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

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.


Welcome to part seven of this review; and while we're at it, let's remember what we're trying to accomplish with this series. The book under review is Susan Jacoby's, The Age of American Unreason, a valuable intellectual history of the United States of America from the early nineteenth century to just about the present day.

What I'm trying to do in this series, is supply information, working in dialogue with her text. The reason I am doing this, once again, is to engage her "Good Old Days" thesis about what has happened to America's former commitment to intellectualism and rationality, as she sees it. I am all about trying to trace what exactly fuelled those "good old days."

The question is (What caused the dramatic fall off?), as Jacoby sees it, such that we find ourselves in what she calls "The Age of American Unreason." If we can identify what fuelled the previous, relatively "good old days," we might be able to identify what has happened to that fuel; and thus, we may find that as the fuel goes, so to speak, so goes the American culture's commitment to intellectualism.

Does that make sense?

In other words, for example, if we were to find out that "Alpo" fuelled America's former commitment to intellectualism, and we wanted to figure out why America's commitment to intellectualism, the thing to do, first, would be to see if there was any change in the nature and/or availability of the Alpo that had been previously powering the previous age of intellectualism (reason).

Is that any clearer, I hope?

If you have been following this series from the first installment, you know that I have been claiming that what I call the subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification was the thing that powered America's previous commitment to intellectualism. It is my contention that when this narcotic---which had been supporting America's commitment to "book learning" and such---became no longer available, America found itself lacking the will and energy to sustain enthusiasm for intellectualism. That is my idea in a nutshell; and if you have been following this series from the first installment, you know that I have given evidence to support that contention, and I plan to offer a little more such evidence.

Susan Jacoby offers her own ideas, of course, about the causes of the drift of American culture into anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. But her causes could just as easily be classified as results.

Here's what I mean. Susan Jacoby identifies television as a cause of this age of American unreason, anti-intellectualism. But when you label a problem 'X' and give its "causes" as 'X1' and 'X2,' you have only exercised lateral movement, so to speak. In other words, you have not gotten behind the 'X.'

As I've mentioned before, to her assertion that television is a cause of this current age of American anti-intellectualism, we can pose the question: Would a culture that had remained committed to intellectualism and the printed word have allowed television to supplant the former? Its really sort of a "chicken and egg" problem.

I should add this refinement: When Jacoby speaks of television, she is talking about television as "boob tube" or the "idiot box." She is not talking about television in its public service/educational role.

Of course, we can only infer that Susan Jacoby is speaking of television as "boob tube," because she does not actually make any specific qualitative indictment against the medium. However (and I suppose you'll have to trust me on this for now) the "tone" of her words, whenever Jacoby sees fit to raise the topic of television, is one of television-as-"boob tube."

We need to reframe the question, then, like this: Would a culture that had remained committed to intellectualism and the printed word have permitted television to become the "boob tube," or "idiot box," apart from the medium's initially promised public service and educational role? Or we can ask it this way: Would a culture that had remained committed to intellectualism and the printed word, have supported television's devolution into the "boob tube" or "idiot box"?

If the answer is no, then we are back to our original question: What caused American culture's alienation from intellectualism and the printed word, such that we fill the void with television, especially television-as-"boob tube"? Let me put it this way: A married woman does not have an affair with another man unless there are already deep problems in the marriage. The other man does not cause the problems in her marriage; she only gravitates to him, seeking temporary relief from the problems in her marriage.

As you know, I have been claiming that what has caused American culture's alienation from intellectualism and the printed word is the withdrawal of the "subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification," the presence of which had been the subconsciously addictive element of Americans' hunger for learning---like the nicotine in cigarettes. When it no longer became possible to supply that subliminal narcotic, the American commitment to intellectualism and the printed word, as Susan Jacoby sees it, basically collapsed.

Chapter Five of Susan Jacoby's book is titled Middlebrow Culture From Noon To Twilight. With this term 'middlebrow,' Jacoby is basically talking about the middle class.

Anyway, she writes: "Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth-century lyceum movement---when no one thought of culture in terms of 'brows'---and the extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was at heart a culture of aspiration. Its aim was not so much to vanquish the culture of the gutter, although that was part of the idea, as to offer a portal to something more elevated" (1).

And, again: "The distinctive feature of American middlebrow culture was its embodiment of the old civic credo that anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself. Many uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants, cherished middlebrow values: the millions of sets of encyclopedias sold door to door from the twenties through the fifties were often purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing" (2).

Those two quotes give us a snapshot of what the situation was like in the "good old days." As we try to make a determination about why there has been such a dramatic fall off, as Susan Jacoby sees it, my approach is to interrogate the nature of those good old days, by asking what powered them.


The time period we're talking about, according to Jacoby, is the early-nineteenth-century to the early-1960s. Since that is the case, one thing we have to look at, one thing we cannot in all good conscious neglect, is the period of the 1920s and 1930s---which, among other things, gave us the American eugenics movement.

We might consider, then, how eugenics may have impacted American intellectual culture. We're going to do that, briefly, with the help of historian Thaddeus Russell.

It seems that by the mid-1930s, forty-one states in the Union prohibited marriage among the 'feeble-minded' and insane. Thirty states allowed for eugenic sterilization. In Alabama those considered by the state to be 'feeble-minded,' were involuntarily sterilized; in California 'habitual criminals,' 'idiots,' and 'mental defectives' could be forced to have surgery; and in Connecticut 'those with inherited tendency to crime' could be sterilized (3).

Laws in fourteen states applied to epileptics. In North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington 'moral degenerates' and 'sexual perverts' were sterilized; in Idaho and Iowa 'morally degenerate persons' were sterilized; and in Wisconsin the law applied to 'criminal persons' (4).

Dr. Russell cited another historian, Steven Selden, author of Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America, who reminded all of us that: 'Eugenic ideology was deeply embedded in American popular culture during the 1920s and 1930s' (5).

American culture was saturated with this sort of thing. Movies like The Black Stork promoted the sterilization of 'unfit' women. Many ministers taught their congregations that genetically superior people should be careful to avoid marrying someone from an inferior gene pool. State fairs all across the United States featured 'Fitter Families' exhibits that offered free eugenic evaluations (6).

Those who received low scores were warned that they might be among those Americans 'born to be a burden on the rest.' High scorers were given medals proclaiming, 'Yea, I Have a Goodly Heritage.' In the 1930s most high school textbooks included lessons on eugenics, including the concept of 'fit' and 'unfit' races, as well as the need to sterilize the 'unit' to preserve American culture. Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown were among the hundreds of colleges and universities that offered courses on eugenics (7).

The part I found particularly disturbing about this history, was the fact that a large number of progressives who established many of the principles of the New Deal, were also deeply involved with the eugenics movement. Dr. Russell names names: Margaret Sanger, David Starr Jordan, Robert Latham Owen, William Allen Wilson, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robert Latou Dickinson, Katherine Bement Davis, Virginia Gildersleeve, Simon Patten, and Scott Nearing (8), if such names mean anything to you.

Paul Popenoe's book, Sterilization for Human Betterment, was one of the first American books to be translated into German by the Nazi government; and it was widely cited by Hitler's 'racial hygiene' theorists to justify the Nazi's own sterilization programs. In 1934 Popenoe praised Hitler for establishing 'his hopes of biological regeneration solidly on the application of biological principles of human society' (9).

Although more sterilizations took place during the New Deal than at any other time, in the history of the United States of America, Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, director of Western State Hospital in Virginia, in 1938, was complaining that America was lollygagging compared to the expeditiousness with which Germany was sterilizing its unworthies.

Dr. DeJarnette: 'Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years... The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum (10).

Just a few points...

1. When we talk about the eugenics movement proper, we are, interestingly enough, actually talking about "white-on-white" racism; that is the chauvinism of "white supremacists," who understand themselves to be of northern and western European descent, toward those of southern and eastern European descent.

2. No idea ever comes into the world sui generis, that is, out of nothing. An idea or concept is thought about and discussed long before it is given a formal name; and this same idea or concept is considered and discussed long after its official term becomes unfashionable to the lexicon of the society. That means although eugenics proper is specifically located in the 1920s and 1930s, it actually extends back at least to the early-nineteenth-century and extends forward to at least to the early-1960s.

3. As we have seen, these eugenic ideas were embedded in high school textbooks; hundreds of colleges and universities offered courses; ministers preached about this stuff to their congregations; and state fairs all across America, offered from eugenics evaluations. The concept was thoroughly infused into American society.

I think that most Americans, who think about this stuff in our intellectual history, believe that the racist propaganda and the solid, fully rational knowledge product were somehow kept separate. In this way we can simply forget the past and move forward. But I believe that racist propaganda virally infected solid, fully rational American knowledge product.

I would say that a lot of decontamination of American knowledge product has occurred; and yet the work of knowledge detoxification is not quite finished, in my opinion. I think the fact that America basically takes a rejectionist stance toward evolution, and the other fact that our high school students routinely score around the bottom of the pack on international science exams, are indications of this.

I suspect that there is something fundamentally off about the way we Americans conceptualize the natural world, compared to other advanced industrialized societies like ours.

4. These embedded eugenic ideas, acting like the addictive element of cigarettes---nicotine---were responsible for America's commitment to intellectualism from the early-nineteenth-century through the early-1960s.

5. As for "uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants" who "cherished middlebrow values"---let's see what kind of "values" they cherished.

This historian Nell Irvin Painter tells us what kind of "values" were transmitted to immigrants. She writes: "Popular literature also mirrored the movies, even as the war effort stressed diversity. A 1945 study by Columbia's Bureau of Applied Social Research found that stories published between 1937 and 1943 in magazines reaching twenty million readers featured 889 characters, of whom 90.8 percent were Anglo-Saxon. The rare non-Anglo-Saxons were stereotyped as menial workers, gangsters, crooked fight promoters, and thieving nightclub owners, while Anglo-Saxons in central roles were honest and admirable, their superiority taken for granted. The advertising seeping into every corner of American popular culture beamed out smiling Nordics free, beautiful, and desirable" (11).

And also: "With real American identity coded according to race, being a real American often meant joining antiblack racism and seeing oneself as white against the blacks. Looking back to the war years, an Italian American recalled a tempting invitation to take sides during the Harlem riot of 1943: "I remember standing on a corner, a guy would throw the door open and say, 'Come on down.' They were goin' to Harlem to get in the riot. They'd say, 'Let's beat up some niggers.' It was wonderful. It was new. The Italo-Americans stopped being Italo and started becoming Americans. We joined this group. Now we're like you guys, right?' The temptation and the decision to succumb did not pass unnoticed. Malcolm X, spokesman of the black nationalist Nation of Islam, and Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize laureate in literature, later noted that the first English word out of the mouths of European immigrants was frequently 'nigger.' Actually, Morrison said it was the second, after 'okay'" (12).

What we're talking about, here, is the viral transmission of native-born American White Anglo-Saxon Protestant types, to incoming "white" European immigrants, of the "subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification."

Thank you for reading. See you in part eight.


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

2. ibid, 104

3. Russell, Thaddeus. A Renegade History Of The United States. The Free Press, 2010. 266

4. ibid

5. ibid, 266-267

6. ibid, 267

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. ibid,

10. ibid, 268

11. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (paperback). 363

12. ibid


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