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Age of American Unreason: Chapter 1Daniel Johnson Salem-News.com
Those who believe that America and its Constitution are the greatest things in the Galaxy, are living in a world of denial and fantasy.
(CALGARY, Alberta) - There is no kind or easy way to state the simple fact that America is a society of unremittingly ignorant people (Gail Collins, writing in the NYT on the Virginia governor's decision to celebrate the state's once belonging to the Confederacy, titled her column "A Confederacy of Dunces").
I started Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason (2008) and she hit my pet peeve immediately on the first page. A word that has bothered me for the last decade is “folks”. G. W. Bush used it consistently and I just thought it was me reacting to my visceral hatred of the man. I’ve mentioned this to a few others, but no one else seemed to notice.
But, says Jacoby, in her opening sentence, “The word is everywhere, a plague spread by the President of the United States…--and others eager to identify themselves with ordinary people and so-called American values. To emphasize the incongruity of what used to be a colloquial term, she put it in Abraham Lincoln’s mouth:
We here highly resolve that these folks shall not have died in vain…and that government of the folks, by the folks, for the folks, shall not perish from the earth.
She goes on: ”Substitute folks for people, farmer, old men, and widows, and the relationship between the abandonment of dignified public speech and the degradation of the political process becomes clear.”
She quotes Thomas Jefferson from 1816 in her epigraph:
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
It’s all downhill from there. Let me point out immediately that you might want to retort that America is so technologically advanced that it can’t be true that Americans, as a people, are a gormless lot. People, no; folks, yes. In her introduction she writes:
”Americans are alone in the developed world in their view of evolution by means of natural selection as ‘controversial’ rather than as settled mainstream science.”
In the first 30 pages (Chapter 1: “The Way We Live Now: Just Us Folks") Jacoby tells us:
In Europe, national curriculum standards exist. In the U.S., “schools in more than a third of American states, most in the South and the Midwest, are failing to acquaint students not only with the basic facts of evolution but with the importance of Darwin’s theory to all modern scientific thinking.”
Poor education goes back, at least, to the teachers themselves. Jacoby writes: "Many teachers--products of the same inadequate public schools themselves--do not understand evolution themselves. A 1998 survey by researchers from the University of Texas found that one out of four public school biology teachers believes that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously. These misconceptions do not tell us anything about the teachers' religious beliefs, but they do reveal a great deal about how poorly educated the teachers are. Any teacher who does not know that dinosaurs were extinct long before Homo sapiens put in an appearance is unfit to provide instruction in late nineteenth-century biology, much less modern biology."
Despite American’s overall religiosity, most are as ignorant about religion as they are about science. A majority cannot name the four Gospels or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible.
When President Bush endorsed the teaching of intelligent design ”no one pointed out how truly extraordinary it was that any American president would place himself in direct opposition to contemporary scientific thinking." Add to this the number of times GW Bush, the President himself, said that on evolution, "the jury is still out" and it becomes clear how educationally dysfunctional the US is as a nation.
Jacoby quotes Bill Moyers:
”One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seats of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a worldview despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The offspring of ideology and theology are not always bad but they are always blind. And that is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.”
"What is most disturbing," she writes, "apart from the fact that millions of Americans already believe in the imminent end of days, is that the mainstream media confer respectability on such bizarre fantasies by taking them seriously."
The media are almost criminally complicit in the downfall of American knowledge in their pursuit profits (it's the American way)--not the enlightenment of the readers and viewers. A couple of years ago I read a news story where journalistic balance was apparently a factor. I wrote in a comment that in 1946, if a reporter wrote about the death camps in Europe, would he/she feel compelled to include Hitler's point of view for "balance"? I was contacted by the paper's managing editor asking if my comment could be included in her weekly report to her staff. Of course, I said. Unfortunately, this remains an anecdote because I don't remember the story or the newspaper and didn't keep the emails. But, rest assured, it happened.
I can see some of you in my mind’s eye, at the keyboard, ready to deny Jacoby’s thesis by pointing out that America has invented so much technology, so many life-saving drugs and medical procedures, put men on the moon and is the main player on the International Space Station—to name only a few items. But before you click “submit”, be aware:
Technologically and scientifically, America has been a world leader and innovator for at least the last half century. There is no denying this. But it has to be put in context. All these things were done by American people; it’s American folks that are dragging the country down. It’s no surprise that American senators and representatives reflect the low intellectual quality of their constituents. It’s American folks who are putting America on the road to oblivion as a world power.
Those who believe that America and its Constitution are the greatest things in the Galaxy, are living in a world of denial and fantasy. There is no wisdom in the American folks. There probably never was.
Jacoby wonders why America has been singled out and shown to be
”much more susceptible than other economically advanced nations to the toxic combination of forces that are enemies of intellect, learning, reason, from retrograde fundamentalist faith to dumbed down media. What accounts for the powerful American attraction to values that seem so at odds not only with intellectual modernism and science but also with the old Enlightenment rationalism that made such a vital contribution to the founding of our nation?”
In the next segment we’ll look at Chapter 2 of Jacoby’s book and see how she addresses this paradoxical question.
Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class — a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably on a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves — writing and trying to make the world a better place
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