Finished Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" this morning. I was a tad disappointed, in part for reasons that appear to be built into this sort of book: the inevitable tone of a nanny, and the sense that what she considers to be "unreason" is really just believing something that she doesn't. I had much the same reaction to Allan Bloom's less readable "The Closing of the American Mind," although he came at the issue from a very different ideological framework. Still haven't read more than a few pages of Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," which Jacoby's book attempts to update. I think Hofstadter's book may be sitting on a shelf in the attic, but my own anti-intellectualism has kept me from digging it up so far.
Whatever her book's failings, Jacoby is on solid ground when she raises concerns that Americans are becoming too plain ignorant to govern themselves wisely. After all, we are five years and counting into a war in Iraq, and most Americans still can't find the country on a map. What's worse, many Americans don't think it's important to be able to find Iraq on a map.
Similarly, most Americans can't name a single Supreme Court justice, and most don't know that the court's job is to settle constitutional questions. Pretty scary.
Most Americans don't even read a newspaper every day anymore. Jacoby acknowledges a certain irony in this lament: Newspapers were once far from an elevated way to learn about national affairs, but they are so far above their apparent replacements that their loss could be devastating. (She doesn't think much of the blogosphere, which she finds nasty and mutually self-reinforcing.)
All of which leads me in a roundabout way back to my posts of Dec. 26 and Dec. 29, in which I castigated a conservative talk-show host for spouting unscientific nonsense about global warming. I went a few rounds with an anonymous commenter about this before he (or she) finally concluded: "Actually, I'm open-minded about the issue. I'm willing to be convinced that we need to take strong steps to control greenhouse gases. But I'm skeptical of a lot of reporting on the issue."
Fair enough. And pretty much what I think. Which may have been (or perhaps should have been) my point. So much of what passes for political discourse in this country tends to drive apart people on matters about which they fundamentally agree. The irresponsible rhetoric of people like Bill Cunningham and Sean Hannity keeps us from seeing that we really can work together on important matters.
It's sort of like the "chosen one" rhetoric about Barack Obama that I took such vitriolic exception to before the last election. It wasn't just that the rhetoric was false -- nobody, outside of a wacko or two, really thinks Obama has supernatural powers. What made the rhetoric so offensive was that it functioned as a sort of anti-knowledge. That sort of talk actually made the people who listened to it dumber than they were before they started listening. We don't need to get any dumber.
Then there is this sort of rhetoric in today's Gazette. Unlike global warming or the morality of abortion, the question of whether it's more dangerous to drive with or without a seatbelt really isn't open to debate. It's a settled matter. The Dec. 25 Outpost quoted the Montana Seatbelt Coalition as saying that the failure of some Montanans to wear seatbelts costs every driver in the state $51 a year in higher taxes and health insurance costs. The figure may be debatable, but the premise isn't. The letter writer wants me to pay higher taxes and insurance rates out of consideration for his dumb friend's irrational fear about wearing seatbelts.
He writes, "I think my friend and I have enough information to make our own decisions." But his friend, we can be sure, couldn't cite a single scrap of information, outside of perhaps a few anecdotes, to bolster his case. The evidence just doesn't exist.
And Jacoby's argument resounds: Some of us don't know enough to make decisions about how to govern ourselves.
UPDATE: Think you know where Iraq is? Prove it.