Sunday, March 30, 2008

Becalmed Among The Great Unwashed

You know, I don’t think I’m going to finish reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason. I imagine Jacoby feels better for having written it, vented her bile, and talked to the press about it. But I don’t feel better for having read the first eighty pages, so I’m gonna vent my bile right here.

As I expected, The Age of American Unreason is an extended and not very skillful game of “Ain’t It Awful.” In a way, it’s frustrating to read, because I do dislike most of the things she dislikes, but then I don’t need her to tell me about them. On the other hand, I don’t share her fury over the use of “folks”:
a plague spread by the President of the United States, television anchors, radio talk show hosts, preachers in megachurches, self-help gurus, and anyone else attempting to demonstrate his or her identification with ordinary, presumably wholesome American values. Only a few decades ago, Americans were addressed as people or, in the more distant past, ladies and gentlemen. Now we are all folks.
A plague? Darling, get a grip. Reading this, one wants to deliver a Hollywood-style hysterics-stopping slap upside Jacoby’s head, and wipe the flecks of foam from her quivering lips. Someone who gets as worked up over “folks” as about creationism, infotainment, and Larry Summers’s slighting remarks about lady academics – and, as far as I can tell, more upset than she gets about the US war in Iraq – needs to work on her priorities. (Two hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift threw a similar hissyfit over the word “mob”, which would never take the place of “rabble” in his heart. I agree with the writer Jay Quinn that it's a shame Swift didn’t win that battle, so we could talk today about rock stars being “rabbled” by their fans.) If she opposes the war in Iraq, it seems to be because of Bush’s belief that he is Yahweh’s instrument, not because innocent people are getting, like, hurt and killed there. There’s an odd lack of ordinary humanity in Jacoby’s jeremiad. (How can you worry about dying children when Americans are misusing apostrophes?)

Nor has she convinced me that things are that much different from the way they used to be, especially since her own evidence has a way of refuting her. She thinks that reactionary Christian religion is more influential in American life than it was in the 1800s, though she documents plenty of anti-intellectualism and Christian square-headedness from that era, which managed to flourish without the aid of today’s mass media. She brushes aside the Second Great Awakening with a sniff, to focus on an oration by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Harvard College’s Class of 1837. Emerson told his audience that “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself” – making basically the same complaint then that Jacoby’s making now, only without videogames and Oprah. Ironically, the burden of Emerson’s oration was that it was time for American culture to stand on its own two feet, rather than leaning on Europe; Jacoby regards Europe today as a comparatively enlightened place where Christians don’t keep Darwin out of the schools. She also admits that “American freethought” was “never a majority movement,” which is probably putting it mildly, but it still undermines her thesis that things used to be better.

Oh yeah – I asked a dozen or so undergraduates around the dorm where I work if they knew what Pearl Harbor was, since Jacoby told the New York Times that her book was inspired by overhearing two yuppies in a bar on the night of September 11, 2001, who seemed to have no idea about it. Everyone I asked knew that the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese led to the US entry to World War II. Jacoby will be relieved to know that the coming generation of college students know their history pretty well, even if that fact takes some wind out of her book’s sails.