Episode 78: Susan Jacoby – Going Beyond the Age of American Unreason
“For human evolution to continue, the conversation must deepen.” – Margaret Mead
In this dialogue with Susan Jacoby, we dialogue (rather than argue) about the pressing need to reclaim a love of reading and genuine truth (rather than “truthiness”, in Stephen Colbert’s felicitous turn of phrase, which has been the coin of the realm of media and politicians of the last decades). The first step in the direction of a genuinely new empowerment of general citizen awareness and fulfillment must be in self-education and education of the youngest among us as they grow. That involves going beyond the “bubba” manipulation mentality that has sanctioned ignorance as a badge of pretend patriotism.
In view of the New Era of potential global political change many feel has dawned in the early winter of 2008, this dialogue is particularly interesting in its reference to the historical changes in the family and social mores in the Western world and America over the centuries and recent decades with regard to respect for education, including reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal lecture on the thinking person as a foundational necessity of true freedom and evolving rather than devolving.
“Dialogue is the Language of Evolutionary Transformation”™.
Contact me if you like at www.livingdialogues.com. Visit my blog at Duncan.personallifemedia.com. (For more, including information on the Engaged Elder Wisdom Dialogue Series on my website www.livingdialogues.com, click on Episode Detail to the left above and go to the Transcript section.) (
Among others, programs you will find of interest on these themes are my Dialogues on this site with Deborah Tannen, David Boren, Ted Sorensen, George Lakoff, Andrew Weil, Paul Ray, Steve McIntosh, and Michael Dowd, among others [click on their name(s) in green on right hand column of the Living Dialogues Home Page on this site].
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In furtherance of creating and maintaining the planetary dialogues now required in the 21st century, I featured a special series of dialogues with myself and other elders in the weeks leading up to and including the 2008 Olympics hosted by China and the U.S. 2008 elections. Those dialogues can be listened to separately on this site or as gathered as a series on my website www.livingdialogues.com under the collective title “Engaged Elder Wisdom Dialogues”. They address various specific political aspects of our planetary crisis, with its dangers and opportunities for a visionary and evolutionary shift. (We remember that the Chinese character for “crisis” is often described as meaning both “danger” when visioned from a fear perspective, and “opportunity” when visioned from a wisdom perspective.)
In all my Living Dialogues from their inception I talk in various ways about the call to generate dialogues across generational, ethnic, gender, and national boundaries -- building bridges of understanding and wisdom in the cooperative spirit and reaching out -- required by our 21st century realities, and the essential roles that we all are called to play in our evolution for it to take place.
This is the time for renewed dialogue, for visionary and inspiring discourse producing practical and innovative ways of living and sharing together, to engage our own elder wisdom and youthful inspiration, and in so doing to experience and exemplify that “Dialogue is the Language of Evolutionary Transformation”™.
And that is what we all do, in our mutual roles as host, deep listeners, and guests, when we gather together here from all parts of the globe in Living Dialogues.
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Susan Jacoby: I am Susan Jacoby and I am the author of The Age of American Unreason. I’d like to say that I’ve enjoyed being on Living Dialogues very much because it’s one of the few programs that’s a true conversation and not just an argument.
Duncan Campbell: Welcome to Living Dialogues. I am your host, Duncan Campbell, and with me for this particular dialogue I am really delighted to have as my guest Susan Jacoby, author of a number of books including Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism which was named a notable book of 2004 by the Washington Post Book World and the Times Literary Supplement. She lives in New York City and has most recently published The Age of American Unreason which will be the topic of our dialogue today.
Susan, it’s a real pleasure to have you here on Living Dialogues.
Susan Jacoby: Oh, I’m happy to be here too.
Duncan Campbell: I think your book is very timely. It’s appearing right at the same time that there has been renewed interest in the degeneration of the level of public discourse and even we might say freethinking or independent thinking and the culture around the turn of the century moving from the late 20th century into the early 21st century.
Former Vice President Al Gore not long ago published called the Assault on Reason in which he observed that “the truth is that American democracy is now in danger not from any one set of ideas but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread or wither and die.”
And your book, I think, takes very much the same point of view and you give a very excellent historical view of America before the independence and after and right up to the present in how this particular climate of ideas has either flourished or withered at various points in our history.
Before we get into your historical perspective and bring it up-to-date, perhaps we should start our dialogue at the point with the title of your book, The Age of American Unreason. Why did you choose that title?
Susan Jacoby: Because I didn’t want to be only talking about traditional American anti-intellectualism which was the classic work on this subject is Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which is published in 1963.
Duncan Campbell: Yes.
Susan Jacoby: And one of the points he made in his book was the anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are not identical. He said quite rightly that there are many anti-rational intellectuals, and that’s certainly true. The point I have tried to make in my book is that traditional American anti-intellectualism, a little suspicion of people little, little bit too much learning, has been joint with anti-rationalism which is something different. It’s a kind of imperviousness to evidence. A belief that I know what I know and it doesn’t matter what facts you show me. It doesn’t change what I believe.
I think that while Hofstadter carefully made a distinction between anti-rationalism and
anti-intellectualism, what has happened in the last 30 to 40 years in American life is that anti-rationalism, anti-evidence, has been joint to traditional perhaps less harmful forms of anti-intellectualism.
Duncan Campbell: And so, maybe, what we could do is here talk about the various streams that have contributed to on the one hand anti-intellectualism and on the other hand this sort of anti-rational quality, and distinguish the two of them. And one of the things that we could maybe start with is the American Scholar, that famous speech given by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837 that you go into at some length in your book where he was speaking to the Phi Beta Kappa Association at Harvard College.
He delivered a very important public proclamation of how America could have its own, we might call, intellectual class or thinking class. You call it man thinking rather than just simply using the ideas of others and this was really at the time when or in the same era Alexis de Tocqueville made a similar observation in his classic book, Democracy in America, where he pointed out the difference between Europe and America in a sense was that he felt at that time that Americans did not value knowledge for its own sake.
That they were very utilitarian and he gave the example in contrast, say, his previous book The L’Ancien Regime, The Old Regime, and the European culture that the aristocracy of Europe had cultivated a particular social order where the people at the top of the heap, if you will, the aristocrats had a taste which was cultivated to appreciate beauty in a certain way for its own sake.
He talked about how artisans in Europe were usually trained father to son, father to son, and that sort of thing. They might work for an entire year, let’s say, on crafting a very beautiful gold bejewelled goblet paid for by a patron such as maybe a lord or lady who would then be able to appreciate the skill and artisanship and the beauty of the craftsman. But of course the craftsman or the artisan would never aspire to be anything other than that because that was their permanent social status, we might say, in a feudal society.
Tocqueville then contrasted that with a social mobility of this newly democratic nation where people could move between a traditional social strata according to a certain meritocratic appreciation of education and ability to move ahead on the basis of merit rather than birth. But he also observed that the American cultures seem to really be intent on democratizing beauty. So, they would take goblet.
And, instead of having a one-off goblet that was bejewelled in gold and not available to the masses, they would take the form of a goblet that would be relatively beautiful. Not some crude square, a piece of wood that you would use to functionally drink out of, but would then mass produce it. There was the sense that from the beginning part of the democracy experiment was this tension between the highly educated class familiar with the enlightenment that we had with our founding fathers and the desire to distribute or disperse the benefits of education and appreciation throughout the society.
But that undercurrent had to sort of click into a certain kind of pragmatism. That pragmatism emphasis sometimes became suspicious of intellectualism. Maybe you could talk about that in our history evolution of how that emphasis or tension between knowledge and putting it to use in some utilitarian way and not appreciating knowledge and reading and investigation necessarily for its own is part of our American experiment.
For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell