Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Profile of King James I

This, with tremendous affection for Jeff Kacirk, from his Forgotten English. Please feel free to make your own modern parallel.

“In his History of England (1848-1861), historian Thomas Macaulay wrote disparagingly of King James I. ‘James was always boasting of his skill in what he called kingcraft, and yet it is hardly possible even to imagine a course more directly opposed to all the rules of kingcraft than that which he followed . . . He enraged and alarmed his parliament by constantly telling them that they held their privileges merely during his pleasure, and that they had no more business to inquire what he might lawfully do than what the Deity might lawfully do . . . His cowardice, his childishness, his pedantry, his ungainly person and manners, his provincial accent made him an object of derision . . . On the day of the accession of James I [March 24, 1603], our country descended from the rank which she had hitherto held, and began to be regarded as a power hardly of the second order.’”

And this, with the tiniest sliver of hope, from Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood from 1935.

          PETER BLOOD: A bad king is a bad king, and a worse one if he's James.

          LORD WILLOUGHBY: James? This commission is sent by King William.

          PETER BLOOD: You mean they’ve roused themselves at home and kicked out that pimple James?

          LORD WILLOUGHBY: Yes, and he’s fled to France and he’s in hiding there . . . The English people will go
                                            so far, and then they get up on their stubborn hind legs.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt

by Richard Hofstadter

A few years ago I read a fascinating essay by Joseph E. Green called "Reality and the Moving Image: The Paranoid Style in American Cinema." At the time I had no idea what the subtitle was referring to, but it was an interesting look at the kind of generalized propaganda that Hollywood uses in popular film to indoctrinate viewers toward a particular kind of conformity that suits government aims. But it wasn't unit after I began reading Susan Jacoby's work that I came across a reference to historian Richard Hofstadter and from their made my way to his collection of essays entitled, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. As I began reading that book, however, I didn't even make it through the introduction by Sean Wilentz because in it he mentioned that the beginnings of the title essay had originally appeared in another anthology called The Radical Right, by fellow historians Daniel Bell from Columbia and Seymour Lipset at the University of Chicago, that discussed the coopting of the Republican party by radical forces on the right. That essay was titled "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt." I immediately sought out that anthology and was utterly captivated by the ideas contained within.

Reading historian Richard Hofstadter is like taking the blue pill from Lawrence Fishburn and waking up in a world where things finally make sense. After reading and analyzing Susan Sontag’s essay “Against Interpretation” I stopped using that word because of my realization about the inherent subjectivity of interpretations. In the same way, I cannot use the word “conservative” to define those on the right wing of American politics anymore, because it simply isn’t true. Hofstadter is able to explain so much that doesn’t make sense about our politics and never really has. Republicans are fond of calling liberals “radicals,” as if they are out destroy this country by trying to implement crazy ideas, but the truth is exactly the opposite. It is right-wing Republicans who are the real radicals in this country. They are the ones who hate America. They are the ones who are intent on destroying the kind of democracy the founders had always intended. And they are the ones who have cultivated a following of the kind of people who vote for a misogynistic, xenophobic, jingoistic, fascist, anti-intellectual like Donald J. Trump. What makes Hofstadter’s analysis so compelling is that he is an historian, and is therefore able to put these political trends into a context that exposes them for what they really are, rather than spin them the way political pundits do to misdirect the public today.

The whole thing begins during the Great Depression with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt after four years of failed, do-nothing policies by Herbert Hoover that only acerbated the financial crisis under which that the country was suffering. These existing right wing policies were ones that had benefited the rich almost since the death of Lincoln sixty years earlier. Hofstadter opens his essay with this declaration, saying about the implementation of FDR’s new policies, “The dynamic force in American political life came from the side of liberal dissent, from the impulse to reform the inequities of our economic and social system and to change our ways of doing things, to the end that the sufferings of the Great Depression would never be repeated.” Roosevelt’s New Deal was a major shift in political thinking that was only realized through the will of the people. Some, like Teddy Roosevelt, had certainly made inroads at the turn of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the economic crash of 1929 that the majority of the public turned to the federal government and demand it live up to its responsibility to protect the public that it served, rich and poor alike. But right-wing politics--and it was especially so after the war--are reactionary by nature, and because of a paranoid tendency inherent in the right from the very beginning they became radicalized and turned themselves into the very enemy that their own propaganda warned against.

The New Deal was such a monumental shift in U.S. politics, and the gains so immense, Roosevelt’s policies were able to spur the recovery to an even greater extent during the war years. Because of that, it isn’t really the Republican politics of the Eisenhower administration that define the fifties, but the legacy of FDR. In the early post-war period many of those who voted for Roosevelt’s policies “still keep the emotional commitments to the liberal dissent with which they grew up politically, but their social condition is one of solid comfort. Among them the dominant tone has become one of satisfaction, even of a kind of conservatism.” Thus it wasn’t Republican values that were being conserved by the middle class in the fifties, it was liberal ones. Hofstadter quotes the great Adlai Stevenson from 1952 to that effect and it is essentially the thesis of his essay:

          The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative
          party of this country--the party dedicated to preserving all that is best, and building solidly and
          safely on those foundations.

In reality, those on the right who call themselves conservatives are not really conservative at all. They are radicals who want to destroy the basic tenants of the U.S. Government. This is true whether one is talking about Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” or Pat Robertson’s “Moral Majority” or the more fanatical movements like New Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the Tea Baggers, or Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” The one thing Hofstadter points out that all of these groups have in common is, surprisingly, “a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways.” I say surprisingly, because the right-wing propaganda machine led by Fox News would have us believe that it is the left that hates America. The brutal truth is, the right has no idea what “America” actually is, and therefore their distorted view of this country has allowed their leaders to blind them to what truly makes America great. Hofstadter appropriated the term “pseudo-conservative” from social scientist Theodore W. Adorno in his work The Authoritarian Personality. In describing this phenomenon, Adorno states, “The pseudo-conservative is a [person] who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

In this context, the right wing is the true threat to the country, because while they profess the goal of preserving our recent past, and a desire to cling to the beliefs of a simpler time, the only period of North American history when their ideas held sway was during the Puritan colonization of New England, well before the U.S. became a country. The Puritan dominance of society in New England lasted less than a hundred years, from about 1630 to 1720, and they are the direct ancestors of the radical right today. They practiced a form of religious intolerance that mandated homogeneity of belief in order to protect the purity of their church from any outside influences. But in the late sixteen hundreds the British monarchy permitted outsiders to settle in New England and guaranteed their religious rights. Soon after, the original Puritan charter of Massachusetts was overthrown and it became a royal colony, which led to other problems that began a shift away from religious fanaticism and toward political fervor. It was the desire to be self-governing, separate from the political control of England that led to the formation of the United States . . . not religious freedom. In fact, had the founding fathers been more prescient, they would have seen that allowing complete religious freedom in their new country would have a devastating effect in centuries to come, especially in the way that it would allow religions of all stripes to confuse their own religious liberty with the political liberty the country was actually founded on. As Susan Jacoby--an admirer of Hofstadter--writes in her brilliant work, The Age of American Unreason:

          It is the greatest irony, and a stellar illustration of the law of unintended consequences, that
          the American experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of Americans to
          embrace antirational, anti-intellectual forms of faith . . . In America, the absence of a coercive
          state-established church meant that American citizens had no need to uproot existing religious
          institutions in order to change political institutions, and vice versa. Americans dissatisfied with
          their church simply founded another one and moved on . . . During the early nineteenth century,
          as the church became a pillar of slavery [in the South], devotion to freedom of conscience,
          exemplified by Madison and Jefferson, was replaced by adherence to ultra-conservative religion
          dedicated to upholding the social order.

Thus, to the present day, the religious right has clung to a false notion of the place of religion in America, whether it is their Puritan beginnings in New England that actually eroded long before the Revolution, or their fundamentalism that justified slavery in the South that was destroyed by the Civil War. Religion and ignorance have always gone hand in hand in this country, but it wasn’t until the fifties that they really infected politics. The most visible symbols of this pollution are the phrase “in God we trust” that violated the First Amendment separation of church and state when it was place on our money, and “one nation under God” that was injected into the Pledge of Allegiance, both of which occurred in the 1950s. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the ignorant religious right would believe that those two phrases were coined by the founders and use that to justify their erroneous belief that America is a “Christian nation.” Nothing, in reality, could be further from the truth. The right has no idea about the true nature of this country because they don’t want to know. But then the anti-intellectual component of the radical right is one of its most prominent features. Hofstadter puts it this way: “The pseudo-conservative can be found in practically all classes in society, although its power probably rests largely upon its appeal to the less educated members of the middle class. The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics.” A more accurate reading of the supporters of Donald Trump would be difficult to find.

The characterization that Hofstadter gives of the pseudo-conservative is incredibly accurate and describes to perfection the beliefs that the right wing in this country have held for the last sixty years.

          He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed,
          and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and out-
          rageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics
          [since the Depression] . . . He sees his own country as being so weak that it is constantly about
          about to fall victim to subversion; and yet he feels that it is so all-powerful that any failure it may
          experience must be attributed to its having been betrayed. He is the most bitter of all our citizens
          about our involvement in the wars of the past, but seems the least concerned about avoiding the
          next one. He would much rather concern himself with the domestic scene . . . He is likely to be
          antagonistic to most of the operations of our federal government except Congressional investiga-
          tions, and to almost all of its expenditures.

This is one of the most accurate portraits of the modern Republican party that has ever appeared in print, and explains much of their behavior in the recent presidential primary season.

The Republican right in this country has only one goal, to tear down the freedoms that this country was founded on and replace them with a fascist rule in which the only freedom is the freedom to believe as they do. The way they attempt to accomplish this is through the legal system. The freedoms guaranteed to American citizens in the Constitution--with the exception of the few that Republicans like, guns and religion for example--are what they want to get rid of. “A great deal of pseudo-conservative thinking takes the form of trying to devise means of absolute protection against that betrayal by our own officialdom which the pseudo-conservative feels is always imminent.” And to that end, “the pseudo-conservative revolt seems to specialize in Constitutional revision.” What Republicans really want to do is to convert the Constitution from a living, breathing document that allows ideas like Prohibition to come and go, into something etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. Rather than a document that tells citizens what they are allowed to do, the choices and freedoms they have as members of this country, the right wants a document that outlines what we can’t do. Again, this goes against the very principals our country was founded on, something the anti-intellectual supporters of the right will never understand. As a result it is true conservatives, in the form of liberal Democrats, who are fighting the good fight to save those protections we have earned and keep the freedoms we do have, from being destroyed by the radical right.

One of the interesting theories that Hofstadter posits, in looking for a root cause, is that because we have mythologized ourselves as a status-less society, nationalism has become intertwined with our self-image and assumed a greater part in self-identification than it rightfully should. “In this country a person’s status--that is, his relative place in the prestige hierarchy of his community--and his rudimentary sense of belonging to the community--that is, what we call his ‘Americanism’--have been intimately joined.” This can certainly be seen today in a shrinking middle class that feels it has increasingly less “prestige hierarchy” and therefore attempts to compensate for it by a proportional increase in their “Americanism.” Because of this phenomenon there have emerged two different types of politics, “interest politics,” and “status politics.” As stated earlier, the generally uneducated and politically incoherent state of the radical right does not allow them any kind of genuine understanding of interest politics, which can be seen as “future-oriented and forward-looking, in the sense that it looks to a time when the adoption of this or that program will materially alleviate or eliminate certain discontents.” Instead, the anti-intellectual nature of the right means that it is left only with status politics, which are “expressed more in vindictiveness, in sour memories, in the search for scapegoats, than in realistic proposals for positive action.” This also describes the state of Trump supporters, who have no interest in policy and gravitate to a cult of personality rather than anything concrete that would actually make a difference in their lives.

Another area where individual status and Americanism mingle is in the area of immigration, another right wing trope being fed to the anti-intellectual during this election cycle. “Old-family Americans, whose stocks were once far more unequivocally dominant in America than they are today, feel that their ancestors made and settled and fought for this country.” But, as Hofstadter points out, “immigrant groups have developed ample means, political and economic, of self-defense and . . . some of the old-family Americans have turned to find new objects for their resentment among liberals, left-wingers, intellectuals and the like.” This is less the case today, however, than it was in the late nineties through the first half of the Obama administration because of the lack of intelligence in the new Republican base. Again, the base’s inability to understand exactly how intellectuals are supposedly endangering them is part of their incoherency of political thought. Thus the turn back to immigrant bashing that we see in the Trump campaign today, which is championed by white supremacists like David Duke. For much of the old-moneyed Mayflower families are gone and their formerly “inherited sense of proprietorship” has now been co-opted by anyone who is white. It’s easy to foment anger among under-educated whites whose racist tendencies go barely checked by standards of civil conduct in society, and point to those who look different as the cause of their perceived misery. This is something racist groups like the KKK have been doing for decades. And Trump is loath to reject the endorsement of these groups because he needs their votes, votes that would otherwise go to libertarian or other right-wing fringe candidates. Author Jeremy Scahill, who recently published The Assassination Complex, had this to say about the subject on a recent episode of Bill Maher:

          Just focusing on Trump and what he says, misses a deeper more disturbing reality and that
          is that Trump has brought to the public the fact that we have a real strain of fascism in this
          country. I think that what Trump has done is to give a public voice to a sentiment that is held
          by a significant minority of the population where now someone is saying the things they felt
          they couldn’t say in public. So now they can openly be racists, bigots, and they have their
          candidate.

Hofstadter also looks at the psychological underpinnings of these groups who have typically been under educated. What he finds is that the desire to destroy America comes from a hatred of authority in general. “An enormous hostility to authority, which cannot be admitted to consciousness, calls forth a massive overcompensation which is manifest in the form of extravagant submissiveness to strong power.” In this way of thinking, the government represents the totalitarian force in the lives of the pseudo-conservative that, in their minds, has left them utterly helpless to combat.

          For pseudo-conservatism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized
          by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete
          domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated
          and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of in-
          terpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and his own leadership are engaged
          in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority
          only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.

Given this way of thinking, support for Trump actually makes a lot of sense. He is a figure who is out to dominate, whether it be women, minorities, in business or in politics. This is the only thing that the new Republican base understands anymore, which is another reason that his complete obviation of the code of civil conduct earns him so many supporters. He is their surrogate, a man with power, who will go for them into the corrupt and conspiratorial government and destroy it from the inside.

But the idea of racism is also intertwined with the idea of nationalism and self-identity. Hofstadter makes another fascinating point when he discusses the idea of the United States as an immigrant country--from the very start. Everyone who came to this country came from somewhere else, and he finds a lingering, subconscious distrust amongst ourselves to be the end result. First he establishes the prejudicial nature of the Republican right by pointing out the obvious. “I believe that the typical prejudiced person and the typical pseudo-conservative dissenter are usually the same person, that the mechanisms at work in both complexes are quite the same.” The reason for this is the subconscious distrust for each other among a nation of people who have abandoned their country of origin, even if it was many generations earlier. And the way that mechanism functions is that they are “so desperately eager for reassurance of their fundamental Americanism,” that they “can conveniently converge on liberals, critics, and non-conformists of various sorts.” The non-conformists in this election cycle happen to be trans-gender people, but the radical right is not picky and they’ll go after anyone. In Hofstadter’s words, “in true pseudo-conservative fashion they relish weak victims and shrink from asserting themselves against the strong.”

One of the aspects of pseudo-conservatism that is generally misunderstood as actual conservatism is the desire for conformity by those on the right. This is one of the more difficult arguments that Hofstadter takes on as he attempts to tie the idea to the “status aspirations” of all on the radical right. But while it’s complex, it does makes sense. Uneducated, white Americans resent the erosion of the tacit superiority they have always claimed in this country, which for the most part has been subliminally reinforced in everything from entertainment and advertising, to minorities being ghettoized geographically and marginalized in the workplace. What, then, does that say about a country that seems to be going out of its way enforce equality for minorities of all kinds? Rather than look on it as step forward for the kind of inclusionary policies that this country has been moving toward since its founding, the radical right’s demand for conformity is instead an excuse for stripping the rights that minorities have already been granted. And so, in looking at what appears to be non-conformity by those on the right, “Naturally it is resented, and the demand for conformity in public becomes at once an expression of such resentment and a means of displaying one’s own soundness.” Again, it all comes back to the radical right being compelled to tear down the government in order to prove their own self worth, a phenomenon no different than religious cults that instill in their members a sense of specialness that can only be achieved by denigrating others.

Finally, there is no escaping the very real threats that this country faces from abroad, and the distinct ways that the two political parties have attempted to deal with those threats of terrorism from the Middle East. As Hofstadter points out, “We do live in a disordered world, threatened by a powerful ideology. It is a world of enormous potential violence, that has already shown us the ugliest capacities of the human spirit.” While the left makes efforts to understand the enemy, to use our intellect to find solutions to the conflicts that face us, the right wants only to destroy. In fact, in the absence of genuine intelligence, it is the only weapon they have against their own irrational fears. Hofstadter reminds us, “There is just enough reality at most points along the line to give a touch of credibility to the melodramatics of the pseudo-conservative imagination.” Add to this the role of the media which has, to cite Hofstadter, “brought politics closer to the people than ever before and has made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved.” This has been and extremely destructive part of our current election cycle because recent trends in direct democracy in internet voting for innocuous things like reality TV personalities and contestants, have transformed into an unrealistic expectation for voters, especially in the Sanders campaign. Reactionary responses to those expectations have resulted in votes for Trump as well as the undermining of the Clinton campaign by Sanders supporters.

One of the surprising things about Hofstadter’s essay is his optimism in the face of the radical right’s commitment to the destruction of the Constitution and the American experiment. “I do not share the widespread foreboding among liberals that this form of dissent will grow until it overwhelms our liberties altogether and plunges us into a totalitarian nightmare.” The reason for his optimism? Hofstadter wrote this essay in 1955. That’s right. This essay, which could have been written yesterday, and describes the Republican base as accurately as anyone could today, is over sixty years old. What was a subtle and insightful description of a growing movement in Republican politics in 1955, has now become so overt as to make his work seem painfully obvious today. But in the middle of the Eisenhower presidency, it certainly wasn’t. In fact, Hofstadter didn’t even live to see Watergate, Reganomics, or the devastation of the W. debacle, and yet in hindsight all of the things he did see in the mid-fifties, were gaining momentum until they came to fruition in the ascension of Donald Trump to the Republican candidacy for U.S. President. In some respects, I share Hofstadter’s belief in the American system of government. To even imagine the destruction of America that Trump represents for so many on the conservative left, “is to my mind a false conception, based on the failure to read American developments in terms of our peculiar American constellation of political realities.” After all, if the country could survive--and I do mean survive--eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, there is no reason to think it can’t endure four years of Donald Trump.

Still, despite his optimism, and as a warning from the past, Richard Hofstadter refuses to diminish the threat from an ideology that the Republicans have been cultivating since his death. As such, I leave the last words to him, just the way he ended his essay in 1955, in the hopes that those who read it will realize its very real description of the political landscape today, and do the right thing in November to reverse the tide of pseudo-conservative insurgency that threatens the very foundation of what it means to be Americans.

          However, in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and
          moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for
          private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active and well-financed
          minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety
          would become impossible.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

George Bush and JFK

Ever since I woke up on the morning of Wednesday, November 8, 2000 to discover that George W. Bush had illegally stolen the presidential election from Al Gore, I have hated the Bush’s. But I didn’t know how much I hated them until the exposure of the participation of George H.W. Bush in the C.I.A. organized assassination of John F. Kennedy was made clear in the film Dark Legacy: George Bush and the Murder of John Kennedy (Anyone who still thinks Lee Harvey Oswald had anything to do with the assassination of JFK is delusional, and anyone who doesn’t know the C.I.A was calling the shots has been lobotomized.) But in order to take a more in-depth look at the evidence I felt it necessary to examine the documented evidence available in print form. To that end, I purchased Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years by Russ Baker. Baker puts not only Bush junior’s more visible crimes on display, but delves into the evil world of Bush senior and his extensive clandestine career prior to becoming president. Baker strikes just the right tone from the start when he has this to say about the worst president in history by recounting “George W. Bush’s most damaging polices--

          The rush to war in Iraq, officially sanctioned torture, CIA destruction of evidence, spying on
          Americans with the collusion of private corporations, head-in-the-sand dismissal of climate
          change, the subprime mortgage disaster, skyrocketing oil prices. None of these developments
          looks so surprising when one considers the untold story of what came before. This book is
          about that secret history, and the people and institutions that created it . . . Bush’s mistakes--
          and his biggest was surely was the delusion that he could successfully lead the nation as its
          president--were only the most recent chapters in a story that goes back to his father and even
          his grandfather.

The story itself begins with the famous 1963 memo by J. Edgar Hoover in the aftermath of the JFK assassination stating that William Edwards of the Defense Intelligence Agency was briefed about the possibility of anti-Castro forces using the event to make another attempt to invade Cuba. The other person briefed: Mr. George W. Bush of the CIA. Of course Bush denied working for CIA in any capacity prior to heading the agency under Gerald Ford. Why wouldn’t he? But it wasn’t until 2006 that another document came to light showing Bush had been in the CIA as early as 1953. Before there was a CIA, the government used industrial spies to conduct much of their overseas investigations, through shell companies like the ones that Prescott Bush was running in South America that had turned those countries into little more than colonies for powerful U.S. business interests. The trend continued with confessed CIA agent Thomas Devine setting up George H.W. Bush in a shell oil company as a cover for his CIA work. But Bush’s espionage activities had actually begun earlier with his participation in Naval intelligence gathering during the Second World War.

It’s a convoluted story, and there’s a lot of conjecture, as there must be with anyone associated with an agency as secretive as the CIA. But they can’t hide everything, and a mountain of connections combined with an incoherence in the official stories he does tell lead fairly clearly to the conclusion that Baker makes. It begins with Precott Bush’s banking connections and his influence in the government through his work in the Senate as well as his close relationship to the Dulles brothers. After Eisenhower’s successful presidential bit in 1952, “the Dulles brothers obtained effective control of foreign policy: John Foster Dulles became Ike’s secretary of state, and Allen the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The rest of the administration was filled with Bush allies . . .” Like Reagan thirty years later, Eisenhower had little interest in the minutia of governance and let his subordinates run daily operations. And since the CIA had no mandate to carry out their work, they allied themselves with U.S. business interests who had international concerns and would be able to provide cover for operations that would benefit their bottom line in the long run. Thus, “agents created a host of entities to serve as middlemen to support rebels in countries targeted for regime change.” The key area of the Bush’s assignment would be oil, considering how vital it had been in winning World War Two.

          Harold Ickes had warned in 1943, "If there should be a World War III it would have to be
          fought with someone else’s petroleum, because the United States wouldn’t have it . . . We
          should have available oil in different parts of the world . . . The time to get going is now."
          Ickes’ eye was then on Saudi Arabia, the only place in the Middle East that had huge
          untapped oil pools under the control of an American oil company, the Rockefellers’ Standard
          Oil of California.

George H.W. Bush was then given a loan by his father’s friends on Wall Street in order to start Zapata Offshore oil company, which could provide the CIA with a host of services. It would give operatives access to oil producing countries around the world, excuses for their international travel, money laundering capabilities, and the company’s offshore sites could providing training facilities for covert military operations against Cuba. “Though Zapata had only a handful of rigs, [Bush] set up operations for Zapata Offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the Persian Gulf, Trinidad, Borneo, and Medellin, Columbia.” It was all part of the CIA partnership with big business “creating plausible deniability as it began what would be a series of efforts to topple ‘unfriendly’ regimes around the world.” Unfriendly, that is, to U.S. businesses. As always, these operations have absolutely no connection to the actual safety of the U.S. or its citizens, the effects of regime change on the people in those countries or our own, and worst of all no thoughts of long-term ramifications. This is the exact same thing son George W. Bush is guilty of, the way that his administration destabilized the entire Middle East for economic gains by his corporate partners like Halliburton, resulting in the worldwide chaos and climate change crises we’re suffering today.

After the CIA had successfully toppled the democratically elected prime minister in Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953 because, “Mossadegh began nationalizing Anglo-American oil concessions,” they set their sights on Cuba a few years later for the same reason. “Fidel Castro began to expropriate the massive properties of large foreign (chiefly American) companies.” Thus, Bush’s offshore oilrig was then moved to Cay Sal Bank, “just fifty-four miles north of Isabela, Cuba.” Zapata Offshore would become the base for Caribbean operations in the plot to overthrow Castro, just one aspect of which was the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that John F. Kennedy had been pressured into green-lighting by his military-industrial complex connected advisors. As any good operative would do, Bush was able to cover his tracks. Investigations into this time period uncovered the fact that, “Zapata filings” with the Securities and Exchange Commission “from 1960 to 1966 had been ‘inadvertently destroyed’ several months after Bush became vice president.” The connection between Cuba and the assassination of JFK is a simple one. The CIA’s financiers wanted Castro out so that they could reclaim their confiscated property and their lucrative business interests on the island. Kennedy, on the other hand, was moving toward reconciliation with Cuba, a move that would irrevocably end U.S. corporate control in the country. As James Douglass reports in one of the best books on the subject, JFK and the Unspeakable, “In 1963 John Kennedy began pursuing an alternative script on Cuba: a secret dialogue toward an actual rapprochement with Castro.”

But there is nothing more suspicious than Bush senior’s claim that he can’t remember where he was in Texas when he heard the news of the assassination. Then again, this also makes perfect sense. The problem with making up a lie about that particular day is that everyone knows where they were that day, and if he had attempted to fabricate something the lie would inevitably have been exposed. The year before the assassination Bush had moved full-time into politics, eventually deciding to run for a U.S. Senate seat from Texas. Yet he was still frequently traveling internationally under he guise of working for Zapata, and also busy setting up a campaign office in Dallas. Documents unearthed in 1993, however, show that Bush actually called the FBI office in Dallas on November 22, 1963 in order to implicate a man named James Parrott in the plot. Corroborating testimony has Bush delivering a speech to the local Kiwanis Club at the Blackstone Hotel in Tyler, Texas when he was told about the shooting. He apparently ended his speech by delivering the news to the crowd and then sitting down, calm and unflustered, as Baker points out, “not unlike his own son’s composure in another moment of crisis . . . after being told about the 9/11 attacks.” So if he was in Tyler, why the caginess? Baker suggests the call may have been a way of establishing with the authorities that he was in Tyler, and not actually in Dallas. The fact is, Bush had been in Dallas delivering another speech to oil contractors the night before the assassination, and Baker further speculates that he didn’t fly to Tyler until the next morning.

One of Bush senior’s friends in Dallas was George de Mohrenschildt, a Russian émigré who also happened to be a close, personal associate of one Lee Harvey Oswald. Just prior to the assassination de Mohrenschildt had not only met with CIA agents in Washington but with Thomas Devine from Zapata who also worked for the CIA. In the 1950s, before they met, his future wife Jeanne worked in fashion with Abraham Zapruder, who took the most famous film of the assassination, while de Mohrenschildt himself was leasing oil-drilling rights in Cuba. In fact, he was working for a holding company “with a focus on ‘stability’ in Latin American countries, which could reasonably be assumed to refer to creating conditions of political stability favorable to the exploration activities.” After Castro began taking back the island from U.S. corporate interests, however, a Cuban Task Force was created and “Vice President Richard Nixon . . . was the administration’s Cuba ‘case officer.’” Nixon met with Texas businessmen at the time to raise funds for the task force, a group that was apparently headed by Bush himself. In 1976, while Bush was head of the CIA, George de Mohrenschildt began writing letters that alluded to new information about Oswald. Naturally, he was hounded by the FBI and CIA, and so he wrote a letter to his old friend to ask if he could help. Bush wrote a memo declaring he barely knew the man, and six months later de Mohrenschildt was executed and the scene staged to look like a suicide.

After the Bay of Pigs Kennedy fired Allen Dulles--a close friend of the Bushes--which infuriated Prescott Bush. Baker calls this, “a declaration of independence from the Wall Street intelligence nexus that pretty much had its way in the previous administration.” But Kennedy’s antagonism toward the money men was also more direct, “when he interfered with their oil and mineral development plans in Brazil’s vast Amazon basin.” Add to that Kennedy’s push to move toward nuclear disarmament, and its attendant undermining of the uranium production industry--primarily based in Texas--that had grown rapidly after the war, and it’s little wonder that JFK’s policies were seen as nothing short of an all out assault on American financial interests both domestic and abroad. For wealthy capitalists the outlook was grim. Not only was JFK sure to win another term in the White House, there was also the fact that both Jack and his brother Bobby were incredibly young and that, along with their younger brother Ted, they might dominate the political landscape in Washington for decades to come. “The Kennedy administration struck at the heart of the Southern establishment’s growing wealth and power . . . Yet in the space of five years, Jack and Bobby Kennedy were dead, and the prospect of a Kennedy political dynasty had been snuffed out.

          The leaders of these same institutions have frequently seen nothing wrong with assassinating
          leaders in other countries, even democratically elected ones . . . Is it that difficult to believe
          that those who viewed assassination as a policy tool would use it at home, where the sense
          of grievance and the threat to their interests was even greater?

One of the many interesting things to come out of the film Dark Legacy, written and directed by John Hankey, is that not only was Bush in Dallas on November 22nd but so was Richard Nixon, the former Cuba “case officer,” as well as E. Howard Hunt, whom Hankey credits with running the assassination operation on the ground at Dealey Plaza. What’s fascinating is that not only Bush, but apparently Nixon and Hunt as well were unable to remember exactly how they heard of the president’s death. Evidence from other sources suggests that Bush’s promotion to the head of the CIA by Warren Commission member Gerald Ford was done specifically to thwart further incursion into CIA files by a select committee on political assassinations and to keep the true nature of the agency’s involvement in the assassination a secret. But Bush had already been in Washington as part of Nixon’s White House team as ambassador to the United Nations, no doubt as a favor to Prescott Bush for financing his political career. Evidence further suggests that the Watergate cover-up was really an attempt to keep Howard Hunt quiet about Nixon’s involvement with the JFK assassination, and things come full circle when Gerald Ford issues a blanket pardon for all of Nixon’s crimes.

The two works diverge somewhat on how they specifically tie Bush to the Kennedy assassination. Dark Legacy emphasizes the relationship of Prescott Bush to Nixon, and then ties to that Nixon’s relationship to Howard Hunt and Bush’s oversight of the anti-Castro Cubans in the Caribbean. Baker, on the other hand, makes his central argument the relationship of Bush to George de Mohrenschildt and the free pass he received from the Warren Commission. Far more compelling, however, is Bush’s close relationship to Jack Crichton. Crichton not only would openly admit later to working for the CIA, but was also heading a military intelligence unit at the time of the assassination, as well as running for governor at the same time Bush was seeking his senate seat. “Crichton was so plugged into the Dallas power structure that one of his company directors was . . . D. Harold Byrd, owner of the Texas School Book Depository building.” In addition, Crichton worked as part of the Dallas Civil Defense program, setting up their communications system, and was in the pilot car of the motorcade.

          Thus, in November 1963, Bush and Crichton were essentially working in tandem. Given that
          alliance, Poppy would need to explain not only where he was on November 22 and why he
          tried so hard to hide that, but also what he knew about Crichton’s activities that day and about
          Crichton’s Intelligence colleagues in the pilot car of the motorcade.

Of course neither Dark Legacy, nor Family of Secrets goes so far as to implicate George Bush Sr. directly in the assassination of Kennedy. But they both raise important questions to consider when looking at what many writers call the “Deep State,” the actual control of the government by the military-industrial complex. The CIA is only the most visible of the forces that make the real decisions in American politics. One of the most cogent explanations of this hybrid government operating within the machinery of Washington D.C. was written by Mike Lofgren two years ago in an essay titled “Anatomy of the Deep State.”

          The Deep State does not consist of the entire government. It is a hybrid of national security
          and law enforcement agencies: the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the
          Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Justice Depart-
          ment. I also include the Department of the Treasury because of its jurisdiction over financial
          flows, its enforcement of international sanctions and its organic symbiosis with Wall Street . . .
          [But] the Deep State does not consist only of government agencies. What is euphemistically
          called “private enterprise” is an integral part of its operations . . . There are now 854,000
          contract personnel with top-secret clearances--a number greater than that of top-secret-
          cleared civilian employees of the government.

Attempts to question Bush Sr. about his time as a CIA operative have all been met with flat denials, because one of the primary functions of clandestine agencies is to maintain secrecy. Was George H.W. Bush a member of the CIA in 1953 or even earlier? Almost certainly, and the evidence of his association with admitted CIA employees at the time, as well as J. Edgar Hoover’s memo in 1963 attest to the fact. Bush’s work with Zapata Offshore gave him access to oil producing governments and excuses for international travel at the behest of corporate interests that were controlling the military in Washington, and one of their primary concerns was the loss of property and manufacturing facilities in Cuba after Castro had confiscated them. Kennedy’s decision to opt out of the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba would mean that American business interests on the island would be irrevocably lost. Add to that the fact that the CIA had routinely toppled or killed leaders in other countries to benefit their corporate benefactors, and it would make sense that they simply would have extended its use to the domestic front. But it strains credulity to believe that Bush would not have known about the operation to assassinate Kennedy in his home state of Texas. And his thinly-veiled attempts to create documentation for his not being in Dallas, as well as his obvious lies about not remembering where he was when he heard the news, clearly indicate complicity at some level. What that is will probably never be known, especially after he was put in charge of the CIA in 1976.

If Bush managed to expunge the records of Zapata Offshore from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s files, it’s pretty clear that any evidence of his work with the CIA prior to 1976 is gone as well. His appointment by Warren Commission participant Gerald Ford to the top spot in the agency saw to that, and would also have given Bush the ability to destroy any evidence of Richard Nixon’s participation in Dallas as well. This is an aspect of the story that became apparent in 1988 in The Nation, after the Hoover memo first came to light in the article “The Man Who Wasn't There, ‘George Bush,’ C.I.A. Operative” by Joseph McBride.

          Asked recently about Bush’s early C.I.A. connections, (former Texas Democratic Senator Ralph)
          Yarborough said, “I never heard anything about it. It doesn't surprise me. What surprised me was
          that they picked him for Director of Central Intelligence--how in hell he was appointed head of
          the C.I.A. without any experience or knowledge.” Hoover's memo “explains something to me that
          I’ve wondered about. It does make sense to have a trained C.I.A. man, with experience, appointed
          to the job.”

As far as the substance of the memo is concerned, Hankey’s Dark Legacy attempts to use this as his strongest link to the assassination. Hoover states that the Miami FBI office had been advised by the State Department that “some misguided anti-Castro group might capitalize on the present situation and undertake an unauthorized raid against Cuba,” but Hoover assures the department that this is not the case. Hankey implies that this “misguided anti-Castro group” refers to the agents in Bush’s Zapata group--which it almost certainly does--but then further implies that this must have been the group that carried out the assassination--which doesn’t really make much sense at all. What seems far more likely is that the memo is an attempt to reassure the military that Bush’s Zapata group is not going to carry out any unauthorized actions on the heels of the assassination. Bush, in essence, is being told in the meeting to control his people, and the function of the memo is to assure those reading it in Washington that he will follow his orders.

Baker, in Family of Secrets, has a tough time making any direct connection between Bush Sr. and the actual shooting of the president and doesn’t really try. He does provide convincing evidence, however, of his CIA and corporate connections and his oil company’s work in Cuba. If there’s a flaw in the book it’s that he spends too much space in that section dealing with peripheral assassination information because he has only a small, finite amount of actual material on Bush’s CIA career prior to 1976. This isn’t a flaw at all, however, if the reader is generally unfamiliar with the inner workings of the assassination plot. But for anyone who has read more than a couple of books on the subject, much of Baker’s work is redundant. Still, there are plenty of books on the assassination that don’t mention Bush at all, so it is valuable to have Baker weave that story into the rest of the tapestry and makes the reader wish that many more threads could be woven into the story as well, especially where the office of the President of the United States is concerned.

In drawing conclusions from both sources it seems more than likely that Bush knew about the assassination attempt, and that the specific details of his complicity were something that he felt the necessity to cover up, if only to protect his future political career. Going forward, however, what seems like a thoroughly fascinating angle to explore in terms of the assassination as a whole, is determining the exact nature of the participation of four eventual U.S. presidents in the death of John F. Kennedy. Certainly Lyndon Johnson benefited immediately from JFK’s death and proceeded to reward his military-industrial directors with the Vietnam War, a situation that forced him to effectively resign in 1968 rather than continue to give them what they wanted. Richard Nixon, also in Dallas on the day of the assassination, was a case officer for Cuba while vice-president and had no such compunctions. He took the baton from Johnson willingly and continued to prosecute the war for his financiers after JFK’s brother Robert was eliminated from the running. Nixon’s choice of Gerald Ford from the Warren Commission to succeed him allowed for his eventual pardon, while former CIA operative and Ford appointee to the top spot in the CIA, George Herbert Walker Bush, used his position to clean up any loose ends and eventually make his way to the White House himself. Now that would be an incredible book to read.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Why Bible Literacy Matters (and Why it Shouldn’t)

One of the things that Lionel Trilling always argued for was to look carefully at arguments that go against what we believe. Once we become too certain in our stance, our ability to learn and change diminishes. Good advice, but not easy to do. Recently I’ve been exploring the idea of anti-intellectualism in America, primarily found in the religious right and conservative politics. So, in deference to Professor Trilling, I picked up a copy of The State of the American Mind, an anthology of essays by right-wing intellectuals, in order to gauge my stance on the subject as accurately as possible. The first essay that I wanted to take a look at is by Daniel L Dreisbach, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington D.C. The title is “Biblical Literacy Matters,” something that I believe in very strongly, but not for the reasons Dreisbach lays out in his piece.

Dreisbach begins his essay with the inauguration address by George W. Bush, which he describes as “rich with Biblical language and allusions.” Unfortunately, the fact that Bush was arguably the dumbest individual to ever hold the office tends to undercut his argument from the outset. It’s widely known that Bush allowed his religious zeal to subsume what minimal intellect he possessed, and so the fact that his speechwriters made references to Biblical passages should not have been a surprise to anyone. But in saying that in one of those allusions Bush pledged “a national commitment to serve those in poverty” is laughable, especially after his financial policies resulted in the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. Perhaps what he meant was that Bush was committed to putting the nation itself into poverty and serving us then, because he nearly succeeded in that. The fact that a CBS analyst “didn’t get” some of the allusions isn’t surprising either, considering the impoverished nature of our public education system. And that’s just the first paragraph.

Next Dreisbach spends some time trashing Democrats who made gaffs because of their unfamiliarity with the Bible. So what? Apparently in their eagerness to demonstrate that they are as “religious friendly as the Republicans” they couldn’t help but display their ignorance. But what, exactly, does “religious friendly” mean? The implication that Democrats aren’t friendly to religion is patently false. There’s a distinct difference between respecting someone’s religion and aiding and abetting their efforts to foist their religious beliefs on a secular country by enacting laws to coerce the rest of the citizens into behaviors they find acceptable and punish them for ones they don’t. But perhaps I’m quibbling. Nevertheless, there is a distinct undertone of righteous superiority in Dreisbach’s argument, though at this point it’s not clear exactly what his argument even is. He seems to want to spend an awful lot of time hammering home the fact that previous presidents frequently alluded to or mentioned biblical passages. And again, it’s unclear what that’s supposed to imply. This is one of the problems I see with conservative writing in general, an assumed moral superiority that is somehow supposed to translate into unquestioned veracity. In a sense, they always seem to be preaching to the choir, and that’s no way to win converts.

Moving on he states that, “Americans, apparently, have long been more biblically literate than their European contemporaries,” and demonstrates this with an anecdote from Ben Franklin who felt he had to annotate a sermon that he wanted to reprint in England because Britons wouldn’t understand the biblical references. But why “apparently?” The fact is, Europe has obviously had a much longer Christian tradition than America, by a couple of millennia. The Puritans who first came to this country were from Europe, bible-obsessed fanatics who left because England wasn’t fundamentalist enough for them, so naturally American writing is going to be imbued with more religious sentiment. Again, what’s the point? Finally, he gets to something we can all agree with: “That Americans from the colonial era to the twentieth century were biblically literate is no surprise because they lived in an overwhelmingly Protestant culture. Protestant theology reveres the Bible as the revealed word of God and emphasizes its role as authority in all matters of faith and practice . . . One would expect the Bible to occupy a place of prominence in such a culture.”

From here Dreisbach launches into a history lesson about the influence of biblical thinking on New England law and government and then finally gets to his thesis:

          Because of the Bible’s role in shaping people’s thoughts and speech during the forming of
          our nation, it matters deeply that Americans today know so little about the Bible and its
          influence on their culture . . . The Bible has informed diverse aspects of the culture, and the
          Bible continues to influence culture in innumerable ways. To understand themselves and
          where they come from, Americans must know something about the Bible.

While this initially sounds like a credible argument, it’s actually completely wrong. What is important in understanding American history is the influence of the people on our culture, not a book. Early Americans were informed and motivated by their religious beliefs, and yes, those beliefs were associated with the Bible, but so were dozens of other Protestant religions as well as Catholics and Anglicans. When looked at from that perspective, it is the specific Calvinist beliefs of early Americans that are vital to understanding where we came from and why we still behave the way we do. But you can’t get that from looking at the Bible.

Dreisbach cites sociologist Robert N. Bellah who states, “The Bible was the one book that literate Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries could be expected to know well.” Of course, which is why presidents like Washington and Lincoln, and political figures like Patrick Henry and William Jennings Bryan would have used that knowledge in their speeches. What the Bible gives us today is a key to unlocking the biblical language that was used in the past, in order to understand the points that authors were making. In that sense, the Bible is like a translation guide that allows us greater insight into those works. But it’s not an end in itself, and it certainly doesn’t inform us about the motives behind the actions of historical figures as much as their religious dogma does. Washington, as well as many of the men who helped to found this country during the revolutionary period, were Deists. They allowed that there was a god, but in no way attributed to the deity direct intervention in human affairs. In the words of English professors Barbara and George Perkins, “For the confirmed Deist, God was the first cause, but the hand of God was more evident in the mechanism of nature than in scriptural revelation; the Puritan belief in miraculous intervention and supernatural manifestations was regarded as blasphemy against the divine Creator of the immutable harmony and perfection of all things.” So, while both Puritans and Deists used the same Bible, their motivations and actions were very different and the Bible itself isn’t going to tell us that.

Nevertheless, Bible literacy holds immeasurable benefits as an analytical tool to help understand what authors meant when they were making biblical references. In the last thousand years Euro-American thought has been directly tied to Christianity, and the ability to make sense of biblical allusions is crucial to a analyzing much of the literature coming out of American and Europe during that time period. As an example, just such an allusion appears in the poem “White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling. It was written during the Spanish-American war to encourage Americans to participate in the same kind of colonial imperialism in the Philippines that the British had been engaged in for centuries. Toward the end of the poem Kipling uses sarcasm to express why our “new-caught, sullen peoples” might resent being controlled by a foreign power.

          The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
          “Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”

The light, in this instance, is the enlightenment of Western Civilization being foisted upon a people who were getting along just fine without it for thousands of years. The fact that they are dragging their heels “(Ah, slowly!)” should not at all be surprising. Then, using quotation marks, Kipling puts words in their mouths, to the effect that they prefer the bondage of their “loved Egyptian night” to the obviously superior civilizing influence of the West.

The biblical reference here is to the Jews being enslaved in Egypt. What Kipling is saying is that the Filipinos have the opportunity to be brought into the enlightening embrace of Christianity in the same way that the Jews were liberated from the bondage of their Egyptian masters by trusting god. Kipling’s attempt at sarcasm comes from the assumption that by throwing off their Spanish overlords the Americans are assuming the role of Moses and leading them to the promised land of Western thought and culture. But I use this example on purpose, because Kipling’s narrator doesn’t realize the irony inherent in the fact that colonialism by any other name is still bondage. Despite greater economic freedoms they might have obtained, to the Filipinos the Americans were no different than the Spanish, and the imposition of Western culture upon them was no less a cultural bondage than a physical one. In essence, it’s the same kind of cultural bondage that fundamentalist Christians want to impose on the rest of this country. Knowledge of the Bible, in this case, not only helps us understand Kipling’s meaning, but also shows his unconscious bias and allows us to get a complete picture of this work in a way that we couldn’t otherwise. And this, I’m guessing, is not exactly what Dreisbach had in mind.

He continues his argument with the dominance of The New-England Primer in early American education. Again, the underlying assumption is that because children of the past “learned reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and civics through the lens of the biblical text,” somehow their education was better, or that our children are suffering from the lack of that lens today. An example he uses from the book to support his argument, “In Adam’s fall / We sinned all,” could not be more poorly chosen. The doctrine of original sin is one of the unfortunate vestiges of our Puritan past. Dreisbach claims that this instilled in the early settlers a “view of human nature and the necessity for imposing restraints on civil magistrates through a variety of checks and balances.” Wrong again. Christian distrust of government came from their experience in being controlled by a monarchy in their civil lives and Rome in their religious. What New Englanders were after is participation in their own government, taking their cue from Martin Luther, who said, “Neither Pope or Bishop nor any other man, has a right to impose a single syllable of law upon a Christian man without his consent.” The assumption in this statement is that Christians are going to behave morally as a result of their belief system, and therefore do not need guidance from outside. If laws are going to be made, they must be with the consent of the people. Now that is important in understanding our beginnings, not the Bible.

Dreisbach goes out of his way, however, not to call this early schooling public education, because from the beginning the federal government refused to fund religious education, leaving it up to the states and local districts to finance schools that promoted religion. In point of fact, it was Christians themselves who were responsible for the secularization of public schools in the early eighteen hundreds. This is something Susan Jacoby points out in her book, The Age of American Unreason.

          [Conservatives] frequently suggest that religion in public schools was taken for granted in
          the early decades of the republic, when the population was overwhelmingly Protestant. In
          fact, the secularization of common schools was initially a response to growing religious
          pluralism among Protestants . . . With Baptists and Congregationalists and Unitarians
          sending their children to the same schools, it began to seem imprudently divisive to favor
          any one religion.

From here Dreisbach recounts the liberating influence of the Bible in Protestant religions in freeing themselves from Catholicism and mandatory church hierarchies, especially when it came to reading and interpreting the Bible. He also cites the ability of most individuals in the colonial period to read because of the importance of the book in their religion. True enough, but it’s unclear how this relates to current public education woes that revolve around the lack of higher level thinking skills. Teaching the Bible doesn’t seem to be the answer. Then he brings in the idea of “civic virtue” as a driving force in a functioning democracy, that “the founders believed that religion must play a vital role in the polity, either for genuinely spiritual or utilitarian reasons.” And though he quotes such luminaries as John Adams and John Dickinson and their enthusiasm for the Bible, he presents no evidence to demonstrate that a secular state is any less moral than a religious one. Given the West’s struggle with Middle Eastern theocracies in the twenty-first century, it’s pretty clear there isn’t any. But on we go.

“Biblical literacy still matters because the Bible not only offers insights on and enriches an understanding of American history and culture but also provides a shared cultural vocabulary that facilitates broad social engagement and conversations on a wide array of religious and civic concerns.” Now we’re getting somewhere. While the study of the Bible has already been shown to be negligible in terms of understanding American history, the phrase “shared cultural vocabulary” is one that has much more relevance. Unfortunately, Dreisbach lapses back into Old Testament justifications for America’s independence from Britain, one that would be more persuasive if American’s themselves had not enslaved Blacks and attempted to persecute the Native American population into extinction. And as was also demonstrated earlier, the Bible itself is not the culprit here, it is the interpretation of the Bible manifested in the deeds of its believers that offer far more genuine insight into history. When Dreisbach claims, “From the Pilgrim Fathers to the Founding Fathers, and even to the present day, Americans have seen themselves reliving the exodus story,” his argument implodes. Which Americans would those be? Black Americans still attempting to overcome four hundred years of state sanctioned hatred against them? The few Native American tribes that still cling to a decimated way of life, herded onto reservations that were originally designed with the express intent of killing them off with diseases like small pox to eventually get the land back? Mexican immigrants that Christians want to send back across the border to “Egypt?”

Or could it be that Dreisbach is speaking of white Christians, who have used the Bible to justify a persecution complex that came over to this country on the Mayflower, and can be directly linked to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, groups that can only be called Christian terrorist organizations. Yes, the understanding of biblical metaphors is instructive, but the underlying assumption of Dreisbach’s argument where he takes for granted the Bible’s moral importance for today is not only false, but belied by the amoral behaviors of many people professing themselves as Christians and no doubt indoctrinated through a devout study of the very Bible he is advocating for. Dreisbach goes on to cite research done into the frequency of biblical references in the works of American authors over references to secular authors. Again, this is not news. Bible literacy is actually vital in understanding those writings, as was demonstrated by the analysis of Kipling earlier. Beyond that, however, its relevance for today is minimal. The author’s insistence on American exceptionalism and continued biblical justification for “manifest destiny” and “global missionary outreach” is actually insulting to those who, like Kipling’s “new-caught, sullen peoples,” don’t want Christianity bullying its way into their lives. And it should be equally insulting to the rest of us who grant religious freedom to Christians in this country, only to have them attempt to deny our freedoms and try to shove their beliefs down our throats.

In the most ironic statement of the entire essay, Dreisbach claims that “In America, the biblical presence has run so deep that the deterioration of biblical literacy amounts to a deterioration of civic discussion, a cognitive failure on all parties to communicate.” In reality, it is the deep-seated biblical obsession itself that accounts for the failure of believers to understand that this is not a Christian nation, and it has never been. Christians claim that the rest of us need an understanding of the Bible in order to get along with them, but what they really want is conversion to their particular cult so that they can have everything the way they want it. Where are the calls for Christians to read the Koran so that they too can participate in the elimination of the “failure on all parties to communicate?” Many Christians in this country don’t want Muslims here, and even the coopting of the Old Testament from the Jewish faith for their own purposes hasn’t stopped anti-Semitism by Christians. And the list goes on. “Every educated mind in the United States--Jews, Christians, other religious believers, even atheists--must be acquainted with the basic stories, themes, claims, and symbols of Christianity and its sacred text, the Bible.” A more hypocritical statement it would be difficult to find. The only thing that the Bible has produced in the last fifty years is a fully justified and rationalized hatred of anyone else who doesn’t believe as Christians do. I wonder what Jesus would have to say about that?

The practical, literary uses of the Bible are all that really matter in the end, and I agree that many Americans are left in the dark if they don’t understand them. When Dreisbach states that, “Familiar idioms, figures of speech, symbols, and proper names in Western cultures have biblical origins. Without knowledge of the Bible, it is difficult to appreciate the works of the greatest artists, writers, and composers in western history,” it is the most cogent argument in the entire essay. Without a working knowledge of the Bible it would be impossible to make sense of much of the great art, literature, and music that has been produced in the last millennium and our lives will all be the poorer for it. But Dreisbach can’t leave well enough alone, and returns to his insidious insistence on Bible education as a substitute for education itself. “Declining biblical literacy rates in the twentieth- and twenty-first century America have accompanied the increasing secularization of culture and a general decline in educational standards.” It certainly has, but to imply a causal relationship between the two is disingenuous at the very least.

Early on in his essay, Dreisbach quotes Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist, and intellectual leader in the free black community of the North after hearing President Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “After hearing the president’s brief speech in which he mentioned God fourteen times, quoted the Bible four times, and referenced prayer three times, Douglass famously quipped that Lincoln’s ‘address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.’” But if one is going to use an oppressed minority to make an argument about the moral implications of Bible literacy, one must be prepared to hear the whole story. Douglass, of all people, recognized the inherent hypocrisy of the metaphors of slavery used by the Founding Fathers when at the same time they allowed slavery to flourish in the country they created. In a speech on the Fourth of July, 1852, nine years before Lincoln’s first election, he had this to say about the complicity of the church in maintaining slavery in the South.


          Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name
          of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the
          constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question
          and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate
          slavery--the great sin and shame of America! . . . The American church is guilty, when viewed
          in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed
          in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission
          as well as of commission.

Clearly a thorough knowledge of the Bible did nothing to prevent its being used to bolster the claims by slave owners that slavery was not a sin, just one of many crimes performed in the name of Christianity throughout the centuries. The interpretation of the Bible, not the Bible itself, is the key to understanding American history and all its imperfections. The Bible as myth, however, is tremendously important for understanding the great works of the second millennium, just as the knowledge of Greek mythology is crucial for understanding the Iliad and the Odyssey. But let’s not kid ourselves that this study should be anything more than cultural anthropology. Once the intent of Bible literacy becomes an entry point for proselytizing and conversion, or even moral guidance, it has ceased to be meaningful. If history has shown us anything, it’s that the problems of today are ones that cannot be solved by religion, Christian or otherwise, and anyone who believes differently has bought into an even bigger fairy tale than the Bible.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Age of American Unreason (2008)

by Susan Jacoby

There’s something about reading a book by someone who is incredibly intelligent that is unlike any other reading experience. I wish Susan Jacoby could write a book every year. And I certainly wonder about how much worse things have become in the United States in the eight years since the book was first published. The Age of American Unreason recounts the many ways that American citizens have been spiraling downward in intelligence, all of them manifestly worse in 2016 than they were at the dawn of the Obama administration. In fact, I used to think that the term anti-intellectual seemed a bit harsh in the way that it seemed to cast what I perceived as the gradual diminishment of intellectual life in America as something that was purposefully being resisted. What I was thinking--to use Jacoby’s reasoning about writing--was really along the lines of a-intellectualism. But in the past year, especially given the current politics on the right, the prefix anti- now seems especially accurate. Jacoby’s writing captures all of this subtlety and more. She’s intellectual without being pedantic, engaging without pandering, and edifying without being boring. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, and equally devastating in exposing the erosion of the joy of intellectual thought in a country that is increasingly becoming free in name only.

Jacoby’s book begins with an introduction that stands as a lengthy thesis on the problems themselves, some of which I’ve written about before, especially the decline in reading, scientific knowledge, and passivity with which American lives have become little more than mere existence. She sums it up with this idea:

          America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and
          anti-intellectualism . . . This condition is aggressively promoted by everyone, from politicians
          to media executives, whose livelihood depends on a public that derives its opinions from sound
          bites and blogs, and it is passively accepted by a public in thrall to the serpent promising effortless
          enjoyment from the fruit of the tree of infotainment.

It’s a chilling prognosis, and her twin analogies, both to medicine and the bible, are equally appropriate. The mutant strain of unreason that is infecting the country is running rampant through a populace that seems powerless to protect itself. Public education, once thought to be a bulwark against ineptitude of the mind, has been so thoroughly infected that colleges and universities have had no other choice than to succumb as well. And her invocation of the bible is wonderfully shifted to make the object of human desire not knowledge, but useless facts and information that only serve to make people dumber.

Her first chapter took me by surprise, in that it deals with language, specifically the use of the word “folks” by politicians to replace “people.” Initially it seemed to be a fairly insignificant attempt by candidates to ingratiate themselves with voters in order to get elected, and her replacement of the word in famous speeches by Lincoln and Roosevelt seemed a little too obviously hyperbolic. What I hadn’t expected, though, was this quote from George Orwell--one of the masters of the English language--using his own analogy that cast her argument in an entirely new light.

          A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more
          completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English
          language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the sloven-
          liness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

When contemplating the “slovenliness of our language” it becomes clear that the damage done to our communication skills through text messaging and Twitter has created a vicious circle in which foolishness of thought has become the norm and slovenly language the only way people have of expressing it. At the end of Orwell’s statement, a sentence Jacoby left off, he states, “The point is that the process is reversible.” It might have been back in 1946 when Orwell wrote this, but it seems almost impossible today with the complete and utter saturation of American culture by infotainment. The most obvious example of this is embodied in the presumptive Republican nominee. Donald Trump’s speeches have not only been analyzed and found to be written at an eighth-grade level, but Trump’s grammar is the worst ever used by a major political candidate. It takes no imagination at all to wonder what kind of language his supporters use and why he appeals to them. In speaking about listeners of has-been radio host Don Imus, she could have just as easily been talking about those who support Trump today: “Part of [his] audience was undoubtedly composed of hard-core racists and misogynists, but many more who found his rants amusing were responding in the spirit of eight-year-olds laughing at farts.”

Of course Jacoby cites Neil Postman when talking about the media. Though his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death was exclusively about television, she rightly acknowledges that all of his arguments still hold in the information age. “Everything he had to say about the implications of the shift from a print to a video culture is valid today--only more so.” And her rebuttals to those who advocate the incursion of the media’s image-driven replacement of text in the lives of Americans is instructive not so much for the logical arguments she makes against them, but just how pathetic their attempts are to defend the indefensible. A child psychiatrist for hire by HBO, who created videos for babies states, “To say that this kind of TV is bad is tantamount to saying art is bad.” And a technology columnist for Discover magazine opines, “otherwise vibrant and active children gazing silently, mouth agape at the screen” are not the signs that TV is “turning their child into a zombie . . . [they] are not signs of mental atrophy. They’re signs of focus.” Given such statements, one hardly needs to point out that the authors are suffering from ignorance gained through the very thing they are touting. Nevertheless, Jacoby pointedly exposes their flawed arguments with surgical precision. Her first of the two causes for anti-intellectualism, then, is the replacement of a culture informed by text, to one indoctrinated by images. The second brought a smile to my face: religion.

I have always felt organized religion to be utterly antithetical to serious thought, as the very idea of faith to an imaginary deity makes absolutely no sense to free thinking individuals. Nevertheless, as Jacoby points out, this is a brand of emotional anti-intellectualism that is perfectly wedded to our image-driven society. “Religion comes across most powerfully on video when it is unmodified by secular thought and learning, makes no attempt to appeal to anything but emotion, and leaves no room for doubt.” But more than just the medium, the media itself is culpable in supporting the presupposition that belief in god is societal given. This comes in the form of Christianity as an accepted norm in news reporting, and manifests itself in specific events like the belief that the attacks on September 11th were a sign of the biblical end times, which “exemplifies the journalistic conviction that anything ‘controversial’ is worth covering and that both sides of an issue must always be given equal space--even if one side belongs in an abnormal psychology textbook.” The most obvious of these fictional controversies has been promulgated by the willfully ignorant who continue to espouse creationism in the face of scientific fact.

Creationism is based on the belief in a god that is no different from Zeus, Odin, or Ra, while scientific fact is based on observable and mathematical proof that has been validated through reproducible experimentation. What Jacoby does so magnificently here, is to bring these ideas back around to Orwell’s observations on language.

          The general theory of evolution by means of natural selection is a settled issue for the main-
          stream scientific community. The right wing religious mantra that evolution is “just a theory”
          rests not only on religious faith but on our national indifference to the specific meanings of
          words in specific contexts.

Scientific theory, in this case being the “set of principles designed to explain natural phenomenon,” is far different than the informal understanding of the word as “a guess based on limited information.” This is a meaning that is also used specifically to discredit individuals with whom one disagrees, as in the phrase “conspiracy theorist,” a usage, it must be said, Jacoby indulges in a couple of times. The obvious reason for this inability to distinguish between two different uses of the same word goes back, as everything does, to public education, especially local control of public school curricula, “an American tradition responsible for the vast and persistent regional disparities in the quality of education throughout the land.” The fact that many school districts will still not allow their faculty to teach evolution is only the most visible part of the problem. After decades of implementing those policies, they have had an unfortunate ripple effect. “Many teachers--products of the same inadequate public schools--do not understand evolution themselves.” As Eric B. Olsen writes in his book, The Death of Education--published the same year as the paperback edition of Jacoby’s--this is not a new phenomenon, and applies just as much to the loss of writing instruction as it does to science.

          Steadily falling classroom expectations have had a disastrous effect on our country and an
          equally disastrous impact on those public school students who eventually decide to go into
          teaching. Victims of poor teaching themselves, they have no models on which to base their
          own teaching other than those they experienced as students . . . This, then, is the beginning
          of a cycle of failure in which teachers who were not taught how to write when they were in
          school now lack the confidence to teach it themselves.

To complete her argument near the end of the first chapter she calls upon Bill Moyers, from a speech in which he castigated the Bush administration for their anti-intellectual policies and a willingness to align themselves with the religious right in a way that is an anathema to an increasingly secular society but proved beneficial enough at the ballot box to justify its behavior.

          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. When ideology and theology
          couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger:
          voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts.

From here, Jacoby takes a look back at the country’s intellectual history and begins with “the paradoxical cultural and political forces that . . . combine a deep reverence for learning with a profound suspicion of too much learning.” In a way, it almost seems as if there never was an American intellectual history. The men who began the American experiment were English, if not by birth then by temperament and upbringing, even though isolated on the North American coast away from the mother country. Alexis de Tocqueville, our first clear-eyed European observer, had this to say about the American intellect:

          The religion professed by the first immigrants and bequeathed by them to their descendants,
          simple in its forms, austere and almost harsh in its principles . . . is naturally unfavorable to the
          fine arts and yields only reluctantly to the pleasures of literature . . . If the Americans had been
          alone in the world, with the freedom and the knowledge acquired by their forefathers and the
          passions which are their own, they would not have been slow to discover that progress cannot
          long be made in the application of the sciences without cultivating the theory of them . . . This
          intellectual craving, once felt, would very soon have been satisfied . . . [But] among [the English]
          they found distinguished men of science, able artists, writers of eminence; and they were enabled
          to enjoy the treasures of the intellect without laboring to amass them.

Thus the underpinnings of the nation began with religion, antithetical to intellectual thought, and were further retarded by a reliance upon British arts and letters that necessarily slowed the creation of colonial counterparts. It’s ironic that what Jacoby calls “the end of the beginning of the American intellectual journey” is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call to abandon all allegiance to English thought and that if the American “plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” The independence of mind is clearly a worthwhile goal, but Jacoby poses the question, “how can the national culture exist without the tutelage of its betters?” Part of the problem was the ever-expanding frontier in America that continually pitted the woodsman and farmer of the West with the intellectual and business interests of the East, continually reinforcing the divide between vocation and intellect. “Americans also believed that too much learning might set one citizen above another and violate the very democratic ideals that education was supposed to foster . . . The sort of education most valued by ordinary Americans was meant to train a man for whatever practical tasks lay at hand.” Then, as today, however, it is fundamentalist religion that continues to weaken American intellectual life. The “refusal to adapt to any secular knowledge that conflicts with its version of revealed religious truth . . . has been the most enduring and powerful strand in American anti-intellectualism.”

Jacoby is not, however, merely interested in intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake, and is quick to point out that just because someone espouses intelligence does not make them rational. Plenty of right-wing intellectuals have used their knowledge to ends that were less than beneficial for the majority of citizens. So, “while not all intellectuals are rationalists, nearly all anti-intellectuals are anti-rationalists. Supernaturalist fundamentalism is by definition anti-rational, because it cannot be challenged by any countervailing evidence in the natural world.” The adherence to anti-rational beliefs, then, serves another purpose. Believers of all stripes, be they from organized religion or any number of fringe spiritualities, have a need to justify their existence in some way. And because most of them have neither the inclination nor the ability to improve their minds by thinking, they cling to irrational beliefs to bolster their own self-importance. “The very irrationality of their faith is seen as proof of emotional and spiritual superiority.” Jacoby sees the very anti-intellectual leanings of evangelical religions as attractive to those very settlers of the West whose hardscrabble lives had little time for introspection. And in the founding of the country on the idea of religious liberty she also sees a great irony that, “the American experiment in complete religious liberty led large numbers of Americans to embrace anti-rational, anti-intellectual forms of faith.”

Beginning in the post-Civil War period there were two more strands that wove themselves together, a layman’s fascination with pseudo-science, especially social Darwinism, and the local nature of the public school system in America. In an age when scientific discovery and theory were opening up new ways of thinking about the world, Darwin’s theory of evolution was easily twisted and applied to societies, a theory that obviously benefited the rich and justified their poor treatment of immigrants in the North and Blacks in the South. Meanwhile the explosion of public education in the country--contrary to popular myth--did not become secular because of atheism, but because parents of competing religious ideologies did not want their children exposed to them in school. Local control by school boards also kept true scientific knowledge out of classrooms, especially in the South where they had a vested interest in maintaining the myth of inferior races. “The class-based bias of leading social Darwinists against any evidence that contradicted their philosophical views is startling, because they were all men who, on an intellectual level, revered rationality.” Once again, however, it is religion that swoops in to claim the anti-rational high ground by adopting social Darwinism in an effort to maintain the status quo, something that Republicans have been doing since the twenties.

In the figure of Episcopal minister William Sumner, Jacoby finds the forerunner of today’s neo-con movement. “Because Sumner was able to invest his pseudoscientific theories with scientific authority and a aura of rationality,” he must be considered “the philosophical forerunner of the right-wing public intellectuals who have exercised similar influence in American society since the early 1980s.” In the same way that the representatives of the wealthy elite in this country use pseudoscience to argue against everything from health care and gun control, to environmental protection and climate change, people like Sumner were able to argue “that the gross economic inequalities of the Gilded Age were mandated not only by natural selection but by the Bible.” But the reality has been, especially since the days of the robber barons, that the rich manipulate circumstances to benefit themselves, so that they in no way resemble anything “natural,” and thus their claims are patently false. Thorstein Veblen--a student of Sumner’s--had this to say in 1899: “The institution of a leisure class, by force of class interest and instinct, and by precept and prescriptive example, makes for the perpetuation of the existing maladjustments of institutions, and even favours a reversion to a somewhat more archaic scheme of life.” Sound familiar? The right is always trying to roll back progress, ostensibly to a purer and simpler time, but the motive is always to get back to a time that benefitted them even more. In the very words of Darwin himself, “if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and the helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

By the turn of the twentieth century the capitalist upper class had learned how to wield misinformation more effectively to their advantage, and after social Darwinism had been discredited they moved on to communism and managed to corral all left-leaning intellectuals into a cabal that they painted as anti-American. The successful revolution in Russia before the end of the First World War, though it had nothing to do with genuine communism,

          . . . prepared the way for a more lasting public mindset in which the politics of liberal intellect-
          uals were regarded most charitably as expressions of naïveté about enemies of the American
          way of life--one more manifestation of the general gullibility of eggheads--and most harshly as
          a form of treason . . . the depth of the suspicion vary considerably according to the political
          climate; but the negative image of the intellectual as pinko is always available for political
          exploitation during periods of social stress.

And of course religion, never one to be left out when there’s a good anti-rationalist argument to be made against their perceived enemies, had to pile on. Thus the Red Scare also resulted in “the insertion of anti-communism into American cultural conflicts that had previously viewed as homegrown battles between traditional religion and secularization.” This is key to understanding how the anti-intellectual minority was able to wage its war of unreason on into the next century. Darwinism, at first, had “always been seen by its opponents as ideological and metaphysical rather than scientific.” After all, one’s belief in Darwin didn’t actually change the way things appeared. But by combining Darwin’s theory with Russian Bolshevism and communist ideology, opponents of intellect in the electorate were now able to create a new enemy, the scientific expert. This melding of perceived enemies to traditional American values, “tapped into the vague resentment most people feel toward experts on whom they depend but whose work they do not understand.” What seems clear from Jacoby’s chapter on communism is that the intellectual left became complicit in their own undoing by the right because of their need to justify their belief in communism at the time, whether they eventually changed their stance or not. To the average, uniformed, American this clearly meant that they couldn’t be trusted, “and reinforced the old American suspicion that knowledge itself could be a dangerous thing.” The left has been fighting this battle ever since.

But the intellectual left continued to make things more difficult for themselves in the decades following World War Two. As a reaction to the tremendous growth in college attendance, by returning veterans on the G.I. Bill and a more prosperous middle class sending their children to undergraduate schools, the middle class in general was more inclined toward self-improvement. This manifested in the purchase of encyclopedias and experiments like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler’s Great Books series, as well as a desire to read literature of all kinds, attend museums, or even watch more edifying television programming. But pompous dismissal of these middlebrow efforts, as they would come to be called by an increasingly effete intellectual class, only served to drive a wedge between the two groups that was quickly exploited by the capitalist class and remains to this day.

          The disintegration of denigration of the middlebrow are closely linked to the political and class
          polarization that distinguishes the current wave of anti-intellectualism . . . What has been lost
          is an alternative to mass popular culture, imbibed unconsciously and effortlessly through the
          audio and video portals that surround us all. What has been lost is the culture of effort.

According to Jacoby, what middlebrow culture had to offer was a non-confrontational view of the world that emphasized the importance of scientific and rational though, yet still allowed everyone to keep their religion and their bible--as long as they didn’t take the thing literally. As such, it was a substantial buffer between the twin anti-rational theories of unrestrained capitalism and fundamentalist religion. Despite the significant economic implications for today, this is the real tragedy of the demise of the American middle class. “Because middlebrow culture placed a high value on scientific discoveries and progress, its degeneration has played an important role in the melding of anti-intellectualism with the fundamentalist war on science during the past three decades.” What really killed the middlebrow motivation for self-improvement, however, was television, and its effect cannot be understated. It was able to transform a primarily reading-based culture into one that could only be satisfied by the ease of visual imagery in less than a generation. “Although few cultural observers saw it coming, all print media were already struggling to survive in the lengthening shadow of television . . . Middlebrow culture--so long an instrument of self-education for those who aspired to something above the lowest common denominator--had nowhere to go but down.”

This, of course, was blamed on protests during the sixties, a favorite scapegoat among finger-pointing right-wing conservatives as the beginning of the end of “family values.” But what this really illuminates is yet another anti-intellectual tactic, that of denigrating the messenger in order to avoid dealing with the message. By associating the anti-war movement of that decade with sex-crazed, rock ‘n’ roll loving, drug addled youth, the right doesn’t have to address the illegality of the war in Vietnam, or the role of the military-industrial complex in sustaining it. And the emphasis on equating protests of all stripes, from civil rights to ecology, with the disobedience of young people was quite deliberate. “To characterize opponents as children--or, as the sixties bashers contend, demon seed--obviates any necessity to engage their arguments in serious fashion.” This is also the beginning of what Noam Chomsky calls the myth of liberal bias in the media. By creating an imaginary left-wing conspiracy that wanted to take over the country, the anti-intellectual right was able to hide their anti-rationalist agenda in the guise of protecting what is right and good in America from those who would destroy it. “The existence of anti-intellectualism on the right was never acknowledged in the conservative perorations of the early seventies, because the concept of an all-powerful left was as essential to their demonization of radicalism and liberalism then as it is now.”

What happens next is something about which I would like to read much more, the undermining of the traditional core curriculum in universities. Naturally conservatives want to paint this as yet another left-wing conspiracy to erode institutions of higher learning, but the truth is much more complex. What students--a vocal minority of them--were protesting at the time was the marriage of universities to the military-industrial complex, as well as the obvious classist and racist policies of the schools. In that context, the changes in curriculum were merely the most visible attempts by the schools to demonstrate their commitment to change for the better. But liberals were no happier about the change than anyone else. “Many of the best known leaders of the New Left initially sounded as disillusioned as conservatives would in later years about what they considered the academy’s betrayal of traditional scholarly ideals.” Ultimately, Jacoby places the blame on weak-willed administrators who were afraid that attempting to negotiate the inclusion of ethnic and gender studies into the standard curriculum would look like uncritical support of the status quo to those demanding change.

But she also blames equally weak-willed faculty. Many of those faculty members who typically defended the traditional curriculum were part of the problem, racist, white patricians who were an anathema to their more liberal colleagues. The thought of fighting side by side with them to keep the classics forced many liberal professors to abandon their ideals for political reasons. “What is clear, however, is that liberals and conservatives were no more interested in talking to one another on campuses in the sixties than they are today.” The end result, regardless of who is to blame, is a college education that is far less than it should be and, returning to the decline of public education, one that continues to have ramifications for the future. In a fitting epitaph to the college degree, Jacoby states,

          Thanks to the erosion of cores studies, it is now possible at many institutions of so-called
          higher learning for a student to receive a degree in psychology without having taken a mid-
          level biology course; for an African-American studies major to graduate without reading the
          basic texts of the “white” Enlightenment; for a business major to graduate without having
          studied any literature after her freshman year. And all of these college graduates, should
          they choose to become teachers at any level of the educational system, will pass on their
          narrowness and ignorance to the next generation.

At the same time, the bible belt continued to notch itself ever tighter, even going so far as to bring fundamentalist Protestants in league with conservative Catholics rejecting the progressive reforms of the Vatican in the sixties, both reacting strongly to emblematic causes like the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion in 1973. But the most pernicious trend to take hold in the sixties was the apolitical consumerism directed at the youth market, one that had become a lucrative demographic as the decade progressed. “A popular culture driven almost entirely by the preferences of the young discourages the making of important intellectual and aesthetic distinctions . . . demonstrated by the conviction of millions of the young that their product choices, unlike those of an older generation brainwashed by ‘Madison Avenue,’ were expressions of free-spirited individuality.”

Jacoby’s discussion of youth culture dominance begins with pop music of the sixties, in which critics began to refer to musicians as poets but has continued with the same distinction accorded to rap artist of the new millennium. Here begins a breakdown in the aesthetic standards of criticism that started with the destruction of college liberal arts curricula and ends with what I call the democratization of thought that allows anyone with a smart phone to foist their uninformed opinions upon the world. “Resistance to the idea of aesthetic hierarchy is unquestionably one of the most powerful cultural legacies of the sixties.” And, of course, much of the blame rests with public school education, which has continued to this day to marginalize the arts in favor of a science and math rich curriculum that will prepare children to compete in the global economy, something that removal of the arts has failed to accomplish. The ability to make aesthetic judgments based on objective criteria, it turns out, is not superfluous. She also talks about the cult of celebrity that began during the decade, in which news wasn’t news without a famous spokesperson to quote. But in the end, it all comes back to words. “The real importance of the sixties in American intellectual history is that they marked the beginning of the eclipse of the print culture by the culture of video.”

What I was most eager to get to was Jacoby’s next chapter on junk thought. “It cannot be stressed enough that junk thought emanates from both the left and the right . . . fueled by the American credo of tolerance that places all opinions on an equal footing and makes little effort to separate fact from opinion.” But again, public education comes in for its share of the blame. As facts and figures are thrown around by those who want to eliminate life-saving vaccinations for children, or continue destroying the planet through practices that contribute to climate change, many Americans lack the ability to make sense of scientific statistics, or to rationally understand that these people are using faulty logic and unconnected cause and effect to make their arguments. Scare tactics bolster their predictions, and without the ability to discern fact from fiction too many people believe in the fiction. In some respects, however, people are not to blame, when reporters and news organizations repeatedly report false statistics and illogical conclusions, thus giving the manipulators even more credence when they cite those sources as further evidence. More insidious, however, is the obvious beneficiary of this kind of disinformation. “Many of these [campaigns] are financed or have close ties to right-wing news organizations and corporations with an interest in debunking scientific findings that suggest a need for government regulation.”

This is a comment that bears closer scrutiny. There is a tendency to lump politicians and corporate leaders in with the anti-intellectual citizens who support them, but that is being incredibly naïve. Jacoby makes this important observation about what is really going on with Republican leadership--if you can even call it that. “Junk thought should not be confused with stupidity or sheer ignorance, because it is often employed by highly intelligent people to mislead and confuse a public deficient in its grasp of logic, the scientific method, and the basic arithmetic required to see through the pretensions of poorly designed studies.” In many cases, it must be pointed out, those studies are poorly designed on purpose in order to support whatever unscientific theory the corporate right and their political puppets are attempting to foist upon an increasingly unintelligent public. The reason that junk though works for those with an agenda is as old as the country itself. Because religion discourages thought, it places a premium on feeling, emotion, gut-level reaction. In fact, intelligence has long been denigrated in our society where instinct has been elevated over intellect for centuries. Maddeningly, the very act of debunking junk thought actually works in its favor because of this bias, and when this kind of anti-rational thought is proven wrong, it “only encourage[s] the public to give more weight to emotion and opinion than to the contrary evidence set forth by hard-hearted scientists.”

In her next chapter Jacoby takes on the media directly. This is something that has been getting a lot of attention lately as presidential candidates--and even President Obama--have been taking the news media to task for sensationalist reporting. But the world has changed; at least it has for those who spend their days with their noses buried in their cell phones. There was a time in this country when reporters could change popular opinion, and their investigations could uncover truths that made sense to people as a whole. No more. The only thing that plays with the digital age viewer now is 24 hour scandal programming--and it doesn’t change anybody’s mind anymore.

          The nation’s newspapers, as well as mass-circulation magazines, have never been know for
          their high intellectual quality . . . The real difference between today’s video and yesterday’s
          print is not content but context--a context in which the proliferating visual images and noises
          of the video/digital age permeate the minute-by-minute experience of our lives . . . The willed
          attention demanded by print is the antithesis of the reflexive distraction encouraged by the
          infotainment media.

The media has always been a for-profit endeavor, and today the media does what it has always done, it’s just that the thin façade of objectivity has finally been stripped away. Rather than deliver entertainment in the guise of news, the guise is gone. What we’re left with then is news that fails to tell us anything newsworthy. As such, media content itself has become meaningless which, again, can be evidenced in the campaign of Donald Trump. It, quite literally, doesn’t matter what he says or does. He’s still running and people are still voting for him. In the same way that many young people at the time of the 9/11 attacks thought they were seeing special effects when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, people today vote for Trump as if they are voting for a contestant on a reality TV show. As much as politicians or intellectuals rail against media’s content, Jacoby takes the stance that even if the content were to change, nothing else would. “The media really do constitute a self-renewing, unified organism that cannot be contained or modified in any fundamental sense by lopping off some of the more malignant clusters of cells.” Even if the news media all reverted back to some imagined time when news was truly objective, the only thing that would change is that people would stop watching it. People don’t turn on the TV to watch the news, they watch the news because it’s on TV.

Of course, every minute that people are plugged into their preferred infotainment device is a minute less that they have to read or converse. With every passing year the amount of reading that people engage in decreases, and even more so among young people. One of the obvious distractions for young people is video games, and she refutes several arguments by supporters of the “culture of distraction” and their ideas about the benefits of that particular pastime. “It has often been asserted that video games, because they demand so much trial-and-error experimentation from the participants, offer a perfect way to introduce young people to the scientific method.” This is patently ridiculous. Jacoby, however, only focuses on the reward aspect of the games, in that “life[’s] rewards, if and when they come at all, do not pop up with the regularity of icons in video games.” While this is certainly true it’s not only the reward that fails to replicate life, it’s the risk. It doesn’t matter how violent the game might be for the player’s screen avatar, if it’s killed or dies just reboot and start again. As far as video games are concerned, there could be nothing that is less like real life. And in terms of what is actually being learning by playing these games, when the game gets too tough kids can simply throw down the joystick and quit. That’s the real lesson that is being absorbed by video game players, and it doesn’t seem to change after they become adults. But once again, it is big business that is really in control as they attempt to do away with books altogether by moving video game learning into public school classrooms and shutting down print-based neural pathways altogether in order to create a perfect society of video-junky consumers.

The end result of an image-based culture is that text has been marginalized to a shocking degree. The kind of investigative journalism of 5,000 words or more that used to appear in magazines has been slashed to 1,000 words or less. But it’s not just a matter of declining word counts. This has also critically diminished the content itself. “When print editors try to compete not with other newspapers and magazines but YouTube, reality TV, and blogs with instant feedback, they must pick subjects that can be disposed of in a minimum of words.” What this means is that even the print media that remains is dumbing itself down to an audience that doesn’t have time to think and that doesn’t have the inclination to process information if it did. And the movement of our society to a print media that is attempting to compete with video media is a dim prospect indeed. “It’s only a matter of time before a publication markets itself as ‘The Magazine for People Who Hate to Read.’” In deciding what subjects to jettison, not unlike public schools, it is art and literature that are the first to go. Regular print reviews of books and classical music have been steadily shrinking, leaving those who value criticism to trawl through blogs and web posts written by unqualified writers who think opinion is the same as criticism. “Blogs spew forth, in largely unedited form, the crude observations of people who are often unable to express themselves coherently in writing.” Entities like the New York Review of Books are the last bastion of literary criticism in the country.

Arguments that the Web is a text-based medium are specious as well. “The Internet surely does offer a text as well as a video highway, open to anyone who can use Google, but text and intellectually substantive reading matter are hardly identical.” In fact, in another frightening development there is a movement to “sample” text in the same way that rap and hip-hop artists have been doing for years, with a vision that text will be able to be gathered together like playlists on an iPod and constitute an entirely new work. Jacoby’s flat reply to that idea is simple. “The process also has another name: plagiarism.” As young people to an increasingly greater extent see text not as ideas contained within the covers of a book but as nothing more than a commodity, like the cereal inside of a box, they lose all sense of what it means for someone to think and communicate thoughts in writing. But verbal communication has been equally imperiled, and to a far greater extent today than when Jacoby wrote her book. The process began with television, where conversations tend to be about what is on the screen, but has bolted downhill to the point where everything from dinner conversations in restaurants to discussions in classrooms takes a backseat to whatever inane chatter is being texted to someone’s cell phone. Young people today will even interrupt sex in order to check their phones. A more pathetic example of Pavlovian conditioning is difficult to imagine.

Conversation, dialogue, and discussion have been mutated in the same way as text has in the digital age. Jacoby’s comment about substandard online verbal skills in 2008 can now be seen on the nightly news as a regular part of the political process. “Whether the comments are reasonable or obviously loony, they bear no resemblance to a real conversation, in which identifiable people are held responsible for what they say and are even, on occasion, asked for facts to back up their opinions.” Politicians are identifiable, however, and the fact that they are not being held accountable for what they say makes it appropriate that Jacoby’s last chapter concerns the dumbing down of public life. And in Jacoby’s mind there is no difference between the politicians themselves or the news media that covers them. “Politicians, like the members of the media, are both the creators and the creatures of a public distrustful of complexity, nuance, and sophisticated knowledge.” With college graduates today far less educated than high school graduates of the fifties, and the Internet and cell phone sucking the attention of adults as well as young people, it’s little wonder that pandering to an uneducated electorate or audience has become the order of the day.

The dim flicker of hope when Jacoby wrote her book, the election of Barack Obama in the wake of the utter debacle that was the Bush presidency, has certainly been smothered in recent months with the rise of Trump, et al, as well as the embarrassing and incomprehensible behavior of Bernie Sanders, who continues to trash Hillary Clinton in a way that is sure to alienate his supporters against her when he loses the Democratic nomination. But, as always, the American public’s inherited suspicion of intellect continues to be fueled not only by political but corporate interests. “During the past thirty years, the old liberal intellectual establishment has been joined by, and in certain crucial respects outsmarted by, a conservative intellectual establishment with a permanent base in right-wing think tanks and foundations underwritten by the fortunes of conservative businessmen.” The assault continues to this day, as liberal intellectuals are painted as the enemy by conservatives and blamed for every failed Republican policy that has increased the bottom line for corporations and gutted the middle class, and an increasingly a-literate and anti-rational society believes them. “As both dumbness and smartness are defined downward--among intellectuals as well as nonintellectuals--it becomes much easier to convince people of the validity of extreme positions.”

Public education takes a final well-deserved hit as Jacoby recounts the things Americans don’t know, especially when it comes to the branches of government, the Constitution, the judiciary, or even basic geography. This should be something that unites both left and right in a common cause, but it doesn’t. “Right-wing intellectuals, particularly those involved in government, constantly bleat about the lamentable state of cultural literacy in America, but what they mean is their version of cultural literacy and American history.” There is equal blame to go around, however, as Jacoby castigates “left-wing multiculturalist intellectuals” along with their “hard-line conservative” brethren on the right. At the same time, in its never-ending quest for customers, “media lords are trying to meet readers at their own level of cultural and civic literacy instead of attempting to raise the level of public knowledge and discourse.” And yet the cruel irony is that the message the public gets from politicians and the media alike is just the opposite. “Like most politicians, most media opinion makers choose to pretend that dumbness is not being defined downward and to flatter Americans by telling them that they and their children are really the smartest, best-educated generations ever to inhabit this nation.”

Jacoby’s call in her last chapter for a form of intellectual conservation in this country begs the question of what there is left to preserve, given that her assessment from eight years ago has only become worse. “Anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism flourish in a mix that includes addiction to infotainment, every form of superstition and credulity, and an education system that does a poor job of teaching not only basic skills but the logic underlying those skills.” The evidence of that is the pendulum swing that she observed from the extremely anti-rational Bush administration to the election of the “reality-based” Obama presidency is now being reversed. And it seems that the country can’t help itself. Once a Democrat spends eight years in office correcting all the mistakes by their Republican predecessor, the public can’t seem to resist putting another jingoistic anti-intellectual in office whose entire term will need to be counteracted in order to put the country back in order again. Obama’s appeal in his first victory speech for the country to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned us for so long,” has been largely ignored and things are far worse than when he first took office. It’s to Jacoby’s credit that even in this moment of hope she was less than convinced he could succeed.

          Given the losing track record of politicians who have tried to educate voters about complicated
          issues during the last twenty years, it remains a long shot, even during this potentially receptive
          period of national self-doubt, to bet on the emergence of a higher standard of reason and know-
          ledge . . . Even the best political leadership can only nudge the public in the right direction; it
          cannot generate the will to overcome intellectual laziness.

Her prescription for conserving what little intellectualism we still posses, seems as effective as it does impossible to achieve. “The first essential step is a negative: we must give up the delusion that technology can supply the fix” for our technological addiction. It won’t. That is something individuals must do on their own, and it has a dim prospect of success. Second, intellectuals need to take just as aggressive stances as their anti-intellectual opponents. “It should be the goal of all public intellectuals to exert their influence, insofar as it exists.” Again, this is something the liberal left--with the possible exception of Barney Frank and Bernie Sanders--has never been able to do successfully. The inadequacies of what passes for a college level education today, long a subject of my own concern, are also singled out for reform. “The job of higher education is not to instruct students in popular culture but to expose them to something better.” But her own reality-based thinking is never far from the realistic chance of success of these obvious solutions: “It is possible that nothing will help. The nation’s memory and attention span may already have sustained so much damage that they cannot be revived by the best efforts of America’s best minds.” That is my suspicion as well.

In many ways Jacoby’s book takes a pessimistic view of our fellow American citizens, and rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean it was written in the spirit of divisiveness or derision. The subtext of the entire work is one of hope, that as bad as things may seem on the surface that there must be some way to solve the problem. In looking at her initial medical analogy of anti-intellectualism as a disease it implies the desire for a cure. And, as always, to affect a cure we first need knowledge. We need to know exactly what the problems are and look at them with a sober, objective eye. In this respect the importance of knowledge cannot be overestimated, and in Jacoby’s book there is plenty to be had. The Age of American Unreason is easily the best book on the subject, even eight years later, that I have come across. Though the problems seem even worse today they are still the same problems, and therefore the potential for a solution still exists. Whether or not it can be solved, however, remains to be seen. At any rate, I want to thank Susan Jacoby for her excellent work and recommend it to everyone who mistakenly thinks there is no problem. But for everyone, I cannot recommend it highly enough.