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The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby (Part Ten): A Book Review

Updated on January 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.


Chapter Eight of Mrs. Jacoby's book is titled "The New Old-Time Religion." She does not tell us why fundamentalist religion is so powerful in the United States, but she is plenty disturbed by the fact of it. She believes it is a major---or perhaps The---major contributing factor to nothing less than the "dumbing down" of America.

Nothing better expresses that sentiment than the following passage. Susan Jacoby writes:

"[I]t is much easier to understand why an American would have sought the answer to life's problems in a passionate 'born again' relationship with God in 1800 than in 2000. Furthermore, the potential for lethal practical consequences increases as the gap between evidence-based science and faith widens. It did relatively little harm in the early nineteenth century for preachers to proclaim that sickness and death must be accepted as God's punishment for sin, because science and medicine had almost nothing to offer as an alternative to acceptance of the divine will. It does great harm today, however, for Protestant fundamentalists and right-wing Catholics to insist, against all scientific evidence, that condoms do nothing to halt the spread of AIDS and that abstinence --- the only method sanctioned by God and the course least likely to be followed by humans --- is the single morally legitimate way to fight life-threatening disease. Nor did it really matter if vast numbers of Americans believed, at the time of the Second Great Awakening, that the earth was exactly four thousand years old. It matters very much today because creationism, which denies the most critical scientific insights not only of the twentieth but of the nineteenth century, has adversely affected public education in many areas of the nation and is one important reason why American high school students know less about science than their contemporaries in Europe and Asia" (1).

Quite so! I agree entirely, however, the question this begs is: Why is it that we, in the United States of America, cannot come to a consensus about the nature of reality itself regardless of religion? What makes the United States such a world outlier?

The thing I come back to, again and again, is America's uniquely harsh and bitter legacy of racism. As you know, the United States has one of the most intensely bitter legacies of racism of all the countries in the world. You simply have to recall the institutions of African enslavement and the near-extinction of the indigenous peoples to know that this is so.

My point is that race-supremacist ideology does not admit the oneness of humanity. American-born white supremacy does not embrace the oneness of humanity. Any attempt to study science on that basis can only result in self-delusional failure. As I have said before, it seems to me that there is something fundamentally off about the way we Americans conceptualize the natural world, which works to the manifest disadvantage of our youngsters, in international science and math testing.

This is a problem which, in my opinion, cannot be solved reading more, or having students do more homework, or having them spend more time in school; it cannot be solved with a tight reign on teacher qualifications, or getting the most up-to-date technology into the classroom, and so forth.

More love is what we need, as the Beattles said. Only love can conquer this kind of ignorance. We have to make that "leap of faith," if you will, to act as though we know that human beings of the Earth are one family, genetically, biologically, morally, ethically, and psychically interconnected and indivisible.

Only love can conquer certain kinds of dubious conceptual formulations, which Susan Jacoby calls "junk thought" (chapter nine of Jacoby's book is titled "Junk Thought). I'm talking about the kinds of junk thought that does not embrace the oneness of humanity.

I'm talking about the kind of "junk thought," for example, that conceptualizes "Men" as being "from Mars" and "Women from Venus." The following example does not come out of racism, but patriarchal sexism.

Susan Jacoby writes:

"In entirely straight-faced fashion, Newsweek magazine began a 2005 cover story, titled 'Boy Brains, Girl Brains,' with the following paragraph:

(Jacoby quotes the paragraph):

'Three years ago, Jeff Gray, the principal at Foust Elementary School in Owensboro, Ky..., realized that his school needed help --- and fast... So Gray took a controversial course for educators on brain development, then revamped the first- and second-grade curriculum. The biggest change" he divided the classes by gender. Because males have less serotonin in their brains, which Gray was taught may cause them to fidget more, desks were removed from the boys' classrooms and they got short exercise periods throughout the day. Because females may have more oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding, girls were given a carpeted area where they sit and discuss their feelings. Because boys have higher levels of testosterone and are theoretically more competitive, they were given timed, multiple-choice tests. The girls were given multiple-choice tests, but got more time to complete them...' (2).

Susan Jacoby is woefully aggrieved at what she sees as the astonishing ignorance and, perhaps, mental laziness, which confuses coincidence with causation (3). What I say is simply this: The ideology of male supremacy does not embrace the oneness of humanity, does not see human beings as belonging to the same family.

Only love can conquer this kind of ignorance, making the decision to love your fellow people as if we are one family---which we are.

In our society, the LGBT community continues to face severe structural discrimination and oppression. Homosexuality is spoken of in terms of "sin," and some fundamentalist ideology, in adding insult to injury, claims that prayer can "cure" homosexuality.

The ideology of heterosexual supremacy, whether religious or secular in nature, does not embrace the oneness of humanity, does not believe that all human beings belong to one family. This is so no matter what words come out of the mouths of proponents of heterosexual supremacy; this is so no matter how compassionate a proponent of heterosexual supremacy may seem ("loving" the person, "hating" the "sin," as some of them say).

Again, only true love can conquer such ignorance.

The ideology of what I will call genius supremacy (I'm talking about the whole apparatus of supposedly being able to quantify "intelligence" through "I.Q." and other kinds of testing) does not embrace the oneness of humanity.

Only love can conquer this kind of ignorance.

Only love can conquer that division of "junk thought." Of course, there are other divisions of junk thought that are not subject to a love-cure. These other divisions, like the one we have just examined, are simply held beliefs that are not subject to evidentiary challenge, are held in spite of---and maybe even because of in some cases---an absence of evidence supporting them.

I'll close with this...

"Expert-bashing---a favorite tool of both the right and the left," writes Susan Jacoby, "is another distinguishing mark of junk thought, and the effectiveness of the technique depends on the public's inability to distinguish among good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. Scientific evidence, however overwhelming, is dismissed by the expert-bashers as politically biased" (4).

Here's what I would say to that: First, any expert idea about science, which fails to embrace the oneness of humanity, which exhibits this absence of love, deserves to be "bashed," in my opinion.

Second: I have been talking about the "subliminal narcotic of white supremacy ego justification" in this series of essays. This addictive substance was not just packaged "in the guise" of science; this "subliminal narcotic" was grafted onto the body of actual good science, as disseminated to the public by good, mainstream scientists, of good and distinguished reputation (5).

Therefore, it is no wonder, then, that we Americans have some trouble sorting out good science from bad science from pseudoscience. Figures of trust and world renown sold pseudo and bad science (the subliminal narcotic) to the public as good science.

If there is an excessive amount of "expert-bashing" in the United States, perhaps it is because, somewhere, deep down inside, the American public (subconsciously and transmitted as such throughout the generations) knows they have been "burned" too many times.

Recall my "stock market of ideas" theory. If there is an excessive amount of "expert-bashing" in America, perhaps it is because the American public (subconsciously and transmitted as such throughout the generations) have the feeling that they have been duped too many times by the "scams" of idea "stockbrokers" who were either incompetent or corrupt or both.

Does that make sense?

Thank you for reading. See you in part eleven!

1. Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. Pantheon Books, 2008. 187

2. ibid, 212

3. ibid, 222

4. ibid, 225

5. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. (soft cover). Note: The entire book is an intellectual history of the development of 'scientific racism' in the United States. A careful reading of the text will show that what Susan Jacoby calls "bad science" and "pseudoscience" was grafted onto the formerly healthy body of good science; and that this mutated creation was presented in books and lectures, to the American public, not by outliers or "quacks," but by the most well respected, internationally renown scholars and scientists.


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