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The Age of American Unreasonby Susan Jacoby
Synopses & Reviews
Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon — one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science. With mordant wit, she surveys an anti-rationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of junk thought. Disdain for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.
Jacoby offers an unsparing indictment of the American addiction to infotainment — from television to the Web — and cites this toxic dependency as the major element distinguishing our current age of unreason from earlier outbreaks of American anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. With reading on the decline and scientific and historical illiteracy on the rise, an increasingly ignorant public square is dominated by debased media-driven language and received opinion.
At this critical political juncture, nothing could be more important than recognizing the overarching crisis of memory and knowledge described in this impassioned, tough-minded book, which challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what the flights from reason has cost us as individuals and as a nation.
"Inspired by Richard Hofstadter's trenchant 1963 cultural analysis Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism) has produced an engaging, updated and meticulously thought-out continuation of her academic idol's research. Dismayed by the average U.S. citizen's political and social apathy and the overall 'crisis of memory and knowledge involving everything about the way we learn and think,' Jacoby passionately argues that the nation's current cult of unreason has deadly and destructive consequences (the war in Iraq, for one) and traces the seeds of current anti-intellectualism (and its partner in crime, antirationalism) back to post-WWII society. Unafraid of pointing fingers, she singles out mass media and the resurgence of fundamentalist religion as the primary 'vectors' of anti-intellectualism, while also having harsh words for pseudoscientists. Through historical research, Jacoby breaks down popular beliefs that the 1950s were a cultural wasteland and the 1960s were solely a breeding ground for liberals. Though sometimes partial to inflated prose ('America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism'), Jacoby has assembled an erudite mix of personal anecdotes, cultural history and social commentary to decry America's retreat into 'junk thought.'" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Jacoby deploys sharp insight on our present straits." Los Angeles Times
"Trenchant... One hopes her incisive book, just in time for the 2008 elections, will find an audience among the unconverted who will take her warnings seriously." San Francisco Chronicle
"A surprising and uncommonly sophisticated treatment of a familiar topic." New York Observer
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.
About the Author
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.
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