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The Age of American Unreason,9781400096381

The Age of American Unreason

by
Edition:
Reprint
ISBN13:

9781400096381

ISBN10:
1400096383
Format:
Trade Paper
Pub. Date:
2/10/2009
Publisher(s):
Vintage
List Price: $16.95

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Summary

Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon--one that is at odds with the nation's heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge.

Author Biography

Susan Jacoby is the author of seven previous books, most recently Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which was named a Notable Book of 2004 by The Washington Post Book World and The Times Literary Supplement. She lives in New York City.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpts

The Way We Live Now: Just Us Folks

The word is everywhere, a plague spread by the President of the United States, television anchors, radio talk show hosts, preachers in megachurches, self-help gurus, and anyone else attempting to demonstrate his or her identification with ordinary, presumably wholesome American values. Only a few decades ago, Americans were addressed as people or, in the more distant past, ladies and gentlemen. Now we are all folks. Television commentators, apparently confusing themselves with the clergy, routinely declare that “our prayers go out to those folks”—whether the folks are victims of drought, hurricane, flood, child molestation, corporate layoffs, identity theft, or the war in Iraq (as long as the victims are American and not Iraqi). Irony is reserved for fiction. Philip Roth, inThe Plot Against America—a dark historical reimagining of a nation in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election—confers the title “Just Folks” on a Lindbergh program designed to de-Judaize young urban Jews by sending them off to spend their summers in wholesome rural and Christian settings.

While the word “folks” was once a colloquialism with no political meaning, there is no escaping the political meaning of the term when it is reverently invoked by public officials in twenty-first-century America. After the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005, President Bush assured Americans, “I’ve been in contact with our homeland security folks and I instructed them to be in touch with local and state officials about the facts of what took place here and in London and to be extra vigilant as our folks start heading to work.” Bush went on to observe that “the contrast couldn’t be clearer, between the intentions of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who’ve got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.” Those evil terrorists. Our innocent folks. Even homeland security officials, who—one lives in hope—are supposed to be highly trained experts, cannot escape the folkish designation. All of the 2008 presidential contenders pepper their speeches with appeals to folks, but only John Edwards, who grew up poor in North Carolina, sounds as if he was raised around people who actually used the word in everyday conversation. Every time Hillary Rodham Clinton, brought up in a conservative Republican household in an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago, utters the word “folks,” she sounds like a hovering parent trying to ingratiate herself with her children’s friends by using teenage slang.

The specific political use of folks as an exclusionary and inclusionary signal, designed to make the speaker sound like one of the boys or girls, is symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards. Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls (unless the victims are, in fact, little girls and not grown women). Look up any important presidential speech in the history of the United States before 1980, and you will not find one patronizing appeal to folks. Imagine: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.In the 1950s, even though there were no orators of Lincoln’s eloquence on the political scene, voters still expected their leaders to employ dignified, if not necessarily erudite, speech. Adlai Stevenson may have sounded too much like an intellectual to suit the taste of average Americans, but proper grammar and respectf

Excerpted from The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.


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