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Apr-10-2010 14:40printcomments

Age of American Unreason: Chapter 1

Those who believe that America and its Constitution are the greatest things in the Galaxy, are living in a world of denial and fantasy.

Susan Jacoby and her book The Age of American Unreason
Susan Jacoby and her book The Age of American Unreason

(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:

  • More than a third of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
  • Nearly six in ten believe that the bloody predictions of Revelations will come true.
  • More than half Americans believe in ghosts; three quarters believe in angels and 80% believe in miracles.
  • More than 100 million copies of the Left Behind books have been sold. These books, including a children’s series refer to those “left behind” [Left Behind: The kids] to be slaughtered for their unbelief in Jesus after he returns for the Last Judgment.
  • Nearly two thirds of Americans want creationism and evolution taught alongside each other in public schools.
  • Fewer than half of Americans (48%) accept any form of evolution and 42% believe that all living creatures, including humans, have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.
  • One in five Americans believe that the Sun goes around the Earth.
  • Ninety percent of Americans do not understand radiation and what it can do the body.
  • More than two thirds of Americans cannot identify DNA as the key to heredity.
  • A third of Americans believe that there is a substantial disagreement on evolution among scientists—not understanding what “theory” means in a scientific context.

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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douglas benson April 12, 2010 6:56 am (Pacific time)

I hope Im right too Dan,at least the conservatives are afraid that the same tools they used to harass thier opposition including calling them terrorists,goverment spying ,using the AGs office for political purpose, homeland security letters to employers customers ect . will be used against them . .Now they see how the sharp end of the stick can poke both ways and they are thinking mabey it wasnt such a hot idea . They trully believed they would never fall from power ,oops.

Natalie April 12, 2010 1:08 am (Pacific time)

O.K. Let's play from your point of view. Let's theoretically agree, that religious fanatics caused poor knowledge of biology in schools. What about Math, English, Literature, Astronomy? Not so long ago, I tried to explain to the store employee that 1% discount on gas, 2% on eating out, 3% on everything in the store simply can not be equal to 6% total of discounts, if I apply for the store credit card. I was looked at as if I fell of the Moon. Are you suggesting, that Christians teach to add up %s instead of figuring out the average? Another very common example: teachers reward students just for showing up at school, they are simply not allowed to teach. Reports with tons of mistakes have smily faces and "Good Job" notes on them. What good job? Students should know their mistakes to learn. Do you think it happens because it's written in the Bible 'don't make corrections on your students reports'? How about basic Science and a floating island? That caused a lot of noise. And it didn't look like it was a joke to me. I agree with Dr. Leveque on this one. Solution is very simple-test the teachers, make sure they know their subjects, let them teach, correct their students and some students need extra push at home also. So, there's some responsibility for parents too. Umm...this post looks lengthy, I hope it's not too boring.

Natalie, I wasn't saying that at all. Part of the problem is fundamentalist religious restrictions on any knowledge that might question or cast doubt on religious beliefs. As long as they don't conflict and yield practical results, the hard sciences are basically left alone. This seems to be a main trait of fundamentalist religions, but not mainstream ones. The Catholic Church, for example, announced in 1951 that the Big Bang origin of the universe was in accordance with the Bible. The problems in American education go back to the actual founding as we will see in future installments of my book review.

Natalie April 11, 2010 5:48 pm (Pacific time)

Ignorance exists due to poor education. It should be tough. The results will follow. Religious or not-education is the key. And by that I mean basic high school knowledge.

Natalie: Poor education goes back, at least, to the teachers themselves. Jacoby writes: "Many teachers--products of the same inadequate public school 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."

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. 

TC April 11, 2010 6:22 pm (Pacific time)

My point was made. As far as how many books have I published? What does that have to do with anything? If you want to compare academic credentials and personal accomplishments, sure, I'll do that camparison with anyone. But are you suggesting that unless posters have published "books", then we have no standing when offering an opinion? If so, then why not state that? I could also create a comparison scale, let's say one based on minimum education of at least a graduate degree, being a combat veteran, having more than 5 children and being worth in excess of a certain dollar amount before one's opinion would have any reliability/validity. My comments about Jacoby are well grounded, but opinion just the same. She has her 1st Amendment rights because of people she does not care for, so how do you relate to that? The same is my guess, though in Canada they come and prosecute (or at least threaten you with prosecution before you even speak!) you for some kinds of speech, which seems pretty subjective to me. Maybe that's why many Canadians have such a difficult time handling opinions that don't fit your view? You have been trained in a societal framework that actually restrains free speech, that is, when compared to your big brother to the south. Sounds like Orwell's spirit is alive and well up north. P.S. I have published and co-written a number of Technical and Field Manuals, educational software, etc. I have a far larger audience than Jacoby and made a heck of a lot more money for everyone involved. I might add, saved a number of lives in the process. I keep a low profile because I don't handle praise very well.

No problem, there's no praise coming from me. You think I censored you but I just deleted a scurrilous post. This is not Fox.

I'm still waiting for you to refute Jacoby. If you're not going to, then you're wasting everyone's time (including your own). 

Hank Ruark April 11, 2010 3:59 pm (Pacific time)

"For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.": Niccolo Machiavelli- (1469-1527) Italian Statesman and Political Philosopher - Source: Discourses, 1513-1517

  Another great one, friend Dan,looking fwd to next part.

  Strong new sociological research is building knowledge of "denialism", surely deeply involved here; see upcoming Op Ed. Remember longtime GOPster "obstructionism" ??

Stephen April 10, 2010 6:06 pm (Pacific time)

Opinions are opinions. Some carry significant influence, others simply mean very little to the folks. So why has America prospered way beyond the level of the rest of the world? It was the Founding Fathers who gave us folks a guideline to be able to pursue life, liberty and happiness. You betcha.

Here's Ferdinand Lumdberg from The Rich and the Super Rich:

 “Whereas European royalty and nobility played profound integral roles in European history, the latter-day American rich were more like hitchhikers who opportunistically climbed aboard a good thing. They produced neither the technology, the climate, the land, the people nor the political system. Nor did they, like many European groups (as in England) take over the terrain as invading conquerors. Rather did they infiltrate the situation from below, insinuate themselves into opportunely presented economic gaps, subvert various rules and procedures, and, as it were ride a rocket to the moon and beyond, meanwhile through their propagandists presenting themselves, no less, as the creators of machine industrialization which was in fact copied from England and transplanted into a lush terrain.” 

thanks daniel April 11, 2010 2:43 pm (Pacific time)

you bring in myths, but not where the myths come from, which proves my point, and that you censor posts, which you learned well from all canadian newscasts... my previous post that you would not show was good, and that is why we cant have a debate, because you get to decide who gets posted and who does not. you are product of what you complain about. Censor this one too Daniel

I've been writing about American mythology for over a year, now. You must be new to this site. Go to for a list of all my articles. You can comment on those, as well. 

Anonymous April 11, 2010 12:34 pm (Pacific time)

Of course the U.S. sucks, but so does Canada. Your problem Daniel, is your articles discuss how screwed up the U.S. is, but you do no research in regards to why. Canada now has legislation, which is bound to pass, ending your soveriegnty and giving it to the U.N.
People like you, who complain, but dont do the research how it happened...well, it irks me.. You remind me of a guy who is in mom's basement or a cheap apartment somewhere and cant find a job, so you find topics that catch peoples heartstrings so you get responses...its obvious. I would ask you to research how we got to this situation, but it is obvious you dont know how. Our country has been taken over by bankers, so has yours, and your time is coming. Either research, and help us out, or shut the heck up.

I know how the U.S. got so screwed up. Religion and mythology. We see the high level of ignorance among American folks. Unless that is corrected, the US is on its way to being a former world power. The mythology is that the US is the greatest country in the entire Galaxy. We all know people who have delusions of grandeur and, as a result, they can never be effective in their lives. So it is with America. You've had your day in the sun and time to let go of the delusions. 

BTW, I deleted your other post under the name "I got it". Insults say more about you than they do about me, so I saved you some embarrassment.  

douglas benson April 11, 2010 10:53 am (Pacific time)

Dan the whole world is full of these nutballs ,your country included. Just because the religous right is making a lot of noise about the secular [non-christian ]socialist society taking over doesnt represent all of us .What it does show is they are losing thier power at an alarming rate .Even some of the people who share these religous views are concerned about how far the far right has gone to impose thier views on others . The more they scream and spout thier nonsense the more the rest of us see its time to let our votes be counted.Real progress has and is happening . We voted loud and clear last election ,we are tired of the religion run conservative party .

I hope you're right. 

TC April 11, 2010 9:12 am (Pacific time)

Susan Jacoby is a liberal writer who opines once and a while as a 'On Faith' panelist for a Washington Post/Newsweek blog. From the liberal ranks of the media, which is pretty much 99% of the media, she pontificates to Catholics what anti-Catholicism is not while having egg on her face. Let's dissect.

In her blog entry titled, "Anti-Catholicism: A Phony Issue", she pretty much blasts any Catholic who stands up for their faith, saying we 'impose' our values each time we speak up. By imposing does Miss Jacoby imply we have government faith squads wandering the streets of America, keeping vigil on any anti-Catholicism that might arise? Nope, just for practicing our right to free speech does she object to our use of this constitutional right.

She confuses liberal Catholics as if they were similar to liberal Protestants. Unlike Protestants, Catholicism is not divided into different denominations. So if an Anglican lesbian can marry and become a priestess is NOT the same thing as in Catholicism, because it doesn't allow for it.

She insists on making the comparison that rape victims being treated in Catholic hospitals be treated as non-Catholics, which is absurd, but that is what she implies. If a hospital is run by a Catholic order, it is only proper that they follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

What gets me is why does an allegedly mainstream organization such as the Washington Post/Newsweek hire a free-thinker, which only represents 1% of the population at best, to post under a 'faith' column? If one takes the time to review her stats, you will quickly find out that she uses ancedotal info rather than peer reviewed social science research.

If 99%, or even 75% of the media were "liberal" as you argue, you wouldn't have a nation of so many ignorant folks. This is her seventh book. And you've published, how many? 

Karen Gunderson April 11, 2010 7:48 am (Pacific time)

Who are you really? Today, you're Karen Gunderson, other days you're Anonymous, or Corey or Jennifer Melyssa. I'm curious, too.

douglas benson April 11, 2010 6:59 am (Pacific time)

The great book of fairy tales has got to go. The problem is is that people want easy answers and are willing to blindly accept what they are fed .I was one of these fools and it has taken a long time to come to the realization that the bible is folklore just like any other religion . I was brought up in a home,sent to schools ,ect. where these lies were taught as fact and I bought it hook line and sinker . For example our school taught that dinosaurs were a big scam by those crazy evolutionists because you know the earth is only 6,000 years old and the entire universe was created in six days because the bible tells us so . They call it faith I call it stupidity .These FOLKS are dangerous ,they threaten the very foundations of liberty when they use thier religion for political power .Can we please call them a terrorist organization? Darn that pesky constitution anyways and its promise of religous freedom . So even though they turn my stomach we must tollerate them .
I see you couldnt resist puting down my country Dan and while not perfect as far as many of us are concerned America and our constitution are the greatest things in the galaxy . You have anything better ? I think not.

I've narrowed my critique down to just the ignorant Americans. You, too, should be aware that none of them are really on your side. This is Jacoby's seventh book. I'm in good company.  Do you believe, Doug, that a nation that denies science and modernity can in any way be called "great"?

Osotan; April 11, 2010 6:04 am (Pacific time)

Daniel,Daniel, relax bro, breathe out, take it easy, light up a big spliff an' chill mon. Anyone who lives in a country that produced Bernie "Boom Boom" Geofrion and Jacque Plante can't be all bad, and keep in mind there are at least a documented 16.3% of all Americans who don't eat at McDonalds!, (though I can't verify these figures I'd hate to think they all ate there). And what the hell's wrong with believing in angels I ask you? I won't even mention the holy Hebrew's! With all this in mind I say it's too late for mourning, so chill out mon.,quit throwin' those warm pucks on the ice, it's all going to melt in 2012 anyway, or so I've been told, eh? Till then I got some deemocracy for sale. Interested?

gp April 11, 2010 4:57 am (Pacific time)

The word "folks" is used in our family to imply intimacy. I would not call people in general "honey" or "folks".
I have been perplexed about the rise of unwavering faith in pentecostalism and creationism and unwavering trust that the 'mercan way is the best. I have long attributed this to too much television and insufficient reading and conversation with neighbors. When I first went to visit Canada, I was struck that the Canadians seemed to be more aware and understand current events better than their neighbors to the south. I attributed that to reading. However, the other thing in the mix is the corporate control of the media. I am encouraged now that some of that is lessening due to the internet.

qui vivi April 10, 2010 7:27 pm (Pacific time)

There is a thing going around re: a list of numbers 1 through 20 which asks the question, "can you find the error - it is impossible."
There is no error in the list, but the suggetion is enough to convince some that there MUST be. It explains how and why members of the Tea Party Movement believe and act as they do. If the leaders of the Republican Party tell them everything is wrong, they buy it. And things get pretty nasty. It tests the strength of logical convictions, and is capable of defeating reason [its purpose after all] The people must learn to trust in themselves or the world is in serious trouble.

eddie zawaski April 10, 2010 4:10 pm (Pacific time)

Words can be so powerful. The Nazis were quite fond of the German equivalent, volk, as in Ein volk, ein reich. Whether its folk or volk, the word usually refers to the little people, the good, honest, hard working peasants who are the backbone of the nation. Folk are very motivated to do what is right for their family and country and are easily led by demagogues who know how to tell them how good they are and that they are being betrayed by enemies within.

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