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Susan Jacoby Attacks 'American Unreason'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

When scholar, blogger and author Susan Jacoby traveled the country to lecture on the history of American secularism, the subject of her 2004 book, Freethinkers, she made an important discovery: Anyone who came out to see her already agreed with her. The idea that no one was willing to hear a contradictory viewpoint — to see, as she says, "if the devil has horns" — inspired her new work, The Age of American Unreason.

The book is about the anti-intellectual, anti-rational strains that Jacoby believes have overtaken our culture. She sees The Age of American Unreason as something of a sequel to historian Richard Hofstadter's 1963 analysis of the American mindset, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. But where Hofstadter, who died in 1970, ends on what Jacoby describes as a "guardedly optimistic" note, she writes that "the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the ... intellectual life so essential to functional democracy." Unafraid of laying blame, she offers a harsh indictment of a failing educational system, religious fundamentalism and the American addiction to mass media — from TV to the Web.

Jacoby, who began her career as a Washington Post reporter, describes herself not as a cultural conservative, a term she says has been "hijacked by the religious right" to apply to someone "preoccupied with ... the preservation of the phrase 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance." Instead, she is a self-described "cultural conservationist, committed ... to the preservation of the culture 'from destructive influences.'"

The author of eight books, she has written for magazines and newspapers for more than two decades on topics ranging widely from women's rights to Russian literature. She is currently the program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, a nonpartisan think tank that promotes science. She also writes a political blog called "The Secularist's Corner" on the Washington Post's Web site.

The Age of American Unreason offers numerous examples of what Jacoby sees as the debased state of American culture. One for which the author expresses particular disdain is the current use of the word "folks" by politicians and pundits. Such casual language, she writes, denies "the seriousness of whatever ... is being debated." Jacoby adds, "[Franklin] Roosevelt would no more have addressed his fellow citizens as 'folks' than he would have uttered obscenities on the radio. I want him back."

This reading of The Age of American Unreason took place in February of 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of NPR.org’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on NPR.org. She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.