Monday, May 12, 2008

Review: The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby

One of the areas of the American political arena that most interests me is how rhetoric and subjugation to emotion affects the path of discourse. All too often, sides are chosen well before the ennumeration of arguments begins, and those arguments, once made, never stray far from the superficial. Today's politics are based on plays to emotions, empty rhetoric, and only a fleeting association with logic and reason.

It is with this frame of reference that I picked up Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. I was hoping, I suppose, for Jacoby to examine the psychological aspects of both the use of 'unreason' in proselytizing and the susceptibility of Americans to such rhetorical facades.

However, the book instead serves as more of a historical view at America's intellectual past and its influence on the current climate. In doing so, Jacoby rehashes much of what has been said before, offering not much in the way of new perspective on historical eras--from the Enlightenment musings of the founding fathers to McCarthy's Red Scare bully pulpit.

These certainly have done much to shape the current state of affairs, but Jacoby is offering nothing new. Like most other 'cultural conservationists' [her term], Jacoby is wary of Literaure curricula not centered on the classics. While I have no doubt that Plato, Aristotle, Paine, and the like are important, I grow weary of arguments suggesting that culture should be centered on these works to the exclusion of all others. The argument, it seems to me, is based almost entirely on nostalgia and indicative of a blind eye toward any work which is either new or has garnered new importance.

Jacoby's obsession with the typical 'dead white men' is not nearly as infuriating as her war on all things newer than parchment. Her aversion to any use of technology is sprinkled throughout the book and retains its own chapter later in the tome. Is there a lot of worthless information on the Iternet? Absolutely. But there's also a lot of good. And for someone who bemoans the faltering import of the classics, Jacoby is all-too-quick to dismiss the Internet's role in introducing people to such works, along with an infinite amount of other resources.

Video games also draw Jacoby's ire, which is to be expected. While I share her annoyance with the 'culture of distraction,' it is a tired argument and does nothing to advance what should be her central tenet. (She even works in the cliched admonishment of Grand Theft Auto.)

Throughout the book, Jacoby illustrates a good, learned perspective of history. But I picked up this book, not in search of a history lesson, but a new vision on the use of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism in American politics. While she dabbles in the latter theme, her recount of history is far from innovative and she pauses too long on cultural inanities for my taste. Overall, an interesting read, but lacking in innovation.

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