Now Playing at Reason.tv: The Age of American Unreason: Gillespie Q&A with Susan Jacoby

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On C-SPAN's Book TV, reason's Nick Gillespie recently sat down with Susan Jacoby, author of the new book The Age of American Unreason, to talk about anti-intellectualism on the right and left, trends in popular culture, and what Jacoby sees as a dangerous decline in the level of academic and political discourse.

From C-SPAN's description of the book:

In "The Age of American Unreason," Susan Jacoby offers a critique on American society and says that the combination of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in American culture is becoming a serious problem. In the book she focuses on issues including society's addiction to mass media, ineffective educational systems, and religious fundamentalism.

It's a spirited and intense conversation between a cultural pessimist and a cultural optimist that lasts for about an hour.

Click on the image below to watch.

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  1. The biggest source of unreason is the belief that government is the universal solution. This belief is promulgated not just by the politicians (Hillack McBama) but by our schools and media as well.

  2. I caught some of that, it was funny when she got all dismissive (almost authoritarian) when she talked about a film class analyzing Friday the 13th.

  3. Saw the Colbert interview. As his interviews are intended to entertain rather than explore, she came across as seeing this as the age of American right-wing unreason. But that could reflect the bias of the interviewer rather than the interviewee.

  4. I can’t WTFV, but I’m going to guess her argument is a variation of “back when I was young, everything was so much better”.

  5. The biggest source of unreason is the belief that government is the universal problem. This belief is promulgated by right-wing hack politicians of little consequence(Ron Paul, Bob Barr) and has become the orthodoxy of dumbed-down media such as Fox News. True-believer libertarians embrace it in a mindless zombie-like fashion, but they constitute a laughably fringe cult.

  6. It’s a spirited and intense conversation between a cultural pessimist and a cultural optimist that lasts for about an hour.

    Why can’t the “muddle through” crowd ever get some face time in these sorts of debates?

  7. but they constitute a laughably fringe cult

    So laughable you spend hours a day trolling the website of the preeminent libertarian magazine? I don’t get it.

  8. The Age of American Unreason: Gillespie Q&A with Susan Jacoby

    Hmm…does this require one to throw up a previously consumed drink?

  9. MK2,

    Foxnews believes gov’t is the universal problem??? Gov’t strength and power seem to be their go-to positions.

  10. So, who is this woman, thinks she’s so big, sitting in her ivory tower…

  11. I tried watching this on CSPAN the other day but couldn’t get past her horrible teeth! Really, it was horrible.

  12. Doesn’t Nick Gillespie own another jacket?

  13. All joking aside, are we entering into a new dark ages, with belief in religion supplimented by a beleif in ecology and big government?

  14. I can’t WTFV, but I’m going to guess her argument is a variation of “back when I was young, everything was so much better”.

    I’m at 25:07 or so, and I’d say “not so far”, at least. She does have a related problem, though (and this screams through her critique loud and clear), and that she like pretty much everyone her age is an immigrant to the Internet rather than a native. Some of her dismissive tones come from not being able to imagine (or simply not seeing the value of) the ways of using the Internet that she doesn’t.

    e.g. I have a hard time imagining her as a WoW or SL player, which is a topic that does come up.

    Most of her argument seems to be more along the lines of Neil Postman et. al. that new conduits of information (video, computer games, the Internet) are inherently inferior to the written word for reinforcing critical thinking and other intellectual skills, whatever their other peculiar virtues may be.

  15. All joking aside, are we entering into a new dark ages, with belief in religion supplemented by a belief in ecology and big government?

    If I had to guess, no. I’m optimistic to a fault, though, so maybe I’m not the guy to ask.

  16. I survived the “blogs are a waste” screech but passed out after “people watch too much TV.”

    I want my 29 minutes back.

  17. “Radical suspicion of experts is fine. Belief in the superiority of the opinions of ordinary people is not.”

    Probably not the way I’d put it, but not a bad point.

  18. She supplements with “Intellectuals can be as impervious to evidence as everyone else”.

  19. I agree with the anti-rationalism side of what she has to say; junk science and religious fundamentalism are clearly absurd. The anti-intellectual thing is a little harder to prove and she seems bent on making her point by yelling over Gillespie. Either way, she’s got a major “get off my lawn!” complex, and I don’t really dig the internet hatin’.

    @ Justin:
    He probably buys them in bulk, hence his awesomeness.

  20. 46:13 “They’re still just kids. (In College.)”

    Hey, fuck you, lady. Regardless of whatever good and or arguable points otherwise.

    If 18 is good enough to die in Iraq, buy cigarettes, vote, and drive a car…

    Her view of popular culture is also pretty contemptible. Nick is absolutely right insofar as popular culture, in view of its impact on our society, is better treated as something grappled with and analyzed (and, *gasp*, deconstructed), rather than ignored as being beneath serious concern.

  21. She does have some good points, and I think she’s more reasonable than Nick gives her credit for. It looks like he was just waiting for her to say that government should enforce xyz, and that simply isn’t her position.

    Her condescension is difficult to take though, and she seems to resent that poor or less educated people have a voice at all. It really comes down to the one exchange about reading on the internet, as if this new scary technological way of reading text is fundamentally different from a printed page.

    “People don’t actually read things on the internet, they just scan. At least, that’s all I do.”

  22. Sounds to me that she and Buzz Bissinger should just go fuck and get it over with.

  23. I only made it 16 minutes in. She didn’t very savvy when discussing new media etc. She started off quite well though, and maybe her book is better.

  24. She defines “fundamentalism” as one who takes every word of the Bible literally. She then says there are 100 million fundamentalists in the USA. Does anyone buy that number for a second?

  25. She did start off well.

    It’s hard to take her seriously, though, when she says something to the effect of “People should not be allowed to choose the kind of education I chose”.

    Why is that Susan? Are the rest of us too fucking stupid and/or lazy to further our education outside of a University setting?

    She managed to overcome her nearly debilitating college years, but surely us mere mortals are unequipped.

    Her valid points were obscured by her apparent arrogance.

    Or maybe she was off put by Nick’s kick ass side burns.

  26. She then says there are 100 million fundamentalists in the USA. Does anyone buy that number for a second?

    There’s too damned many of them, but she’s not even in the ballpark on the number.

  27. according to this (pdf) from the census bureau (from a self-identification telephone survey – the census is not actually to ask religious affiliation questions in its enumeration data collection):

    People who id themselves as ‘Born again’ ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Fundementalist’ Christians comprise a little over a million people. However, this only counts those who described themselves as such and not as a member of any specific denomination.

    There are of course an unknown percentage (20%? 50%? 80%) of the remaining 200 million self-id’ed christians who share the same traits, but simply id’d themselves as ‘baptists’ (for example) first.

  28. Gay people are invariably liberal and statist, so there’re to damn many of them. Black people are invariably socialist, so there are too damn many of them.

    Offended you yet? Of course. But it’s fine saying “there’re too damn many fundamentalists” even though they come in all stripes: libertarian, anarchist, fascist.

    Double standard J sub D?

  29. Ms. Jacoby is also the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which in my opinion is a very good overview of how America has in the past held secular thinkers such as the founding fathers, Robert Ingersoll, Sam Clemmens, Carl Sagan and others in very high regard. Though I do think she over-estimates their influence on the ideology of the less educated masses.

    I have read a review of her newest book and have seen the interview and have become perplexed. Living now in S. Indiana I drive past a big billboard for the Creation Museum and various billboards reminding me of the Ten Commandments and the “reality” of Hell whenever I head home to PA, so I sympathize on her fear that Americans are allowing religion to overtake their ability to think rationally. But her attacks on pop culture and the media seem born of ignorance, conciete or just plain “ivory tower syndrome”.

    One would think given her obvious knowledge concerning American history that she would better understand the cyclical nature of American secularism vs. religious fervor and that much of American pop culture has always been crass, dumb and viewed with disdain by the elites. Heck even ol’Mark Twain was seen as a hick author writting base drivel. Oh, well maybe 120 years in the future South Park will be finally recognized as some of the most intelligent and insightful satire of the early 21st Century. I think Mark Twain would like it.

  30. Offended you yet? Of course. But it’s fine saying “there’re too damn many fundamentalists”

    You don’t choose to be gay or black.

    You do choose to be an idiot fundamentalist, so fuck off, hysteria.

  31. How does that make sense, Ayn Randian? You think it’s rational to be a bigot and a prick to anybody who chooses to do anything that doesn’t infringe on your rights.

    So what if I CHOOSE to pray? That somehow makes it okay for you to be an asshole and a prick to me. Sure you have the right to be so, but wishing for my extermination when I’ve never done a thing to you? That’s not rational.

    And, according to your goddess Ayn, homosexuality IS a deviant behavior.

  32. Fundamentalists–feh. I’d have much more respect for them if they limited themselves to the level of technology found in whatever Prime Text they’re taking as the Word of God, be they Christian Fundies, Islamic Fundies, or Pagan Fundies.

    But they don’t. Fundies loudly proclaim the evil of Reason, Logic, and Evidence, but then turn around and are perfectly happy to enjoy the technological fruits of the scientific method. A total bunch of rent-seekers and free-riders.

    An economy run by fundamentalists would quickly slide down the slope to agricultural scratching of the soil.

    One reason why when the oil runs out, Saudi Arabia will quickly devolve back into being an economy running on goat-herding and date-gathering–that’s all their culture allows them to do.

  33. Uh, look religious people. No one is being bigoted towards you because you’re religious. We’re bigoted towards you because we believe that you operate under a supernaturally based worldview that inevitably leads to suppression of rights. If you don’t think this criticism applies to you, then it probably doesn’t. But you know that it does apply to too many people.

    I don’t get mad at the Amish for being religious, because they leave me alone. Christian fundamentalists don’t want to leave me alone, so i get mad. Understand?

  34. How does that make sense, Ayn Randian? You think it’s rational to be a bigot and a prick to anybody who chooses to do anything that doesn’t infringe on your rights.

    So what if I CHOOSE to pray? That somehow makes it okay for you to be an asshole and a prick to me. Sure you have the right to be so, but wishing for my extermination when I’ve never done a thing to you? That’s not rational.

    And, according to your goddess Ayn, homosexuality IS a deviant behavior.

    jj, no one has a problem with people praying. No one said that. What people have a problem with is idiot fundamentalists (redundant, I know). People who force their beliefs on others–it’s in the name ‘evangelical’. And I’m pretty sure Ayn_Randian told you to fuck off, which doesn’t mean ‘get thee to a gas chamber’ so no need to pull out the extermination-martyr card. Lighten the fuck up. It’s rational not to want to be around someone who’s moronic religious beliefs are spouted off at every opportunity. So if fundamentalists would shut the fuck up, they wouldn’t have people talking shit about them. They run that risk when they continue to try to force their bullshit down everyone’s throats.

    And please find any evidence that Ayn_Randian considers Rand to be a god. That’s purely rhetorical dickiness on your part.

  35. When, exactly, was this lost age when American culture was intellectual, and had an elevated level of academic and political discourse?

  36. She struck me as being rather unprepared, or caught off the hop by some rather reasonable requests for evidence to back up assertions. I found it ironic that I was playing WoW and posting on a blog while listening to her misunderstand the new media available to her. But, as someone else said, she’s not a native to the Internet. That would excuse her ignorance if she hadn’t, y’know, written a book about it.

    As for 1/3 of Americans being fundamentalists, I bet you could get that number with the right poll question. Heck, “The Bible is literally true” could probably get 1/3 ‘agree’ responses.

  37. The dismissive attitude toward popular culture was annoying, not because I love pop culture, but because she didn’t get why it was being studied.

    And yes, the notion that people shouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to get an education like hers was beyond silly. Anyone wanting to be taken seriously should really try to avoid saying anything synonymous with ‘It was ok for me but not for anyone else’.

    What all of the ‘core curriculum’ types always seem to miss is that so many ages of monumental intellectual achievement managed to occur without it.

    I mean, Aristotle does seem worth reading, even if his education wasn’t quite as well rounded as these people would like.

  38. Great interview Nick. I’m glad you stood your ground.

  39. I only got about 15-20 minutes in before I had to trundle off to bed. I had just gotten to the part where she was complaining that since the advent of video, most information is consumed in small, disconnected bits. I found that ironic, since I was watching her say that in an hour-long, continuous video.

  40. One thing i think Nick might have missed about her story about two 30ish well dressed individuals in a bar during 9/11/2001 in which one expressed no knowledge of what pearl harbor was and the other thought it was when Vietnam bombed us is that it was 2001 and these two people in the bar were 30ish.

    I am positive i had the same conversation at about the same time with someone else and i am positive we both feigned ignorance as to what pearl harbor was.

    Anyway she can be forgiven for not recognizing gen x games in irony but nick really can’t be.

  41. A while ago, while riding in an elevator, I made a purposely stupid remark to my wife: “Stonewall Jackson, didn’t he burn down Atlanta?!” A woman who overheard snickered at my dumb remark. I guess I’m lucky we don’t live in the South — I might have gotten worse than a snicker.

  42. “Stonewall Jackson, didn’t he burn down Atlanta?!”

    No shit he didn’t…he burned down Zanadu and everyone knows it!

  43. I’m reposting this from the video blog

    I was disappointed that she couldn’t point to some specific factors vis a vis imagery that make it a qualitatively distinct medium from print. She criticizes the content as well as the vehicle – and I can accept the former as a legit argument – but I think it gets slippery when you start talking about abstract (or fundamentally, neurological) differences between perceptual modes. This move is essential to her argument, because if you can’t establish the medium itself as the problem, then you’re stuck with the real possibility that new media are simply encouraging behaviors and tendencies (i.e. consumption of ‘dumb’ content) that have been there all along.

    The fundamental issues with her argument (and world view) were summed up in the end when she was asked whether or not a working grasp of evolution was essential to modern life. To her, anything less than a textbook understanding of the (read: her) ‘fundamentals’ amounts to ignorance; thus her critique is actually one of specialization, not stupidity. So, as such, we could (conceivably) be a country of Mozarts and still fall under her critique. I think theres something wrong with that. The individual life is governed by a unique set of incentives and fascinations; flexibility, not wholesale curricula, should be the principal concern of educators.

  44. “She defines “fundamentalism” as one who takes every word of the Bible literally. She then says there are 100 million fundamentalists in the USA. Does anyone buy that number for a second?”

    Maybe she’s including free-market fundamentalists who also happen to read the Bible.

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