The Age of American Unreason

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Feb 12, 2008 - History - 356 pages
16 Reviews
A cultural history of the last forty years, The Age of American Unreason focuses on the convergence of social forces-usually treated as separate entities-that has created a perfect storm of anti-rationalism. These include the upsurge of religious fundamentalism, with more political power today than ever before; the failure of public education to create an informed citizenry; and the triumph of video over print culture. Sparing neither the right nor the left, Jacoby asserts that Americans today have embraced a universe of “junk thought” that makes almost no effort to separate fact from opinion.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Susan Jacoby gives us a good, clear-eyed view of American intellectual history; particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century. It's not an exhaustive or definitive history, but it neatly contextualizes the current tendency of media (and political partisans) to misunderstand the pedigree of modern political thought. However, in many respects, it's not unlike Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason" and many other self-righteous polemics. Jacoby is at her best when she's exposing the manner by which society's manipulators and profiteers exploit dangerous cultural trends to their own advantage; she's at her worst when she becomes a misanthropic scold willfully ignoring the psychological pathologies that make average citizens vulnerable to the machinations of the market. (Additionally, the stories of her personal literary life are maddeningly self-aggrandizing.)
Finally, the book falls apart in the final chapters. Here we are assaulted with the usual parade of statistics meant to convince us of the decline of American education. In addition, she takes wild, generalized swings at the Bush administration without taking the time to contextualize or justify them. While there is undoubtedly truth in her conclusions about the Bush administration, she undercuts her credibility by not taking the time to provide comprehensive explanations of how she arrived at them (and by confusing anecdotes with evidence). Consequently, the last few chapters abandon a scholarly tone and sound more like hyperventilated screaming.
It's a decent book, but be prepared to suffer a little.


Just Us Folks
Intellect and Ignorance
three Social Pseudoscience in the Morning
four Reds Pinkos Fellow Travelers
Youth Culture and Celebrity Culture
eight The New OldTime Religion
nine Junk Thought
Defining Dumbness Downward
conclusion Cultural Conservation
Selected Bibliography

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Page 323 - Is it not the chief disgrace in the world not to be a unit, not to be reckoned one character, not to yield that peculiar fruit; which each man was created to bear; but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong; and our opinion predicted geographically, as the north, or the south?
Page 11 - A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

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About the author (2008)

Susan Jacoby is the author of seven previous books, most recently Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which was named a Notable Book of 2004 by the Washington Post and The Times Literary Supplement. She lives in New York City.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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