Thursday, March 13, 2008

Heather Wilhelm Reviews "The Age of American Unreason"

Over at Real Clear Politics, Heather Wilhelm reviews Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. I can't imagine this book has anything to add to what Al Gore wrote in The Assault on Reason, but who knows. Based on the review, it sounds like it's just more religion bashing, which leaves it far beneath the level of Gore's book.

Just how ignorant are Americans, anyway? These days, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone defending the nation's collective intellect--and, in some cases, for good reason. Two thirds of Americans between ages of 18-24 can't find Iraq on a map. When asked what function DNA serves, two thirds of Americans have no idea. And in a recent survey that would have Copernicus turning in his grave, one in five American adults believe that the sun revolves around the earth.

Bashing American ignorance, of course, has long been popular. In 2004, slumped punk band Green Day earned a comeback--and a Grammy Award--with their album "American Idiot." Bush mockery has grown into a cottage industry, giving cash registers a workout across the country. The latest surge of bestselling books, meanwhile ("God is Not Great," "The End of Faith") belittle American religion as a silly refuge for the ignorant masses.

With her new bestseller, "The Age of American Unreason," Susan Jacoby adds fuel to the public bonfire. Americans are not only increasingly knowledge-challenged, she argues: they're also proud of it. "America is now ill," she writes, "with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism." This new, insidious strain--at odds with reason, objective facts, and modern science--has grown over the past twenty years, she writes, and is incredibly dangerous for American culture and politics.

Building upon Richard Hofstadter's 1963 Pulitzer Prize winner, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," Jacoby weaves through various purported causes for American "unreason," including mass digital media, the legacy of the sixties, youth and celebrity culture, and historical egghead-bashing. Some of her explanations are satisfying, particularly those surrounding our rapid-fire "culture of distraction." The majority, however, are clouded by the author's quickly evident and sizable hang-up regarding a well-worn bogeyman: the powerful, united front of intolerant American fundamentalists bent on national control.


Read the whole review.


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