It’s rare that I read a book written by someone who is still alive; rarer still that it was written by an atheist. I only share these facts, in the context of discussing Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, in the interest of full disclosure of some biases against such an author that I’m a little surprised to have sensed inside myself. But I guess I’m of the opinion that older ideas are usually better than so-called progressive ideas, and I find the line of argument of the “new-Atheists” (Dawkins, Harris, et al.) to be as old and disingenuous as many stock theistic arguments. Even though Jacoby’s book has little to do with atheism itself, the first 30 pages have produced some real clunkers: any interpretation of God as Judge in the book of Revelation (that he “murders” those who don’t believe in him at the end of the world) is a “dangerous fallacy” that does harm to society; Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ takes the Gospel of Matthew (gulp) “literally” and “blames the Jews” for Christ’s crucifixion– an extreme view that Jacoby claims the Vatican itself rejected a long time ago (please). And quite predictably, she’s already traced the backstory of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
But in most other senses, Jacoby’s book is so fantastic that it will probably warrant multiple posts. Her thesis is that a “convergence of social forces” has lead to a damaging and wide-ranging strain of anti-intellectualism in America. While she seems to disparage common sense, which is the virtue of “common folk”– a central assertion in Chesterton’s writing– while praising the so-called virtues of the intellectual elite (don’t get me started), a lot of her ideas are very interesting and even poignant.
The most important one, so far, is how language is an important preserver of society. Debasement of language, she argues, is a debasement of societal thought, which circularly reinforce each other. She quotes Orwell: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.”
She also talks of how cliches and colloquialisms are inaccurately expressed and disseminated (think: “I could care less” for someone claiming that he couldn’t care less), using Liberace’s cynical “I cried all the way to the bank” in the face of scathing artistic criticism as he was taking the music world by storm and apparently making a lot of money doing it. Jacoby observes that his statement has been “transformed into a senseless catchphrase, ‘I laughed all the way to the bank’,” which retains little of Liberace’s irony, but is “often used as a non sequitur after news stories about lottery winners.”
Now, I often butcher phrases, words, names, and quotations myself in normal conversation, but I don’t think it’s hypocritical to insist on the integrity of the English language and clarity of thought. (So why am I writing for this blog then? Ha.) I think it’s Jacoby’s point that anti-intellectualism is most conspicuously demonstrated in our modern communications themselves. I suppose this is a pretty obvious to very obvious point, that probably isn’t even worth mentioning, but denigration of language has bothered me for a while.