Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dumbing of Susan Jacoby

When I reviewed Susan Jacoby's book Freethinkers on Amazon several years ago, I mostly praised the book but noted that
Jacoby does occasionally overreach; she has a tendency to assert all-encompassing theses and easy generalizations that teeter on the shaky basis of her random sampling of people and events.

I also pointed out that Jacoby based pseudo-scientific observations on slim research and anecdotes and that her terminology was too often vague for her subject. In sum, she pretends to be a sociologist but her conclusions and arguments (as opposed to the valuable biographical accounts in the book) rarely rose above the type of analysis we've come to expect from, say, Lee Siegel (and I don't mean that as a compliment).

Her latest salvo in the Washington Post, just one of several marketing ploys for her new book, The Age of American Unreason, presents the incendiary argument that Americans are, largely, dumber than ever--and proud of it. She compares their newly acquired stupidity with an imagined past, in which the pioneer children of the Wild West, I suppose, sat around reading Shakespeare and Melville in between their farm chores. Worse, she has a persistent tendency, which surfaced in her previous book, to compare the masses of today (60% of Americans...) with the luminaries of the past.

It's an utterly offensive article, lacking anything resembling historical perspective, but her rage is directed especially at a not-so-new culprit:

First and foremost among the vectors of the new anti-intellectualism is video.

Ah, yes, the idiocy of the boob tube. In opposition, I would argue, and I offer Jacoby's essay as a prime example, that "first and foremost" among the tools abused and misused by today's journalists are polls. Jacoby loves them, but since they didn't exist decades ago to the pornographic extent that they do now, she has a difficult time proving that they tell us something about America present and America past.

Research surveys have a history of systemic methodological problems (after all, we all know that Obama won New Hampshire). By definition, polls measure the decreasing number of people willing (or "dumb" enough) to answer the phone and respond to questions posed by a complete stranger--nothing more. "Sometimes as many as eight out of 10 people telephoned won't take the time to be interviewed," according to one report. Pollsters claim the ability to "correct" for non-responders but that's nonsense on its face; you can't collect the views of non-responders by reaching other non-responders. As a result, surveys favor the views of certain groups (the unemployed, the retired) who are easily reachable at home via a land-line telephone. And, with the rise of cell phones and caller ID, many Americans-- "intelligent" and otherwise--screen out pollsters, lumping them (correctly, in nearly every case) with that other annoying scourge: telemarketers. Most polls, after all, are done for market research rather than the common good. And pollsters certainly won't admit to the overwhelming methodological problems they increasingly face; that would put them out of business.

I'm sure Jacoby knows the problems inherent in using surveys to make generalizations about a populace--she can't be that dumb--but nothing will let her get in the way of selling a screed. And make no mistake: her article (and, it seems from the reviews, her book) is little more than a defensive tirade. Judging both from the essay and from the excerpt she has posted on her Web site,* Jacoby has now taken to writing hyperbole for a living. Laura Miller in her (gentle but devastating) review of Jacoby's book notes that a

writer who has just come from ridiculing Diana Trilling and David Brooks for ludicrously exaggerating the influence of old left intellectuals ought to know better than to write a sentence like: "It has now become more insulting to call someone a Luddite than to call her a cheat, a drug addict, or a slut."

That's pure balderdash--to borrow one of those high-falutin words Jacoby uses.

Jacoby begins her article in the Washington Post quoting Emerson, but Ralph Waldo never wrote of people as a unified herd of cloned minds; he celebrated the individualism he saw around him--an individualism that Jacoby would see thriving around her if she took the time to note that not everyone listens to the same music, watches the same programs, and reads the same books--as they were more likely to do in the fantasy past whose passing she mourns.

We have turned into a fragmented culture of niched tastes and divergent interests--and, I would argue, that's not a bad thing. (Were the 80% of Americans who tuned into Roosevelt's fireside chats really more intelligent? Wouldn't they have been smarter turning off that damn radio and going to a museum or reading a neglected homegrown artist like Faulkner?) It's the lack of intellectual conformity that horrifies Jacoby, who feels there should be some common body of knowledge (or, more precisely, trivia) on which we could all be quizzed by pollsters interrupting our dinners, in order to prove our worth as "good citizens."

"Call Me a Snob" the subhead of her article screams. Okay, Susan, you're a snob. And, sad to say, snobs are often people who are projecting their personal weaknesses onto others. Get your nose out of that book and look at the world around you. People can be really interesting.

*And, yes, Jacoby argues that the Internet is a vapid mindsuck, but she apparently exempts her own use of it.

Addendum: Kevin Drum highlights the most obvious flaw of Jacoby's article: "Susan Jacoby spends 1,500 words telling us that Americans are getting dumber but doesn't offer a single piece of evidence to support this notion. Not one." Exactly.