In America today, author Susan Jacoby sees a cultural landscape that is, in her words, "defining dumbness downward." In her new book, The Age of American Unreason, she argues that Americans have grown increasingly passive and uninformed amid a video-driven culture that prizes "infotainment," celebrates ignorance, and devalues critical thinking. The net result, she says, is a "crisis of memory and knowledge" that poses a serious threat to the two pillars of American intellectual life, reading and conversation, and carries very real consequences, such as the war in Iraq.
Jacoby, who has written on religion, law, and Soviet politics, is now the program director for the Center for Inquiry-New York City, a rationalist think tank. She spoke about her new book with U.S. News. Excerpts:
You say that antirationalism is much more disturbing today but not new. Why?
Antirational beliefs, such as the classic "The sun revolves around the Earth," have historically been a reflection of how little we knew. We would expect there to be much less of it today because we know so much more about the world. So the fact that there has been such an upsurge of antirationalism in America in the past 20 years is puzzling and disturbing because the sum of knowledge is so much more.
What's a recent example?
I was particularly shocked, in a recent National Geographic -Roper study, by how many Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 don't think it's important to know a foreign language or to know the location of countries in which important news is being made. Not knowing these things is ignorance. Being proud of not knowing them is something else. It's being both antirational and anti-intellectual. To say that it's not at all important to know a foreign language is just plain stupid.
What role have video and digital media played in the trend?
Video culture, as it appears in the digital media, gives you a quick hit but doesn't encourage you to go further. It substitutes for reading more. The main difference today is that it's 24-7. Everyone forgets it's actually been little more than 10 years since we've had the capacity to carry infotainment around with us 24 hours a day.
Some critics have called you a Luddite. What's your response?
Luddites are people who didn't want to use new things as tools. I regard computers and all the digital media as a great tool. How could I not? I'm a writer and a journalist. But when you start confusing tools with real knowledge and stop thinking about how you're using it and how much you're using these tools, that's where the danger is in technology.
Ultimately you put much of the blame on the American people.
Dumbness is us. When I hear people saying, "You were lied to," usually in relation to the Iraq war, I think the fundamental question we should ask is really why we as a people were so susceptible to lies. If we don't know where Iraq is on a map, if we don't know anything about other cultures, if we don't know anything about our history, the problem comes from us.
Reading on the Internet, you argue, is not "true" reading. Why?
We use the Web as a shortcut, as a way to provide specific information. I don't think we are reading on the Internet for the sense of loss of consciousness, as you sometimes [do] in fiction, or for really acquiring knowledge—as opposed to just information—as in the case of nonfiction. When we pick up a book, we are not just looking for scraps of information.
Could online reading evolve?
There is a fair amount of evidence already to suggest that it won't. Newspapers thought that online editions would be able to attract young people who don't read traditional print newspapers. That hasn't happened. The proportion of the young who read online newspapers is small, just as the proportion of the young who read print newspapers is small. Online readers of newspapers also read fewer articles.
Many newspapers and magazines are cutting content to attract new readers. You see this as a losing game.
You cannot beat the video image at its own game. You can cut the hell out of stories, and still it's longer than what people can get on the TV, and there's so much information that is immediately visibly accessible on things like YouTube. I think magazines may have to content themselves with being a resource for people who want to read. You cannot outdo the lowest common denominator yourself.
Does it bother you, then, to know this interview is going to be greatly condensed?
I would be a hypocrite to be too bothered, because whether I write 500 words or 5,000 words, I have long been in the business of condensing. I think there is a place for short. If readers are interested in the subject, maybe they will read more about it. Magazines and newspapers have always served as a spur for people who are interested to read more.