Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lincoln The Vulcan?

I haven't yet read Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason. But David Brooks has, and--surprise--he doesn't like it.

Not that Brooks would stoop to engaging Gore's argument. No, Brooks just explains that he doesn't feel able to cozy up to Al Gore:
But Gore's imperviousness to reality is not the most striking feature of the book. It's the chilliness and sterility of his worldview. Gore is laying out a comprehensive theory of social development, but it allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact. He sees society the way you might see it from a speaking podium--as a public mass exercise with little allowance for intimacy or private life. He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions.

This, in turn, grows out of a bizarre view of human nature. Gore seems to have come up with a theory that the upper, logical mind sits on top of, and should master, the primitive and more emotional mind below. He thinks this can be done through a technical process that minimizes information flow to the lower brain and maximizes information flow to the higher brain.

The reality, of course, is that there is no neat distinction between the "higher" and "lower" parts of the brain. There are no neat distinctions between the "rational" mind and the "visceral" body. The mind is a much more complex network of feedback loops than accounted for in Gore's simplistic pseudoscience.
How absurd and contemptible Gore's vision of public life is! The very idea--that citizens should consider facts logically and dispassionately and make decisions on that basis! Obviously no one with such a naive view of human nature could ever be a successful politician--to say nothing of an effective national leader.

Yet by coincidence, a recent issue of The New Yorker happens to contain an article by Adam Gopnik reviewing recent literature about an earlier American politician who seems to have entertained some of the same foolish notions as Al Gore:
But Lincoln believed in legalism. One of his first public speeches, the Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum, in Springfield in 1837, declared a radical insistence on "reason" to be the only acceptable form of public discourse; the cure for the prevalence and epidemic of violence in American life would be "hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason": "Passion has helped us, but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason--cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason--must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence." Lincoln tempered but never really abandoned that conviction. His rhetorical genius lay in making closely reasoned argument ring with the sound of religious necessity.

There is, in consequence, often a subtle disjunction between Lincoln's content and his codas, as James Oakes puts it in his fine new account of Lincoln's friendship with Frederick Douglass, "The Radical and the Republican." The first two-thirds of the speech that Lincoln delivered at Cooper Union, in New York, in February of 1860, and that is generally thought to have made him President--it turned him from a local to a national figure--is devoted to a maniacally detailed inspection of how twenty-three of the "thirty-nine," the signers of the Constitution of 1789, voted during their careers on the issue of federal regulation of slavery. Lincoln had tabulated the results with all the dramatic flair of an insurance adjuster: his point is that the framers and signers, when in the Senate and the House, voted regularly to extend and prohibit slavery, thereby giving at least a passive endorsement to the view that the Constitution allowed the federal government to legislate about it in all its parts.

Yet the argument is carried on in numbing and what might seem to be irrelevant detail: after all, slavery wouldn't suddenly become noble if the framers had reserved its governance for the states. Yet by making it plain that this is an argument, an appeal not to sentiment but to constitutional law, Lincoln places his own unqualified anti-slavery sentiment on the same dryly legal and procedural grounds that he had recommended at the Lyceum. The result is the same, as he knew perfectly well. That's why the final cry of the Cooper Union speech is so suddenly uncompromising and even frankly warlike: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Perhaps Lincoln could get away with his appeals to "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason"--and even be twice elected to the presidency--because he didn't have to deal with sniping from talk radio, CNN, Fox News, and Matt Drudge . . . to say nothing of junior-high-school-level sarcasm from the likes of David Brooks and Maureen Dowd. (Judging by the Matthew Brady photos, they wouldn't have devoted weeks to dissecting the cost of Lincoln's haircuts; more likely they would have made snide remarks about their infrequency.)

It's certainly true, as Lincoln understood, that reason alone doesn't usually win political arguments. Hence the impassioned "codas" that cap Lincoln's best speeches and lift the emotions of the audience, after the consent of their intellects has already been won.

Is Al Gore, the "Vulcan," incapable of making such an emotional connection with an audience? I'd hesitate to compare any politician to Lincoln. But the millions of people who saw An Inconvenient Truth didn't seem to find it uninvolving. (A movie that lacks emotional power doesn't get 898 member reviews on Amazon.com, over two-thirds of them bearing the highest, five-star rating.)

In today's world of sound-bites, corporate media, and partisan spinnery, it may be that Al Gore's ambition to restore reason to the heart of our political discourse is a bit naive. But it's just plain sad that one of the New York Times's most prominent columnists should devote his efforts to mocking that ambition. It certainly says a lot more about what's wrong with David Brooks than it does about Al Gore.

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