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The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby: A Book Review: Part Eight

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.


It seems that we now have hold of a timeline, within which to frame Susan Jacoby's "Good Old Days" thesis. I will quote from page 103 again, where she writes: "Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth-century lyceum movement..." (1).

I should say here that Jacoby tells us the "lyceum" movement was the practice of setting up local, community lecture hall events, to which professional scholars and scientists were invited to talk to lay communities about all manner of subjects of interest.

Jacoby also tells us, elsewhere in the text that this movement started in the 1820s

As I said before, for our purposes, just think of the word "middlebrow" as meaning "middle class."

To continue: "...----when no one thought of culture in terms of 'brows'---and extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was a culture of aspiration" (2).

This timeline, so far, carries us from the early nineteenth century lyceum movement through to the early 1960s.

Remember, Jacoby tells us that the lyceum movement started in the United States, in the 1820s. Because I like nice, round numbers, I'm going to call that 1820.

Our timeline, then, so far, is from 1820 -- the early 1960s. But we're not done.

Then on page 127 we read:

"At first, the process was all but imperceptible. The precipitous decline of reading and writing skills, now attested by every objective means---from tests of both children and adults to the shrinking number of Americans who read for pleasure---was more than two decades away. Books still mattered enormously, not only at the beginning of the sixties but also throughout the social convulsions of the late sixties. Yet there were visible signs and portents for those able to read them" (3).

At the beginning of the 1960s, "[b]ooks still mattered enormously," and [t]the precipitous decline of reading and writing skills" of "both children and adults" "was more than two decades away."

I'm going to call that 1980.

Our rough timeline, then, is 1820-1980. We are told of "visible signs and portents" that showed themselves in the 1960s, to "those able to read them.

Afternoon newspapers were starting to lose readers, throughout the country, by the early 1960s. Evening papers were on the way to extinction by the end of the decade. Magazines like the Saturday Review were, as Susan Jacoby puts it, "hemorrhaging" subscribers (4).

Let me back up a bit.

For those of you who have been following this series, you know that I have been proposing my own theory, in dialogue with Susan Jacoby's text. The rough question Susan Jacoby seems to be asking is this: After supporting a vigorous intellectual culture for about one hundred sixty years, 1820-1980, why did American fall off and turn away from the printed word and fair, balanced, rational intellectual discourse fuelled by professional scholars and scientists? Why did America succumb to anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism after 1980?

For Jacoby we can say that the years 1820-1980, roughly, represent, more or less, the "Good Old Days" of American intellectual culture, when it was a reading, critically thinking culture dedicated to fair and balanced, rational discourse, and so on.

I have said that when dealing with a "Good Old Days" thesis, we must look at those days and see how "good" they really were. We often find that they weren't so good, after all; and it is precisely in the way they were not-so-good, that helps to explain why and how those nominal good old days came to pass us by.

Now then, those of you who have been following this series of essays, know that I have made the controversial claim---always in dialogue with the text under review---that something negative was fuelling the "Good Old Days" of American intellectual vibrancy, as Susan Jacoby sees it, during the years 1820-1980, roughly.

That negative thing is what I have called "the subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification." I made this determination by looking at just what Americans were "learning" from 1820-1980---almost all of it infected, to one degree or another, with anti-black and reverential White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (which excluded "white" folks from southern and eastern Europe, by the way) worship.

I have said that this subliminal narcotic was like the secret, addictive ingredient which drove American intellectualism from 1820-1980, in dialogue with Susan Jacoby's thesis; and when this narcotic could no longer be supplied, after 1980 or so, white Americans, in particular, lost interest in the world of ideas, as Susan Jacoby sees it.

Let us briefly take up the issue of newspapers. One of the "visible signs and portents" Jacoby refers to is the fall off of newspapers readers that began in the early 1960s. The question is: Why did this happen?

Here's the thing. Not a darn thing has changed. That is to say, that from the outset the American news media, as a whole, has been infected with "the subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification." When the narcotic started wearing off in the 1960s, Americans' interest in public affairs and current events, as disseminated by the news media, started to wane.

I should tell you that I am not speculating when I say this. This conclusion is not merely my own---the person writing this, an amateur Internet writer, after all. No, this conclusion---worded somewhat differently---can be found in a marvelous book I'm in the middle of reading: News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres.

The subtitle says it all, does it not? This book is a history of the development of the American news media system, from colonial times to the present. Clearly, the results of their research made a strong impression upon the two authors, such that they have determined that the history of the American news media system is centrally concerned with an "epic story of race."

Just in the introduction of their book we read:

"... we focus on how newspapers, radio, and television depicted a fundamental fault line of US society---that of race and ethnicity. You will find gathered in one place for the first time the details of a startling number of major news events in which press organizations consciously misled the public and inflamed racial bias" (5).

Further down in the next paragraph they say:

"It is our contention that newspapers, radio, and television played a pivotal role in perpetuating racist views among the general population. They did so by routinely portraying non-white minorities as threats to white society and by reinforcing racial ignorance, group hatred, and discriminatory government policies. The news media thus assumed primary authorship of a deeply flawed national narrative: the creation myth of heroic European settlers battling an array of backward and violent non-white peoples to forge the world's greatest democratic republic. The first draft of America's racial history was not restricted to a particular geographical region or time period---to the pre--Civil War South, for example, or the western frontier during the Indian Wars; nor was it merely the product of the virulent prejudice of a few influential media barons or opinion writers or of a specific chain of newspapers or television stations. Rather it has persisted as a constant theme of American news reporting from the days of Publick Occurrences, the first colonial newspaper, to the age of the Internet" (6).

The reason that this should have become the case, say Gonzalez and Torres, has to do with the settler origin of the country and newspapers as, initially, organs of "intelligence" information for European settlers about the dangers they faced from "sculking," "barbarous" Indians and "rebellious Negroes" (7).

It also has to do with the initial layout of the national postal system and the role they played as nexus points throughout the wilderness for the dissemination of that "intelligence" (8). Basically, old habits "Die Hard," as it were; and this helps to explain the dissatisfaction many peoples of color, in the United States, feel toward the mainstream media, for the way their communities are portrayed to this day.

Now then, as I said before, Susan Jacoby informs us that in the United States, readership of newspapers started to fall off in the early 1960s.

I have just given you a very slight taste of my justification for saying that the American news media from 1820-1980, at very least, was infected with the "subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification."

Therefore, Susan Jacoby's question is: Why did newspaper readership start to fall off in the 1960s?

The short answer I give to that is that: The subconsciously addictive "subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification" was starting to wear off in the 1960s, which lead in the decline of American news consumption.

Now the question is: Why did the "subliminal narcotic" start to wear off, for America, in the 1960s?

I think we can turn to Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, for at least a partial answer.

According to him, the 1960s were like "A Tale of Two Cities," both the best of times and the worst of times.

Economically, the United States was still experiencing its "Golden Age" of American capitalism, for both manual workers and employers; American capitalism was still experiencing its post-World War II bounce, if you will (9). But it was the worst of times, in terms of "urban unrest." An August 1966 AP/IPSOS poll asked Americans if the country was on the right track or wrong track (10).

Twenty-six percent said the country was on the "right track," but seventy-one percent said "wrong track." There were several reasons for this: crime rates were on the rise (or thought to be on the rise --- Italics mine); cities were being devastated by riots; many privileged youth were going the counterculture route ("hippies"); and demonstrators were protesting the Vietnam War (11).

Between 1964 and 1978, Americans were asked by the American National Elections Studies survey whether they favored strict segregation, desegregation, or something in between. In 1964 twenty-three percent said "strict segregation." Thirty-two percent said "desegregation" (12). This, of course, means that about forty-five percent were still favoring some form of segregation in 1964.

This isn't surprising, given the fact that throughout the 1960s, more than 60 percent of (white) Americans polled said that the Civil Rights people were pushing too hard, for too much, too fast (13).

Dr. Krugman says that between 1957 and 1970 crime rates tripled. The rate of robbery quadrupled (14).

And so, "public perception of the Civil Rights movement," writes Dr. Krugman, "became entangled with the rising tide of urban unrest---a linkage that served to legitimate and harden resistance to further Civil Rights progress (15).

Of course, the sixties were a socially explosive decade that brought all kinds of social justice movements to fruition involving gender roles, sexual orientation, minority rights, and so on. All of this told the country and the world that everything was not "Ozzy and Harriet" with America anymore, if it ever had been.

To many, America seemed like a country out of control, coming apart at the seams. It was getting harder and harder in the sixties, therefore, to maintain a narrative of Aryan victory, in general, and American Aryan victory, in particular. When that happened, when the "subliminal narcotic" started to wear off for white Americans, they lost interest in the news.

I want to close this part with another word about television. Throughout her text, Susan Jacoby invokes this medium as a cause for American culture's turn away from intellectualism and commitment to the printed word. We, of course, are talking about television-as-"boob tube" or "idiot box," as Jacoby seems to see the medium; we are not talking about television to the extent that it serves as a public service/educational tool (which I think it does in many ways).

Regarding the fall off of newspaper reading Jacoby writes:

"Again, the main reason was television, which came into its own as the chief source of breaking news during the days following President Kennedy's assassination. Although few cultural observers saw it coming, all print media were already struggling to survive in the lengthening shadow of television" (16).

Breaking news aside, I am more inclined to see television-as-boob tube as a result not a cause for America's turn away from intellectualism. Indeed, television-as-boob tube can be said to have served as a distraction---as in Chapter Ten of Susan Jacoby's book: "The Culture of Distraction."

Distraction from what?

I just told you. But we'll talk about it more next time, when I may have something to add.

Thank you for reading.

See you in part nine!


1. Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. Pantheon Books, 2008. 103

2. ibid

3. ibid, 127

4. ibid

5. Gonzalez, Juan & Torres, Joseph. News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Verso, 2011. (paperback). 2

6. ibid, 3

7. ibid, Chapter One, starting on page 20.

8. ibid, Chapter Two, starting on page 31

9. Krugman, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal. W.W. Norton, 2007. 48

10. ibid, 79-81

11. ibid, 81

12. ibid, 84

13. ibid, 85

14. ibid, 87

15. ibid, 86

16. Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. 127


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