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Talking to ourselves

Americans are increasingly close-minded and unwilling to listen to opposing views.

April 20, 2008|Susan Jacoby | Susan Jacoby is the author of "The Age of American Unreason."

As dumbness has been defined downward in American public life during the last two decades, one of the most important and frequently overlooked culprits is the public's increasing reluctance to give a fair hearing -- or any hearing at all -- to opposing points of view.

A few years ago, I delivered a lecture at Eastern Kentucky University on the history of American secularism, and was pleased, in the heart of the Bible Belt, to have attracted an audience of about 150. The response inside the hall was enthusiastic because everyone there, with the exception of a few bored students whose professors had made attendance a requirement, agreed with me before I opened my mouth.

Around the corner, hundreds more students were packing an auditorium to hear a speaker sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ, a conservative organization that "counter-programs" secular lectures at many colleges. The star of the evening was a self-described recovering pedophile who claimed to have overcome his proclivities by being "born again." (And yes, it is a blow to the ego to find oneself less of a draw than a penitent pedophile.)

It is safe to say that almost no one who attended either lecture on the Kentucky campus that night was exposed to a new or disturbing idea. Indeed, virtually everywhere I speak, 95% of the audience shares my political and cultural views -- and serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit.

Whether watching television news, consulting political blogs or (more rarely) reading books, Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold. This absence of curiosity about other points of view is the essence of anti-intellectualism and represents a major departure from the nation's best cultural traditions.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Americans jammed lecture halls to hear Robert Green Ingersoll, known as "the Great Agnostic," attack organized religion and question the existence of God. They did so not because they necessarily agreed with him but because they wanted to make up their own minds about what he had to say and see for themselves whether the devil really had horns.

Similarly, when Thomas Henry Huxley, the British naturalist who popularized Darwin's theory of evolution, came to the U.S. in 1876, he spoke to standing-room-only audiences, even though many of his listeners were genuinely shocked by his views.

This spirit of inquiry, which demands firsthand evidence and does not trivialize opposing points of view, is essential to a society's intellectual and political health.

Richard Hofstadter, in his classic 1963 work, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," argued that among "the major virtues of liberal society in the past was that it made possible such a variety of styles of intellectual life -- one can find men notable for being passionate and rebellious, for being elegant and sumptuous, or spare and astringent, clever and complex, patient and wise, and some equipped mainly to observe and endure. ... It is possible, of course, that the avenues of choice are being closed and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible; but insofar as the weight of one's will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it not be so."

Hofstadter was of course using the word "liberal" with a small "l," in the sense that the term had been used in the past -- as a synonym for open-mindedness and concern for liberty of thought instead of as the right-wing political epithet it has become during the last 25 years.

When I recently spoke about the militant parochialism of American intellectual life on a radio talk show, a caller responded by telling me that there was nothing new about Americans preferring to bask in the reflected glow of their own opinions. Talk radio and political blogs, in his view, are merely the modern equivalent of friends -- and haven't we always chosen friends who agree with us?

Well, no. Tell it to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who certainly had many, often bitter disagreements about politics and whose correspondence nevertheless leaps off the page as an example of the illumination to be derived from exchanges of ideas between friends who respect each other even though they do not always share the same opinions.

"You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other," Adams wrote Jefferson in 1815.

It is doubtful that today's politicians will spend much time trying to explain themselves to one another even after they leave office. They are, after all, creatures of a culture in which it is acceptable, on the Senate floor, for Vice President Dick Cheney to tell Vermont's Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to "go [obscene verb] yourself"


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