The Unreason of the American Age

Michiko Kakutani gives a mildly favorable review in this morning's New York Times to Susan Jacoby's Age of American Unreason. She is certainly correct to argue that "there are few subjects more timely than the one tackled by Jacoby." And I think her conclusion about the book -- "useful if less than electrifying" -- is reasonably accurate.

21jgop0glsl_aa180_ Kakutani is right to argue that the book is a bit of a rehash of Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. My own criticism of the book, however, lies in its narrative structure. The book gets better and better -- which is a kind way of saying that it begins inauspiciously and takes several chapters to really warm up. The early chapters -- particularly those focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries -- are densely predictable and do little credit to the later section of the book with its incisive cultural critique of both the Sixties and of our own Internet age. I particularly enjoyed her discussion on the contemporary crisis of professionalism and what she calls our "chronic suspicion of experts."

While I agreed with a substantial amount of Jacoby's analysis, my biggest problem with the book lay in her blanket critique of video. This eclipse of print culture by video has nothing to do with the rise of unreason. There certainly isn't anything more intrinsically reasonable about print culture (The Protocols of The Elders of Zion) than about video (Vertigo). What is also missing from The Age of Unreason is a discussion on American exceptionalism. Are ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism peculiarly American traits? Or are these the new new things of all societies in the post industrial world?

The most encouraging thing about The Age of American Unreason -- which I strongly advise everyone to read -- is its success. The book is a best seller and has clearly struck a nerve with American readers. I'm thrilled that we are going back to Hofstadter and Postman. Now the challenge is to  transform their ideas into what Michiko Kakutani calls a "coherent new argument."