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Transcript:

February 15, 2008

BILL MOYERS: It's not only the reality of our finances we are running from. In her new book published just this week, one of America's most prolific and provocative free thinkers says we are in a headlong flight from reason. The book is the age of American unreason- and it couldn't be more timely. Here's an excerpt:

"It remains to be seen, as the current presidential campaign unfolds, whether Americans are willing to consider what the flight from reason has cost us as a people and whether any candidate has the will or the courage to talk about ignorance as a political issue affecting everything from scientific research to decisions about war and peace."

THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON offers an unsparing description of what Susan Jacoby calls "an overarching crisis of memory and knowledge".

Susan Jacoby is the program director of the Center for Inquiry in New York. Her last book FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM was acclaimed as one of the notable books of 2004. Welcome back.

SUSAN JACOBY: Oh, it's wonderful to be back.

BILL MOYERS: How is this flight from reason, as you describe it, affecting-- playing out in our current political race?

SUSAN JACOBY: In an age of unreason you tend to get focus on very small personal facts as opposed to big issues. But even more than that, lack of knowledge and unreason affects the way candidates speak about everything.

I mean, for example, obviously the healthcare situation in this country is very important. All of the candidates say it is. But if people don't know, for example, how is healthcare handled in other countries? How many people, for instance, do have the right to choose their own doctors in this country? In other words, without a base of knowledge of how things are you can't really have a reasonable talk about how things ought to be. In other words, you can say, "Oh, we don't want a program which will prevent people from choosing their own doctors." Well, are we able to choose our own doctors? I'm not. I have to choose within a managed care network.

BILL MOYERS: You have a powerful section in here on what's happened to our political language. How, for example, politicians so often talk these days not about people but ab-

SUSAN JACOBY: Folks.

BILL MOYERS: --folks-

SUSAN JACOBY: Folks.

BILL MOYERS: --about the folks. What's wrong that?

SUSAN JACOBY: What's wrong with it is folks used to be a colloquialism. It was the kind of thing that you'd talk about mostly in rural areas, mostly in the south and the Midwest. People talked about folks. It was not considered suitable for public speech. If you used it in the classroom your teacher would, you know, would get after you, because it wasn't considered appropriate language.

But think about this though. Think about our political language in the past and today. Just think about The Gettysburg Address. We highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this government, of the folks, by the folks, and for the folks, shall not perish from the earth. This is patronizing. It's talking down to people. I read all of FDR's fireside chats where he-- I could not find a single reference to folks. You know why? Because the addressing people as folks is talking down to them. It's not dignifying them. When you call people citizens you're calling them to rise-- calling on them to rise above the lowest common denominator. You really need to think about what's being said when people are called folks. It's encouraging you not to do too much. And, you know, when I--

BILL MOYERS: Not to expect anything special.

SUSAN JACOBY: Not to expect anything special. And people are terribly scared of saying, "We really need to expect more."

BILL MOYERS: You mentioned Franklin Roosevelt. You have a wonderful comparison in here.

SUSAN JACOBY: I want him back.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about how during World War Two when he would have a radio fireside chat he would ask the American people listening out there to get a map of the world and spread it out in front of them so that as he talked about the battles that were going on they would be with him in terms of the place, the geography, the strategy of what was going on. Can you imagine a president doing that today?

SUSAN JACOBY: No. No, I can't. I mean, Doris Kearns Goodwin, you know, talks about this extensively in her book, NO ORDINARY TIME. Maps sold out. You couldn't buy a map before Roosevelt's fireside chat in the February after Pearl Harbor because millions of Americans went out and bought maps. And they sat there by the radio and followed what he was talking about.

But I think, you know, one of the big mistakes today-- that's made today is it-- we're-- you talk about our political culture as if it were something separate, something different from our general culture. What I say in THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON is, no, that's wrong. Our political culture is a reflection of our general culture. It is-- it is as much shaped by our general culture as it shapes our general culture. Now to return to FDR, which I'm really glad you asked about, it's been forgotten now in the mythology of World War II that even when the Nazis invaded Poland and attacked England, overwhelming majority of Americans were opposed to American involvement in--

BILL MOYERS: Right.

SUSAN JACOBY: --the war. The reason they came around is not just Pearl Harbor. Franklin D. Roosevelt spent several years trying to educate a resistant public about the stake that America had in the future of Europe. The renewal of the draft in 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, in the summer of 1941, passed by one vote. Imagine what would have happened if the Army had been disbanded, if FDR had not made all those educational efforts, where we would have been six months later when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The role of the president-- everybody talks about who's equipped to be Commander in Chief, a word I hate, which presidents didn't used to use, from day one--

BILL MOYERS: And why do you hate it?

SUSAN JACOBY: Because the President's only the Commander in Chief of the Armed Force. He's not the commander in chief of us. And it's a word that presidents didn't use except in a strictly military sense in the past. What's far more important than being commander in chief is being educator in chief. And Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln would not have succeeded as commanders in chief if they hadn't first succeeded as teachers in chief.

To be non-partisan about it, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are two of the biggest failures as teachers in chief of any presidents we've ever had. Bush at foreign policy obviously. It's great to bring people along with you when everybody's in favor of the war as they were in 2003 'cause there was this desire to strike back at somebody, anyone, for 9/11. So Bush just said, "Oh, yeah. Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11." And people believed it. But--

BILL MOYERS: And Clinton? What about Clinton?

SUSAN JACOBY: Everything in my view that's being written about the failure of the Clinton healthcare program in relation to Hillary Clinton's candidacy is wrong. Yes, it's true. It's that failure is usually attributed to their failure to bring the insurance industry groups to the table, all of the interest groups in advance.

No. The reason that healthcare reform was dead on arrival was that the American people hadn't been educated and prepared for any kind of change. Bill Clinton just announced his plan which had been developed kind of secretly, without much public participation. The health insurance industry jumped in with its Harry and Louise commercials. Now I'll bet everybody who is listening to this tonight remembers Harry and Louise. And nobody remembers a detail of the Clinton plan, the healthcare plan. It is the job of the president to get his message out before Harry and Louise. Bill Clinton didn't do that.

BILL MOYERS: You helped me to see something else about the importance of language. You write about the difference it makes to talk about troop and troops instead of soldier and soldiers.

SUSAN JACOBY: Very Orwellian. That's very Orwellian. Troops used to be a term reserved only as a collective noun. Like would say, "Allied troops have landed at Normandy." Troops meant a massive military operation. We never talked about a soldier who was killed in action as a troop. We don't lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Troop. We lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Now I think that kind of euphemistic language-- it's very important when you talk about troops it in a way takes the individuality away.

BILL MOYERS: It becomes an abstraction.

SUSAN JACOBY: It becomes an abstraction, right. Not a person, an individual soldier who is dying. And by the way, I offer a theory in this book about how this substitution happens. And it's not very Machiavellian at all. It's part of, again, part of how dumb our culture has become. I think some PR person, somehow decided that soldier could mean only a man. And they were looking for a noun that sounded more neutral. It's utterly stupid, of course. A soldier can be a man or a woman. But my guess is that some dopey PR person suggested this. And somebody in the army said, "Great." And the newspapers just went along.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. But now it's used commonly.

SUSAN JACOBY: Now it's used commonly.

BILL MOYERS: So what has happened that prompted this book?

SUSAN JACOBY: In a way it was an outgrowth of FREETHINKERS, a History of American Secularism. After FREETHINKERS was published I really welcomed the opportunity to go out and speak across the country. You know, to educate people about a secular tradition which has been kind of lost and downgraded and denigrated. And I soon found, very quickly, my audiences consisted almost entirely of people who already agreed with me. And conservatives report exactly the same experience.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

SUSAN JACOBY: Now, this was not always the case in our country. In the 19th century Robert Ingersoll, whom we've talked, who is known as the great agnostic, had audiences full of people who didn't agree with him. But they wanted to hear what he had to say. And they wanted to see whether the devil really has horns. And now what we have is a situation in which people go to hear people they already agree with. What's going on is not so much education as reinforcement of the opinions you already have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUSAN JACOBY: Yes. Dumb objectivity. Exactly.

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

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

BILL MOYERS: Right.

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

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

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

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

Well, now this feeds back into our current political process. You wonder why judges and what kind of judges people will appoint why more of the American public doesn't understand it. Well, if you don't know that there are nine judges then you don't know that George W. Bush's last two judicial appointments, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, have put us one vote away from having a Supreme Court which really believes that religion should have a much more active role in public life, that's likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. But you have to know there are nine justices before you know that we're up to a five out of nine sure votes--

BILL MOYERS: Yeah.

SUSAN JACOBY: --to know how really important the composition of the Supreme Court is in the next election. I think our schools are doing a bad job of teaching history and science.

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

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

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

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

BILL MOYERS: That's making wishful thinking--

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah. The--

BILL MOYERS: --rational.

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

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

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

BILL MOYERS: Right.

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

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

SUSAN JACOBY: Yeah.

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

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

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

SUSAN JACOBY: The memory hole. The--

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

SUSAN JACOBY: For example, what the right-wing says about judges is-- our unelected judges are overstepping their powers. They talk as if judges-- judges have no right to interpret the Constitution. But that is what the unelected federal judiciary exactly was set up to do. It says so in the Constitution. But if you don't know how could-- oh, we-- yeah, we don't-- be-- in other words, people confuse the fact that they may not like certain judicial decisions with the right of judges to interpret the Constitution, indeed the duty of judges under our Constitution to interpret the Constitution. Now it's used commonly.

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

SUSAN JACOBY: They're dopes.

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

SUSAN JACOBY: Lack of knowledge, right.

BILL MOYERS: You don't mean stupid, which means--

SUSAN JACOBY: No.

BILL MOYERS: --unintelligent.

SUSAN JACOBY: No.

BILL MOYERS: Or dimwitted.

SUSAN JACOBY: No.

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

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

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

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

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

BILL MOYERS: The book is THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON, published by coincidence or providence on Darwin's birthday, right?

SUSAN JACOBY: 199th anniversary of Darwin's birth.

BILL MOYERS: Susan Jacoby, thank you for joining me on THE JOURNAL.

SUSAN JACOBY: It was my pleasure.



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