A Load of Junk

Susan Jacoby's book traces the decline in rationality in the U.S. to the 1960s student revolts, which eliminated the distinction between high and low culture. Welcome to a world where McCartney is on a par with Bach

"The Age of American Unreason" by Susan Jacoby, Pantheon Books, 384 pages, $26

Here in Israel we are still nurturing high hopes for what U.S. President George W. Bush can achieve in the little time he has left in the White House. Maybe in five or six months he will succeed in getting rid of obstacles that 60 years of statehood haven't been able to overcome. Americans apparently know him better: They aren't expecting much and are in fact already very energetically engaged in summing up his presidency. Some are busy analyzing the Iraq War, whereas others are examining his domestic policies; many still don't understand how Bush ever attained this exalted and crucial position.

Susan Jacoby has not written a book about the Bush era. The ills she finds in U.S. culture and society originate in more distant days. However, to her, Bush symbolizes the collapse of rational thought in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine that a country ruled by rational thought would have elected to its highest office this person, who takes pride in his ignorance and even mocks a journalist for addressing a French visitor to Washington in perfect French.

Now, as the U.S. is planning to elect a new president, Jacoby is urging her readers to clarify how educated, open and rational the candidate of their choice will be. It is not a good idea, she says, to place at the helm of the Western world a leader who is proud that he has not visited many countries, or finds it difficult to point to the exact location of Iraq on a map.

The author discovers the first inklings of these ills in the early days of the republic, but devotes the bulk of her efforts to research on the 1960s - when repugnance toward scholarliness and learning, combined with an affinity for all kinds of vain theories that she calls "junk thought," began to take hold.

Jacoby's outlook is liberal, and the neoconservatives in her country drive her wild. But this does not mean that she is coming from the left to attack the right. When she enumerates, one by one, the roots of irrationality, she finds many guilty parties on the left. Jacoby is not scared by the champions of political correctness: She lashes out in all directions, and the world she describes is noisy, uncultured and boring.

The need to entertain and the fear of those moments of solitude, when an individual observes and develops a deeper understanding of himself, lie at the root of the evil. The irrational American has lost his capacity to concentrate. Lecturers at U.S. universities are having a hard time getting their students to read more than a page or two. Television unceasingly broadcasts all kinds of reality shows that cut viewers off from the real world, and even the news has to entertain. There is no longer any information. All that remains is "infotainment" - a ceaseless effort to capture the attention of the viewer, whose ability to concentrate is dwindling day by day.

But no one is worried. American society has never admired intellectuals, has never put them at the top of its list of heroes. Today this anti-intellectualism has reached a troublesome and pervasive peak - in politics, in the economy and even in the bastions of education, which have ceased to disseminate rational thought and have adapted themselves to mass audiences whose members' only aim is to get a job and receive anything of interest at record speed. And the less the average American knows about his surroundings, his past and the world in which he lives, the more all kinds of benighted and pseudo-scientific philosophies gain control over his mind and consciousness. The "spiritual" junk culture is not just the province of Protestant sects. Even the Catholics, who in the past were wary of television preachers and religious teachers, are now thronging after various magicians and prattlers promising them a world that is all good, if only they believe. There is no need for facts.

Discarded classics

Jacoby does not hesitate to point to the 1960s student uprising as the ground upon which the scorn for rationalism blossomed in the U.S. The students who took to the streets, calling for the curriculum to include subjects and issues that had thus far been kept off campus, ended up demanding a complete takeover of the curriculum and the right to make the rules for what is permitted and what is not. They must not be required to read too much, they must not be faced with difficult tests, and henceforth, in the U.S., one can take up not only black studies and gender studies but also "fat studies."

The revolt that began with the demand to discard the canon and eliminate the classics as required reading has brought about the total elimination of any distinction between high and low culture. Anyone who argues, like Jacoby, that with all due respect to the works of Paul McCartney, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach are more important and meaningful, risks being deplored as a conservative, an elitist and a snob. Everyone exalts Woodstock and the glory days of flower power as the trailblazers to an open, liberal and liberated society and forgets the harsh facts: The rebels of those days quickly found their way into benighted and anti-intellectual movements that raise the banner of "spiritual" belief systems, and deride the demands of knowledge and rationalism.

Leftist circles in the U.S. are in no hurry to forget the dark days of intellectual oppression during the term of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy. Those who suffered and were persecuted back then - joined by many who did not suffer that much and were not persecuted either - have become intellectual heroes, models for those who succeeded them. Needless to say, Jacoby is no admirer of McCarthyism, but she does exhort her readers to remember that some of the left's cultural heroes became abject slaves of communist dogma, and as such did not hesitate to attack those spirits free of any kind of dogma and oppose intellectualism and rationalism.

Jacoby is not the least bit surprised that some of the champions of neoconservatism in the U.S. have "Red" backgrounds. Not just Red, but bright Trotskyite Red. When it boils down to it, they did not stray from their path. Both then and now they stood at the head of those demanding the imposition of extreme theories. Both then and now they did not hesitate to scorn a fabric of solid facts in favor of pipe dreams and delusions. Reality has never interested them: After all, they have come into the world in order to change it. Back then they wanted to impose "perpetual revolution" on both reality and history; today they want to force on Iraq their formula for democracy, which remains the same, regardless of circumstances, code of ethics or history.

Glory of science

In 1925 John Scopes, a high school teacher, was convicted of violating the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The proceedings quickly became known as "the Monkey Trials" and caused a storm across the country. The prosecutor, attorney William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic candidate for the presidency, was the darling of the fundamentalists and a demagogue of indefatigable ability. Right at the start of the trial he announced that he was more interested in the Rock of Ages than in the age of rocks.

The ignorant and fundamentalist jury convicted Scopes, but the verdict aroused a huge scandal in the country's north, and intellectuals from all classes enlisted to defend the teacher and his basic rights. In the end, it was widely held that, despite the loss in court, rationality had won the day, and along with it the glory and freedom of science. No one would have imagined, asserts Jacoby, that the debate would arise again some 80 years later, accompanied by the realization that today, perhaps even more so than in 1925, the American public is prepared to trample and crush anyone who argues in favor of Charles Darwin.

The difference between then and now, she relates, is that the contemporary disciples of irrationalism have mastered all the methods of the modern world. They make effective use of the Internet, television, the press and several methods of brainwashing. And they know that in today's world, the less knowledge and education the average person has, the deeper his belief in a kind of omnipotent "science" that explains everything. And so even the fundamentalist story of creation is disseminated in scientific guise. Just as there are "junk thoughts," there is also "junk science," and the disseminators of "spirituality," with all their repugnance toward intellectualism, have numerous "scientists" to deal with every possible issue. They will even prove, using "scientific tools," that there is truth to astrology, Jacoby sums up. And when they are joined by a nation's leadership, the paths to real science are blocked, while those who uphold it are branded as desiccated intellectuals who refuse to see the light.

Susan Jacoby is a fiery and radical rationalist. She writes wonderfully and her sentences are beautifully honed. She is fighting a war for America's soul, and as in a real war, all means are fair. This extremism sometimes drives her over the edge: Where a sensible and explained argument would have done the job just fine, she wrathfully adds a measure of insult. Thus, for example, in her attack on left-wing intellectuals of the 1950s, it seems as though she is just as antagonistic toward McCarthy's enemies, who are depicted as culpable and harmful.

The book is a best seller in the U.S. and is arousing much debate, yet it is hard to imagine that even a sharp and acute analysis like this can perceptably limit the cacophony in which we all are living, both in America and in Israel.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and the editor of the Horizons Series at Am Oved.