The Flight From Reason

Susan Jacoby talks with Bill Moyer. Watch here. Here’s an excerpt:

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, why is it we’re so unwilling to give, as you say, a hearing to contradictory viewpoints? Or to imagine that we might learn something from someone who disagrees with us?

SUSAN JACOBY: Well, I think part of it is part of a larger thing that is making our culture dumber. We have, really, over the past 40 years, gotten shorter and shorter and shorter attention spans. One of the most important studies I’ve found, and I’ve put in this chapter, they call it Infantainment– on this book. It’s by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And they’ve found that children under six spend two hours a day watching television and video on average. But only 39 minutes a day being read to by their parents.

Well, you don’t need a scientific study to know that if you’re not read to by your parents, if most of your entertainment when you’re in those very formative years is looking at a screen, you value what you do. And I don’t see how people can learn to concentrate and read if they watch television when they’re very young as opposed to having their parents read to them. The fact is when you’re watching television, whether it’s an infant or you or I, or staring glazedly at a video screen, you’re not doing something else.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you, Susan, that half of American adults believe in ghosts? Now I take these from your book. One-third believe in astrology. Three quarters believe in angels. And four-fifths believe in miracles.

SUSAN JACOBY: I think even more important than the fact that large numbers of Americans believe in ghosts or angels, that is part of some religious beliefs. Is the flip side is of this is that over half of Americans don’t believe in evolution. And these things go together. Because what they do is they place science on a par almost with folk beliefs.

And I think– if I may inveigh against myself, ourselves, I think the American media in particular has a lot to do with it. Because one of the things that really has gotten dumber about our culture the media constantly talks about truth as if it– if it were always equidistant from two points. In other words, sometimes the truth is one-sided.

I mentioned this in THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks there was a huge cover story in TIME Magazine in 2002 about the rapture and end of the world scenarios. There wasn’t a singular secular person quoted in it. They discussed the rapture scenario from the book of Revelation as though it was a perfectly reasonable thing for people to believe. On the one hand, these people don’t believe it. On the other it’s exactly like saying– you know, “Two plus– two plus two, so-and-so says, ‘two plus two equals five.’ But, of course, mathematicians say that it really equals four.” The mathematicians are right. The people who say that two plus two equals five are wrong. The media blurs that constantly.

BILL MOYERS: You call that a kind of dumb objectivity.

SUSAN JACOBY: Yes. Dumb objectivity. Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that nearly two-thirds of Americans want creationism based on the book of Genesis to be taught in our public schools along with evolution? What does that say to you?

SUSAN JACOBY: Well, it’s that evolution is just a theory, it’s just another opinion. Just as some people believe that the account of the six days of creation in Genesis is literally true, some people believe we’re descended form lower animals. In other words, it places belief on the same level as science subject to proof. I should say, however, that it may also mean that a lot of Americans aren’t exactly sure what creationism means. Because, in fact, the most recent Gallop poll shows that only 30 percent of Americans believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. In other words, many– most Americans believe the Bible is divinely inspired. But you can believe the Bible is divinely inspired and still believe in evolution.


SUSAN JACOBY: But you can’t believe that the Bible is literally true and still believe in evolution. There’s a wonderful book on religious literacy by Stephen Prothero — you know, which cites a poll that half of Americans can’t name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Well, if you can’t– but this is part of the total dumbing down of our culture. The– one of those books apparently that the 50 percent of Americans aren’t reading is also the Bible or they would know that Genesis was the first book of the Bible. It’s sort of like, you know, “I don’t know what Genesis is, but I believe it.”

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t this say– also say something beyond religious belief about the level of science education in our public schools?

SUSAN JACOBY: I think it says everything about the level of education in our schools. When you have, look, one out of every five Americans still believes that the sun revolves around the earth. But you shouldn’t have to be an intellectual or a college graduate to know that the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth. There’s been a huge failure of education.

I do agree with many cultural conservatives about this. I think that schools over the last 40 years– instead of adding things that– just adding things, for example. African-American history, women’s history, these are all great additions, and necessary. But what they’ve done in addition to adding things is they really have placed less emphasis on the overall culture– cultural things that everybody should know. People getting out of high school should know how many Supreme Court justices there are. Most Americans don’t..

BILL MOYERS: You claim that right-wing intellectuals are dangerous because they have command of the vocabulary that makes wishful thinking sound rational.

SUSAN JACOBY: Uh, first of all, there are right-wing intellectuals. But one of the great successes of the intellectual right, is that they have succeeded brilliantly during the last 20 years at pinning the intellectual label solely on liberals so that a lot of people think that to be an intellectual means that you are a liberal alone. And one of the reasons that I think that right-wing intellectuals are so dangerous is they’ve been so clever at doing this. They’ve been much more clever than liberal intellectuals have been.

They’ve made it look like liberals are the only– are the, quote, elites. And– but they’re just, you know, people– people who get huge salaries from business-financed, right-wing foundations. They’re not the elites? Of course, they’re the elites. I don’t have– I object to their ideas. I don’t object to them. But the liberal intellectual community is really caught asleep at the switch by these people. And one of the points I make in THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON, which is why I think I’m going to get killed from both the right and the left is anti-rationalism in America is not the province of either the right or the left.

It’s the province of both. For example, when you will talk to right-wing intellectuals about the Iraq war– it doesn’t matter that it hasn’t worked out to them. They still think it was right. And the evidence of how it got started, how it got started on false pretenses and so on, it doesn’t matter to them.

BILL MOYERS: That’s making wishful thinking–


BILL MOYERS: –rational.

SUSAN JACOBY: They make wishful thinking sound rational. It’s the same thing now when we’re hearing that the, quote, surge is working. Well, the surge is working as long as we have those troops there. But when anybody says to me in the right-wing intellectuals that the surge is working– it’s working. There are fewer people being killed in suicide bombings every day because we have a lot more young soldiers there in harm’s way than there were six months ago. How many people were killed in suicide bombings in Baghdad before America entered the war? I believe the answer is none. So what they’re doing is comparing, you know, apples and oranges. The left– on the other hand– to be intellectual is not necessarily to be rational. And there are many– there are many anti-rational intellectuals.

BILL MOYERS: And you’re pretty hard on some of them. You say they won’t acknowledge the political sign– talking about liberal intellectuals– won’t acknowledge the political significance of public ignorance. Quote, “Liberals have tended to define the Bush administration as the problem and the source of all that has gone wrong during the past eight years. And to see an outraged citizenry ready to throw the bums out as the solution.” And what you say is that that’s the cheap and wrong way out. Right?

SUSAN JACOBY: It’s the cheap way out and the wrong way out for this reason. And we’ve heard it over and over in the primaries from candidates who supported the war and changed their minds. “We were lied to,” they said. If we’d known then what we know now we wouldn’t have done it. And they say to the public, “You were lied to.” But the deeper conversation we need to be having is why were Americans so willing to be lied to, not only average citizens, but politicians. And certainly when you have legislators, many of whom didn’t know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite, and you have a geographic Roper poll that I quote in my new book– they polled Americans between ages 18 and 25. Only 23 percent of college-educated young people could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Israel, four countries of ultimate importance-


SUSAN JACOBY: –to American policy on the map, a map, by the way, that h– it had the letter– country’s lettered on it. So in other words, it wasn’t a blank map. It meant they didn’t really know where the Middle East was either. So 23 percent of the college-educated and only six percent of high school graduates. Well, I would say that if only 23 percent of people with some college can find those countries on a map that is nothing to be bragging about. And that has to have something to do with why as a country — we have such shallow political discussions.

BILL MOYERS: You say left of center intellectuals have focused on the right-wing deceptions employed to sell the war in-


BILL MOYERS: –Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory. The ignorance and erosion of historical memory that makes serious deceptions possible and plausible. Talk about the power and importance of memory.

SUSAN JACOBY: Memory. Well, first of all– one of the things that we don’t remember is what our Constitution actually says. One of the things we don’t remember is right now, even as we sit here, the Bush administration is trying to claim that it has the right, without Congressional approval, to make permanent agreements for military– in our military involvement in Iraq. Constitution says these things need to be ratified by Congress as were the treaties that you and I grew up with, the NATO treaty, for example. It was ratified by Congress. If we don’t know what our Constitution says about the separation of powers then it really– it really certainly affects the way we decide all kinds of public issues.

BILL MOYERS: Remember George Orwell talked about memory being about important knowledge like that being flushed down the memory hole?

SUSAN JACOBY: The memory hole. The–

BILL MOYERS: Because when that happens then the people in power can rule without any reference to the past. Any standard, any remembrance.

BILL MOYERS: When you wonder, as you do in the book, if any candidate has the will or courage to talk about ignorance as a political issue I find it hard to imagine a politician going very far, getting very far by telling his or her constituents–

SUSAN JACOBY: They’re dopes.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You’re ignorant. By ignorant you mean lack of knowledge, unaware.

SUSAN JACOBY: Lack of knowledge, right.

BILL MOYERS: You don’t mean stupid, which means–


BILL MOYERS: –unintelligent.


BILL MOYERS: Or dimwitted.


BILL MOYERS: But I can’t imagine a politician succeeded by saying, “We’re an ignorant culture and an ignorant people.”

SUSAN JACOBY: No. But I can imagine a politician succeeding by saying, “We as a people have not lived up to our obligation to learn what we ought to learn to make informed decisions.” I can imagine candidates saying, “And we in the Congress have been guilty of that too.” Because it’s not just the public that’s ignorant. We get the government we deserve.

In other words, you wouldn’t say to people, “You’re a dope.” You would say, “We have got to do better in– about learning the things we need to know to make sound public policy.” We can’t learn the things we need to know from five-second sound bite commercials. We can’t learn the things that we need to know from a quick hit on the Internet to see the latest person making a fool of themself on YouTube. We can only learn the things we need to know from talking to each other, from books. And we all need to do a lot more of that.

You know, what I don’t see on the campaign trail– if universal healthcare were one of my priorities as a candidate, first thing I’d be doing, I’d be having sessions all over the country with three groups of people, nurses, doctors, and patients. You don’t need to know what the insurance industry thinks. Because you know what they think. They’re going to oppose anything that they think will place any limits on medical spending and their ability to charge you higher health insurance premiums. But I’d be sitting down in unscripted sessions with people so that when– if I was elected I could take that knowledge with me into the White House. So I could get my message across before Harry and Louise. That’s what being an educator means.

And I think a candidate could say that to people. Not, “You’re dopes.” But, “We all need to know a lot more than we know.” We’ve become satisfied with too little. We’ve become satisfied with the lowest common denominator. It is not good enough when 23 percent of our young people who have had some college, only 23 percent of them can find these countries on a map. We all need to be able to learn how to find these countries on a map.


This interview strongly suggests that if a person does not agree with Susan Jacoby that wishful thinking is stupid and wrong, and if a person thinks he or she may have at some point in his or her life encountered an angel or angels (however that person may define angels), and if a person doesn’t think and act as Susan Jacoby thinks a person should think and act, then that person is something of an idiot. I have known many people who condemn wishful thinking as infantile and wrong, who say that believing in angels (however one may define angels) is crazy, and who are certain that people who don’t think and act as they think and act are idiots. I have learned to avoid such self-righteous, pompous, closed-minded people because in my experience the energy emanating from them is grievously damaging to our hearts and minds and spirits.

    … and I agree with you, Todd. Bill Moyers interviewed her for probably the same reason I ran the article… to provide a point of view and provoke discussion. Thanks for yours!

I like that you ran the article. One of my favorite things about Ukiah Blog Live is the flow of disparate yet connected ideas you assemble, one thing leading to another, as in a good conversation we feel encouraged to join.