The Age of American Unreason/Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television

Article excerpt

* Jacoby, Susan (2008). The Age of American Unreason. New York: Pantheon Books, pp. 356.

* Holderman, Lisa (2008). Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, pp. 301.

Two books about anti-intellectualism in U.S. culture generally, and U.S. mass media in particular, take two widely different approaches, yet have at least one major shortcoming in common.

Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason received plenty of play in the mainstream news media and was on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. (She is the author of seven previous books, including Freethinkers: A History of American secularism.) Her introduction and chapter 1 simultaneously attempt to tie her book to historian Richard Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) while making a case for the United States' supposedly "new antiintellectualism." To her, anti-intellectualism is not new, but it has taken new forms.

The rest of the book's chapter titles are "The Way We Lived Then: Intellect and Ignorance in a Young Nation"; "Social Pseudoscience in the Morning of America's Culture Wars"; "Reds, Pinkos, Fellow Travelers"; "Middlebrow Culture from Noon to Night"; "Blaming It on the Sixties"; "Legacies: Youth Culture and Celebrity Culture"; "The Old-Time Religion"; "Junk Thought"; "The Culture of Distraction"; "Public Life: Defining Dumbness Downward"; and "Cultural Conservation" (conclusion). Her approach, therefore, is a combination of history; commentary on popular culture; specifics of religion, education, politics, and the mass media; and critiques of social science.

Thus, the book's topics mostly overlap with Hofstadter's book, which was strictly a history, divided into four sections on anti-intellectualism in U.S. religion, U.S. education, U.S. business, and U.S. politics, respectively. And if Jacoby never directly addresses anti-intellectualism among business executives or corporations, she offers enough about commercial influences on U.S. culture to say business and economics were included. The title of Jacoby's first chapter, "The Way We Live Now: Just Us Folks," even reminds one of Hofststadter's first chapter, "Anti-intellectualism in Our Time."

But the similarities to Hofstadter's book are not extensive and should not be overstated. Hofstadter's book was and is a masterful history (even if it has been significantly criticized), while much of Jacoby's book is on more or less current events, or at least past recent enough to not yet be "history" with a capital H. Hofstadter's first chapter (and his other discussions of then-current events such as paragraphs on President Kennedy late in chapter 8) seems insincere, even forced, as if his publisher or his conscience or someone else told him that his book couldn't start with his largely theoretical second chapter and had to hold out some hope. One must give Jacoby credit for displaying no false optimism, as the facts and arguments in both her book and Hofstader's don't warrant any, false or otherwise, even if one finds her one-sidedly negative.

Knowledge sociologist Daniel Rigney (1991), among others, has pointed out that the major U.S. "institution" ripe for studying anti-intellectualism in, in both impacting and reflecting U.S. culture, and not addressed by Hofstadter, was the mass media, and Jacoby doesn't make this omission. Sooner or later, her book gets around to newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, the Internet, music, and videogames.

Jacoby's book also pales by comparison to Hofstadter's book. Her chapter on "junk thought," which she defines as "anti-rationalism and contempt for countervailing facts and expert opinion," is (as she almost dismissively says about scientific and social scientific studies showing differences between males and females) mostly just that. That's not to say she doesn't make some good points, only that she often doesn't do it very well. …