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The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby: A Book Review: Part One: The Conceptual Framework of Analysis

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Today we're going to look at The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. The edition I have in my hands is hardcover, published by Pantheon Books (a division of Random House) in New York, in 2008. The book is about 315 pages, not including the introduction, notes, selected bibliography, acknowledgments, and index.


Let me start by saying that Jacoby pursues what I call a "Good Old Days" thesis. What do I mean by the term "Good Old Days" thesis?

A Good Old Days thesis is found whenever an author makes an argument, that once upon a time society functioned exceedingly well, in one or another respect; but between those halcyon days and our current, fallen state, there has been a severe qualitative drop off in the level of society's functioning, in whatever area the author focuses on.

Let's start by reading the blurb on the inside jacket cover. Ready? Let's read it together:

"Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon---one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science. With mordant wit, she surveys an anti-rationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of 'junk thought.' Disdain for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.

"Jacoby offers an unsparing indictment of the American addiction to infotainment---from television to the Web---and cites this toxic dependency as the major element distinguishing our current age of unreason from earlier outbreaks of American anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. With reading on the decline and scientific and historical illiteracy on the rise, an increasingly ignorant public square is dominated by debased media-driven language and received opinion.

"At this critical political juncture, nothing could be more important than recognizing the 'overarching crisis of memory and knowledge' described in this impassioned book, which challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what the flight from reason has cost us as individuals and as a nation."

Preface (continued)

Basically, "once upon a time," in the "good old days" American culture had been much more (and more broadly) intellectually curious and vigorous than it is today, a time in which we have fallen into a state of "[d]isdain for logic and evidence" that "defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public."

I want to propose a theory, if I may. What explains the rise and fall of prevalent ideas and attitudes in a society?

I am going to propose the existence of something I think of as a stock market of ideas. This stock market of ideas, as I would have it, functions much like a standard, financial stock market. Understand that people buy stocks, not based on intimate knowledge of various companies and what they do. They buy the stocks based on past "performance" and projected, likely future performance (That is to say: Has the stock made a lot of money before and will it do so for the foreseeable future?).

You buy the financial stock because you think it will make you money, based on its movement along the Dow Jones, and what-have-you.

What I would like to propose is that a similar thing happens with people, as they adopt ideas to blather on about.

Let me back up a step. As you know, during the course of a life, one comes across many ideas and concepts and articulations of attitudes on a variety of subjects. Because there are only twenty-four hours in a day and seven days in a week, one does not have time to form bone-deep convictions about ALL of the ideas, concepts, and articulations of attitudes on various topics.

Suppose one develops a handful of bone-deep convictions on things. As for the rest, she has to pick and choose like "stocks." She chooses whether or not to "buy" them, as the expression goes, based on what I shall call their "demonstrated social performance."

In other words, she will purchase x, y, z "idea-stocks" because she believes that by espousing those ideas at parties and other social occasions, she will seem smart, aware, well-informed, which should make her more popular.

Preface (continued)

Are you still with me?


In the regular, financial stock market, when lots and lots and lots of people hysterically buy a stock in a company, the stock price tends to rise hysterically; and this tends to draw in more investors, who see what is happening on the Dow Jones, and want to get in on it before the music stops.

But then, inevitably, something happens and people start selling and before you know it, the stock has plummeted into the basement. It is now not seen as financially advantageous for you to hold on to x stock; and its likely that you don't know any more about the company than when you first bought the stock.

In the world of "idea-stocks," the same thing happens. There comes a time when there is a massive "run" on a certain "idea-stock," with people "selling" it as fast as they can. Espousing those ideas no longer makes you the hit of the dinner party; it no longer makes you the center of attention; it no longer makes you the wise one.

Stay with me!

Let us say that she has adopted a certain "idea-stock," on a certain subject, which she has never developed a "bone-deep," inner and personal conviction about.

Let us say that twenty years later she has "sold" said "idea-stock" because its use is no longer socially advantageous to her. Does that mean that with one stroke, she has liberated herself from the attitudes attendant to the viewpoint she had been espousing, while she had formerly been in proud possession of the "idea-stock"?

I would say that the answer is no, because having spent decades in possession of that "idea-stock," she spent decades voicing that viewpoint. The time spent voicing the viewpoint, that came with the "idea-stock," has developed, within her, what I call "certain habits of mind and heart."

So, from the outside looking in, although she may have "sold" her "idea-stock," we might see that her "inner" heart, concerning the viewpoint of the idea-stock, was not that different from the person who had developed an organic, "bone-deep conviction" on the same issue.

The difference is that the latter will voice her opinion with pride under any and all circumstances. The former will act with more social discretion, while "believing" the same thing as the latter.

Does that make sense?


We've talked a little bit about my ideas of the "Good Old Days" thesis and the "idea stock market." These are concepts that will help you understand what I will be talking about in this book review.

I want to propose a third thing: the infection of American knowledge. What on Earth do I mean by "the infection of American knowledge"? I mean to say that I will be making a case---which is easily supported by historical evidence---that American knowledge has been infected by racism; and that the infection is particularly and uniquely acute in America, because America's legacy of racism is among the most severe in all the world.

What does this have to do with... anything? Let's go back to the concept of the "Good Old Days" thesis. I would say that over the course of at least the last ten years, the "Good Old Days" thesis, in history, has come under intense critical scrutiny.

When presented with a "Good Old Days" thesis, the idea is to ask the question: Was the Good Old Days really good old days? Or, put another way: Just how "good" were these supposed "Good Old Days," anyway?

Now then, an answer to this question frequently exposes some "chinks in the armor," as it were, concerning those "Good Old Days." And it is those chinks that go a long way in explaining why there had been a qualitative drop off from those times and the present, in one area or another.

Are you following me?

That is why I mentioned "the infection of American knowledge" by way of racism, specifically "scientific racism," I should say. That, I will argue, is the chink in the armor of the Good Old Days of broad and deep American intellectual engagement.

Introduction (continued)

Before coming to the review itself, I feel compelled to offer one or two examples of how my "stock market of ideas" thesis works.

The American Civil War of the 1860s

When the South lost and Southerners came to realize how isolated they were from the rest of world opinion, about slavery, said Southerners responded in a pragmatic way.

Their prosecution of the war had been based on their "bone-deep conviction" of defending slavery as a positive, moral good. When they saw how isolated they were from world opinion, they bought tons of "idea-stock," which re-fashioned the justification of the war on the basis of defense against overreaching, "big government" and "state's rights."

For the first generations of Southern holders of that "idea-stock," their suppressed, bone-deep convictions about slavery as a positive good mingled with a newly acquired "idea-stock" of state sovereignty. The latter would have been, at that time, a pragmatic acquisition, "bought" not because Southerners believed it, but bought by them to begin "fitting in."

That "idea-stock" of state's rights was passed down to generation after generation after generation, to children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on.

As Southerners held on to and passed down the "idea-stock" of state's rights, "habits of heart and mind" developed individually and across generations. In this way, it may be that the "state's rights" frame of mind has achieved complete separation from the suppressed bone-deep conviction of slavery as a positive good.

That is to say, it is not necessarily the case that both the "bone-deep conviction" as well as the "idea-stock" of state's rights were passed down, continually, as a pair.

Remember, people always want to believe that we are good. The Southerners would not have liked to directly and consciously self-identify with anything considered evil by almost the whole world. Therefore, the first generation of Southern purchasers of the "idea-stock" of state's rights would not have wanted to tell their children: We fought the Civil War to defend slavery, which is good; and to uphold state's rights in general.

So, time moves on and over the course of the generations, the idea-stock of states' rights becomes the bone-deep conviction and the original bone-deep conviction of white supremacy and justification of slavery recedes. This might be true, although conservative politicians and conservative government officials with the states' rights ideology can, nevertheless, enact policies that have results of a structurally racist nature, because, after all, the concept of states' rights was born of the Southern desire to have the North adopt a hands off policy, with respect to how white Southerners would conduct race relations after the Civil War.

For example, we saw, in the 1960s, how Southerners' attempts to assert "states' rights," compelled the federal government to send federal troops into southern states to protect the rights of African Americans.

Introduction (continued)

Death of a Salesman (by Arthur Miller)

Those of you familiar with this play, know that its central concern is a man called Willie Loman. He is a sixty-something traveling salesman for the Wagner Corporation. Willie has been a salesman with the company for several decades.

He is a salesman. But not only is he not good at it, he has never liked it much.

We know from the text of the play that Willie has paternal abandonment issues; he father walked out on the family when Willie was "just a baby." It, therefore, seems most likely that for this reason, Willie invested heavily in the idea-stock of being "well liked."

This particular investment portfolio tells Willie that the way to have friends, and, more importantly, get ahead in "the business world" is to be "well liked." Of course, Willie Loman is neither a successful salesman nor well liked; but that does not stop him from trumpeting the virtue of being well liked, and pretending to his wife, Linda, and his two sons, primarily, that he is a well liked success in "the business world."

Here comes the interesting part! We can observe that Willie's investment in the idea-stock of being well liked, has created---in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde fashion---a false self.

The false self is both his dogged adherence to the profession of selling and his fraudulent portrayal of himself as a well liked, successful salesman. Of course, this self is false because Willie is neither well liked nor a successful salesman.

Mind you, however, although Willie's well liked, successful salesman persona is false, this does not mean it is not real. Indeed, this false self is quite real because WIllie has been cultivating it for most of his sixty-odd years of life. His long-term ownership of the idea-stock of being well liked has, as I have mentioned before, created certain, ingrained "habits of mind and heart."

Willie has a true self. The true self is who Willie Loman was really meant to be in this world. His true self is who Willie Loman is, when he is being honest with himself. Willie Loman has the soul and skill of a carpenter. That is what his older son, Biff perceives.

Biff doesn't think the family should be in the big city of New York. He thinks they are more fitted for a life in the country, working out of doors, with their shirts off, and whistling. Whistling is a bit of a thing in one scene of the play. You see, people trying to make it big in "the business world," especially in New York, must not do anything so uncouth as, say, whistle in an elevator.

But "a carpenter is allowed to whistle," Biff angrily declares. At that moment Willie Loman walks in and says to Biff, "Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter."

Nevertheless, that is Willie Loman's "true self," which we see let loose from time to time, throughout the play.

Introduction (continued)

Here comes the really interesting thing about Willie Loman's true and false selves. First of all, both selves are equally real. His true self is organic, intrinsic to his being. His false self is real because his long-term possession of the idea-stock of being well liked, over the course of several decades, has deeply ingrained "habits of mind and heart," which have become "bone-deep" convictions.

Willie has two sons: his older boy, Biff, the charismatic, golden boy high school football player; and Hap, his somewhat overlooked second son.

It turns out that Willie's two selves are inheritable! Biff winds up inheriting Willie's true self, the one that likes working with his hands, with tools, and outside. Although, initially it looks like Biff and Hap will both inherit Willie's false self. But those of you familiar with the play, know that a crisis happened that caused Biff to reject the promises of the world to which his father's false self belongs.

Hap, the second son, inherits Willie's false self. He has passed down the now "bone-deep conviction" that the way to get ahead in life and in "the business world" is to be well liked. The interesting thing here, though, is that if you attend very closely to Hap, you see that he has become a man just like his father's false self.

Hap also works in sales. He pretends to be successful at it and well liked. However, like his father, Hap is not a good at sales, doesn't like much anyway, and is not well liked.

We know that Hap's persona, interestingly, is not at the level of bone-deep conviction and more like the conscious possession of idea-stock. We know this because there is a scene near the end of the play in which we see Hap forcing himself to stay in the salesman's life.

Biff proposes that he and Hap go out west and start a ranch together---The Loman Brothers! Hap finally and decisively rejects this proposal by pointing out that their father, Willie, had had "a good dream."

This was said in response to Biff's notion that Willie had had "the wrong dream," which was quite true, although none of the other characters could see that.

But how can one's dream be good or bad, wrong or right? It is his dream.

Willie's "dream" was the dream of his false self. Although that false self was real, it was inauthentic. Does that make sense?

That is why Willie's dream was "wrong."

At any rate, Hap says that Willie had had a good dream; and that he, Hap, meant to stay in New York and "win it for him" instead of going out west with his brother to start their own ranch---The Loman Brothers!

Hap cleaves to the legacy of his father's false self because---Hap's persona is only at the level of the conscious possession of the idea-stock of being well liked, and not at the level of bone-deep conviction---he has no "true self" to fall back on. Hap has never figured out who he truly was; his only identity was an inherited false self that had not even solidified into bone-deep conviction.

Introduction (continued)

The reason I wrote all of that, above, for part one, is because I wanted to lay out the conceptual tools I mean to use to engage Susan Jacoby's book, "The Age of American Unreason." There are basically two. I mean to engage the text as what I have termed her "Good Old Days" thesis to follow her reasoning as to why there has been such a fall off of American intellectual life between the 1980s and today.

The second tool is my "stock market of ideas" theory to propose, in dialogue with the text, my own answer to that question, as well as evaluate her own argument.

Thank you for reading. See you in part two.


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