Susan Jacoby Don't Know Nuthin'

Probably the most annoying interview we've seen on the Bill Moyers show (and that's saying a lot) was shown last weekend: Susan Jacoby shilling her new book, The Age of American Unreason.

For Charlie's take on it, go to the interview comments on Bill Moyers's Web site:


And here is mine; I used it for fodder in my Literary Journalism class:

Last week, I caught an interview on Bill Moyers Journal with Susan Jacoby, author of the new book, The Age of American Unreason. She called various segments of the American public “dumb” five times in the interview, always punctuating this word with that unique combination of frustration and relish that exposes the inner dilemma of the unpopular class egghead. How to compassionately display concern for your less intellectually endowed classmates, while remaining triumphant and superior?

The next day, I saw an article about Jacoby’s book in the New York Times, which allowed me to flesh out her argument a bit more. She mostly declaims lowered expectations and anti-intellectualism in the public arena. Both pieces featured a sadly entertaining moment from reality television where a “celebrity” contestant, Kellie Pickler, says “I thought Europe was a country,” and “I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.” In Jacoby’s interview, other examples of the debasement of American culture include the use of the word “folks” in political speech, which she finds condescending (or maybe the language has simply changed?), and the fact that maps sold out during FDR’s fireside chats (but now, can’t we use the Internet? If maps are all over the Internet, does that really point to less interest in the larger world?).

These are classic straw man arguments. Of course there will always be ill-informed people in any society. Shine a light only on them, and you will never see the real picture. To quote the Times article:

Ms. Jacoby, whose book came out on Tuesday, doesn’t zero in on a particular technology or emotion, but rather on what she feels [emphasis mine] is a generalized hostility to knowledge. She is well aware that some may tag her a crank. “I expect to get bashed,” said Ms. Jacoby, 62, either as an older person who upbraids the young for plummeting standards and values, or as a secularist whose defense of scientific rationalism is a way to disparage religion.

What I would like to know is: are Americans really becoming less informed and anti-intellectual? Hasn’t this charge been leveled in the past? For instance, I’ve read arguments against full democracy that reason that the people, as a whole, really aren’t smart enough to make decisions that affect their country. I’ve also read that the difficulty of IQ tests has been raised several times since their inception in order to keep the median score at 100. Wouldn’t that make a case that Americans are actually getting smarter?

If this has been a common complaint throughout history, is there anything unique about the current situation? Or, as I suspect, have we accurately “tagged her as a crank,” one of a long line of a less than lovable species?


Does this make me look fat?

"You look great!"

This compliment is almost always closely followed by, "You can hardly tell you're pregnant!"

I hear this all the time, and I know it's meant as a compliment. But it always sounds weird to me -- is "looking pregnant" supposed to be the equivalent of "not looking great"? That seems to be the implication.

Before I got pregnant, I always thought that the pregnant women I knew or saw on the street looked like goddesses. They were bringing new life into the world, they had the special clothes, they were plump and happy about it. Who wouldn't be? I thought. A woman is supposed to gain weight to feed her baby. She's supposed to get the glow and ignore the scale.

I guess this is just another fiction that formed in my head because I don't spend enough time with other people. It seems like, in this country, weight is *always* a concern, and body image *always* tied to looking thin, no matter what the circumstance. I mean, why else tie "looking great" with "hardly looking pregnant"? We don't actually hate the growing baby, just the way she detracts from the idealized image of a woman as thin, athletic, yet still curvy, or whatever it is we're supposed to be.

I know I'm lucky in that I escaped these pressures growing up naturally thin (although, wearing a back brace, I didn't exactly conform to the feminine ideal, either). I never had to worry about dieting, and my mother, thankfully, didn't ever talk about dieting. So, for the most part, I was never indoctrinated. I tend to think of most women I know as pretty attractive, whether fatter or thinner, taller or shorter.

My whole life, mostly I've heard, "you're so thin!" expressed kiddingly or approvingly, but with an undertone of something, I'm not sure what. But I hear it again in "you can hardly tell you're pregnant." To me, it's not a compliment -- I want to celebrate my big, huge belly and the little girl that's growing inside it.