Friday, June 22, 2007

Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason": Keep the Tom Paine, Lose the Mr. Wizard

I've finished reading Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason. It's very forthright, opinionated, and passionate, far more so than any book that a declared candidate for office is likely to write.

Much of the book--most of chapters two through eight--is a detailed critique of the dishonest, anti-democratic, and quasi-totalitarian bent of the far right and in particular of the abuses that have been committed by the Bush administration in the name of "the war on terror." If you're a regular reader of the progressive blogosphere (or for that matter of Paul Krugman's columns in the New York Times), you'll find most of this material familiar (though no less appalling on that account).

More significant is the broader context in which Gore couches this critique--namely, his vision of a generalized "assault on reason" and on the principle of deliberative, consensual, representative democracy by groups that want to accumulate power for selfish or ideological ends and in so doing are threatening both the spirit and the substance of the U.S. Constitution. Gore faults not only the political players responsible (including the lobbying groups, astroturf organizations, and think tanks that promote the far-right agenda) but also the corporate media, which has permitted and even abetted the gradual hollowing-out of American democracy. If the trend continues, we'll be left with an empty shell in place of a once-vibrant government more or less responsive to the will of the people.

I basically agree with Gore on all of these points and am delighted to see him express them with such force and frankness. I'm less convinced, however, by the panoply of neurological, sociological, and psychological theories that he draws on to suggest that technological changes--especially the dominance of television as a communications medium--have made the dire trends he writes about all but inevitable. (This of course is the aspect of the book that David Brooks focused on in his recent effort to debunk Gore. Brooks fancies himself an expert on the social implications of brain functioning and evidently resents having someone else--a liberal Democrat, no less!--treading on his turf.)

Much as I dislike Brooks, however, I feel that Gore may have weakened his case by including this material, which dominates the 22-page introduction and the first chapter and is also scattered elsewhere throughout the book.

For one thing, I automatically become skeptical when I see a non-scientist citing scientific research in support of some political or social thesis. Global warming is one thing: It's quite apparent that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is altering the world's climate in ways that are likely to be unpredictable and probably dangerous. But is there a consensus among neuroscientists that watching TV "induces a quasi-hypnotic state . . . and creates an addiction to the constant stimulation of two areas of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus" and thereby weakens the viewer's ability to reason dispassionately? I don't know, and I would feel a little queasy if Gore's thesis relied on this and similar scientific arguments.

The fact is, however, that the scientific stuff is really unnecessary to Gore's points about the weakening of democracy. He could have stuck with certain arguments he makes that are practically uncontrovertible: that television is a passive, one-way medium that stifles many voices in favor of a powerful few; that the reliance of political campaigns on costly TV ads gives moneyed groups too much influence over outcomes; and that as a result of these two forces, individual citizens have steadily diminishing power to control their lives and the government that supposedly represents them.

Mind you, David Brooks's criticism of Gore's book as proposing some kind of "Vulcan Utopia" based on a worldview that is "chilly" and "sterile" is just plain wrong. Page after page of The Assault on Reason consists of frank, scathing accounts of some of the horrific actions of the Bush administration coupled with withering quotations warning against and denouncing just such tyrannical abuses from the likes of Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, and Tom Paine. Overall, Gore's tone comes across as no less impassioned (and no more "chilly" or "sterile") than The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

But from a rhetorical standpoint, Gore may have erred in giving his inner nerd a little too much freedom to expatiate about the latest "cool" science in the very first pages of his book. I'm not sure how many converts those passages will win--and I'm afraid they may turn off a few who'd otherwise find his arguments compelling.

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