wearing masks in the Covid-19 environment. The advice of medical experts is to wear a mask. But in America, the medical issue is converted into an issue of personal choice enabling any non-expert person to express their opinion on a matter of personal choice on equal terms with a medical expert. This is clever way of trying to skirt the false equivalency fallacy by committing a type of false definition fallacy by redefining the issue from one of medical expertise to one of personal choice. This is a puerile understanding of liberty and personal choice.
This is also the viewing of an educated minority as a separate class, not one of us so to speak. The ‘know-it-all’ experts imposing their views on everyone else. This is still seen today in the ambivalent attitude of many toward the doctors and medical experts. Further, for Americans, there can be no experts on political, social or religious questions. Americans think everyone can have a valid and sound opinion on political, social or religious questions. Any such claim to expertise in these areas is seen as opinionated or chauvinistic. There is an age-old American suspicion that too much knowledge or education is a dangerous thing, it leads to disregard of the more important practical aspects of life found in chasing and achieving. The bashing of experts leads to an increasing naive and ignorant population easily taken in by junk thought – see #7 below. When all else fails, experts can be dismissed with the dreaded opprobrium of elitist.
5. Popular Culture
On can of course enjoy both the Beatles and Beethoven but the dumbing down comes in drawing a false equivalency between the Beethoven and Beatles. There is infinitely greater expressive richness, technical intricacy and utter beauty in the Ninth Symphony compared to the Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Susan Jacoby points out, nothing dumbs down a culture more than severing it from its specific historic antecedents. The loss of common cultural knowledge is propelled by slick and sentimental marketing.
An aspect of pop culture discussed by Susan Jacoby is the difference in of response in Europe and in the U.S. to cutting edge stem cell and biomedical research. Europeans responded by becoming less religious and more skeptical about the claims of religion whereas Americans responded by becoming more skeptical about science and more accepting of religious claims.
Contemporary popular culture displays increasing contempt for reading and writing. Literary allusions and historical references are no longer understood necessitating the dumbing down of the remaining written material directed at a general audience. There is no longer the temperament and thus no time for reading magazine or newspaper articles of substantive depth and attendant length. Attention span is narrowed by the increasing quick response video feedback brainwashing network. Thus, writers and editors have lowered their expectation for what a general audience will be able to comprehend or have the patience to read. As Susan Jacoby puts it, the standard is now coarse content for a coarse public.
6. Changes in National Education Priorities
With the shock of Sputnik came an emphasis on STEM as it is known today, science, technology, engineering and math. Of course, these are all important subjects of study, the problem is that this new emphasis crowds out education in the arts and humanities which are now thought of as frills at best, even as useless distractions. This has led to precipitous decline in common cultural knowledge. Education has been traded for skill training. This ushers in a junk culture and a cartoon media to produce a shallow cult of celebrity where one can become “famous for being famous” as noted by historian and social theorist Daniel J. Boorstin. The cult of celebrity becomes necessary in a dumbed downed culture where a superficial focal point is needed to maintain public attention. The image becomes the message. The video culture and the celebrity culture become co-dependent and mutually reinforcing.
7. Junk Thought
Junk thought comes from both the hard-core right and the soft-core left. “Men are from Mars, women from Venus” – a great example of headline pop junk thought. Simply put, there is an anti-intellectual and nonrational contempt for experts and evidence in the physical sciences as well as the humanists and social sciences. Junk thought is both cause and a product of unreason and irrationality. This is the none too surprising result of after 1 – 6 above. This can be both or either a left-wing or right-wing phenomena. This is where evidence is treated as an undesirable barrier to what one wants to believe. In America, junk thought is as easily available as junk food. Junk thought is thought and ‘theory’ delinked from evidence but the language of science is used to promote pseudoscience such as the faith-based deception of intelligent design. Other examples that should be able to go without mention, but alas need to be mentioned are astrological and psychic readings as well as new age spirituality and the vast literature of narcissistic self-help propaganda. One of the truly pernicious manifestations of junk thought is the anti-vaccination crowd (who confuse coincidence with causation) who by even the standards of the 1960s are archaic anachronisms. Another example was the repressed memory movement of the 1980 – 1990s that resulted in many fabricated and suggested memory recoveries used as the basis for false accusations of abuse. Junk thought is characterized by its highly subjective and emotional appeals that cannot be falsified. Another example of pseudoscience is the supposed innate brain difference between boys and girls, this is the same old junk thought previously applied on a racial basis. The most galling part of junk science is that the purveyors of junk science are the ones who use the pejorative ‘junk science’ to discredit genuine science with the claim they are being suppressed by elites (real scientists).
8. Distractions Junkies
Distraction is now becoming its own reward. Social relations are now with screens, not with beings. Often, having a smartphone present at a social occasion is like inserting an offstage person that only the person with the smartphone can see, this has a chilling effect on the interpersonal relationships of the embodied people present. The smartphone is no longer an appendage of the person, the person is now the appendage of the smartphone. Screen time displaces people time, reading time, interaction time, conversation and discussion time. Let us make no mistake about it, there is great profit to be gained in marketing this displacement. We reside in a ubiquitous infotainment ecosystem echo chamber of noise from which there is no escape. The conflation of information and entertainment into a passive source of distraction has been accomplished through the internet. Computers and smartphones are not just tools but represent a whole new way of life, one of utter, banal and puerile distraction with endless prepackaged engagement for all ages, including “infantainment”. I agree with the author that while many mediums can be used for constructive education and learning, only reading is indispensable to intellectual life. The new videotainment is just the updated version of the comic book. An argument for an education based on video simulations has the same force as an argument for an education based on comic books.
9. Media Industry Consolidation
Though this topic is not discussed in the book, I think it is an important part of the explanation for American unreason. There is near monopoly control over U.S. media outlets with about five closely and interrelated companies owing most of the major of media, publishing and entertainments properties. I believe that this leads to an observable and increasing homogenization of content. The consolidation diminishes variety and expands control over content, this leaves only an illusion of variety and choice even for those who still value variety and choice. This is yet another explanation of the dumbed down, anti-intellectual, irrational status quo of American unreason.
10. The Implications
Lacking basic intellectual tools, it is much easier to be made into a fool of or to be fooled. This is true for voters, elected officials and decision makers. It should come as no surprise that a dumbed down public will elect dumb-down representatives and public officials. Many people take pride in their ignorance as a demonstration of their authenticity and humanity while at the same convincing themselves that are literate and well-informed critical thinkers. Anti-intellectualism combined with willful ignorance reduces the entire activity of thinking downward in that what accounts for intelligent or wise is defined down along with the rest of the enterprise of junk thought that lowers the lows. This is what makes deceptions possible and renders dishonesties plausible. This makes the non-critical thinking public ready to accept extremism and conspiracy theories.
Optimism about the future is irresponsible in that one cannot reason with people who do not believe in reason and instead prefer some form of irrational faith. With so many people self-isolating it is more difficult to make common cause or come together for a purpose or become engaged in an issue as each person (zombie) is safely stultified, satiated and satisfied in their own personal smartphone or computer cocoon.
American intellectual history is astounding in its irony. A country with a birth in the glow of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment with the advantages of modern scientific knowledge still clinging to a popular culture of anti-rationalism and ignorance. Politics and public discourse are dominated by single-minded self-assured fanatics from the extremes of right and left. Willful ignorance provides the firm foundation for extremist political appeals and religious fundamentalism as well as the echo chambers in which they are heard. Anti-intellectualism, unreason and the general decline of intellectual life in America can take many forms and has many and varied causes. Of course, the greatest risk of anti-intellectualism is that narrowness and ignorance become the new normal to be passed onto to the next generation. Cultural treasure is difficult accumulate and easy to squander.
Top reviews from other countries
Although primarily concerned with the United States,this book has strong resonance in the UK and is well worth reading for those who care about education and the development of reasoned thought wherever they may live.
Although I do not share all of the author's concerns about the impacts of the internet, of social media, or of popular culture, her concerns about the celebration of ignorance, and the belittling of intellectualism are relevant and highly persuasive throughout, particularly in the last few chapters which made me want to applaud and cheer out loud.
An excellent book, and one of the best I have read for many a year.
a land of so many poorly educated, backward rightwingers will love this. Strangely it is not at all anti American and the book shines with examples of good ol US brilliance.
Havent finished it but am enthralled.
Leider ist ihr Schreibstil sehr trocken, teilweise langatmig und schwer verdaulich. Das macht die Lektüre mühsam. Trotzdem habe ich viel Neues gelernt und Altes wurde mir wieder mehr bewusst. Was mich etwas gestört hat, war allerdings eine gewisse Arroganz seitens der Autorin gegenüber "schlichter " Popmusik, z.B. die Beatles, die sie im Vergleich zur "wertvollen" Klassik doch sehr abwertet. Die selbe Arroganz zeigt sie gegenüber der Populärwissenschaft und anderen, der Mittelklasse leicht zugänglichen Kunstformen. Obwohl ich der Autorin nicht in allen Punkten zustimmen kann, ist ihr Buch trotzdem ein notwendiges und informatives Werk.