The Assault on Reason
By Al Gore
The Penguin Press
New York, 2007
It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse.Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is a three-level triumph: a magnificent manifesto proclaiming the value of citizen discourse, a ringing call-to-arms to resist manipulation and return to rationality, and a scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s consistent obfuscations and the dangers it represents to the bedrock principles of our Republic. It is a book rich with inspirational language and full to bursting with ideas, many of which have been explored in previous reviews authored by Kossacks that can be found here.
We must create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future.
It is time to change the nature of the way we live together on this planet.
The first five chapters outline what Gore calls “the enemies of reason” that serve to manipulate public dialogue: the use of fear, the use of religion and faith, the use of wealth, the use of propaganda, and the use of limits on civil liberties. Throughout these chapters, he calls on historical parallels (from ancient Greece to the American Civil War) and scientific breakthroughs in cognitive neuroscience and psychology to shed light on how human beings make decisions, form opinions and take action. The final three chapters summarize evidence of damage to our nation inflicted by the Bush administration in three major areas: national security, ecology (with emphasis on the climate crisis) and the checks and balances that are at the foundation of our form of government.
A majority of the lines of thought in The Assault on Reason have been explored to the same logical ends here on Daily Kos by numerous posters, but Gore’s command of language and smooth transitions through various schools of thought – plus his marvelous ability to home in on the heart of each problem he explores – is truly masterful in execution. In particular, his hymn to the virtues of the old-fashioned art of reading and its influence on the birth of this nation is heartwarming. Arguing that the television age has short-circuited the process of a “national conversation” envisioned by the Founders, he laments our current information environment:
Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They absorb, cut they cannot share. They hear, but they do not speak. They see constant motion, but they do not move themselves. The “well-informed citizenry” is in danger of becoming the “well-assumed audience.”The drawbacks of such a one-way communications system are apparent to Gore as citizens become disengaged and from the political process that the Founders assumed would lead to robust and informed debates among Americans on the most important issues of the day.
A well-connected citizenry is made up of men and women who discuss and debate ideas and issues among themselves and who constantly test the validity of the information and impressions they receive from one another—as well as the ones they receive from their government. No citizenry can be well informed without a constant flow of honest information about contemporary events and without a full opportunity to participate in a discussion of the choices that the society must make.Unsurprisingly, Gore believes the Internet to be “perhaps the greatest source of hope” for reacquainting Americans with the habit of serious participation in civic dialogue – a populist counterpoint to the celebrity-saturated, frivolous trivia on offer in the mainstream media that serves up a non-stop bastardized, junk-food-for-the-brain distraction from the responsibilities of self-government. As such, he implores Americans to carefully guard the neutrality of the net, and poses this challenge to readers as a patriotic necessity in these troubled times.
Perhaps I’m revealing my own prejudice here, but it seems to me that his repeated insistence on public dialogue throughout the book undermines the criticisms I often see on Daily Kos and elsewhere that blogging is a frivolous pursuit that replaces meaningful action in the political sphere. It’s clear he views information gathering and debate as the primary foundational base in a democracy. The charge that those of us who spend time parsing the news of the day and offering opinions on it are somehow locked in a wasteful and masturbatory enterprise rings hollow. As more and more of our fellow citizens are awakening from the coma induced by the Bush administration’s lies, fear-mongering and propaganda, it is of vital importance that we stop the apologetic justifications for participation in this medium. We need to honor what we are doing here, and acknowledge that we are indeed providing oxygen to a sick republic in this forum; newcomers to the hurly-burly of blogs need to be integrated and not be lectured that “sitting on your ass blogging” is not enough. Obviously, voting, donating to candidates, spreading the word beyond the blogosphere, canvassing, contacting elected representatives about issues, and running for office one’s self are important as well, but none of these actions are meaningful without information—and opinions that are tested in the crucible of shared information and debate.
Right now, participating in acts of reason–joining in public discussion of governing and social policy–should be ranked up there with voting and running for office as one of a citizen’s primary civic responsibilities. To denigrate it is to buy into the hierarchical, non-democratic notion that only those we hire (elect) should take responsibility for steering the ship of state.
There is much, much more to this book than I can possibly cover in one review (and I urge Kossacks to read it and participate in algebrateacher’s terrific ongoing discussion series (a perfect example of the kind of in-depth dialogue Gore believes will be the saving grace for our country). Let me just close with the observation that there are some stellar uses of language throughout that hold out a lot of promise for framing as we move forward—and that these usages are easy to overlook as one settles into the depth of thought on display. A small sample:
... synthetic imitations of democracy ....I particularly like the idea of citizens as “co-creators” of wisdom and destiny, and hope progressives can find a way to work that into the mainstream of thought in civic life.
... [The Founders] progressively substituted the force of thought for force of arms ....
... manufactured uncertainty [in regards to Exxon Mobil’s tactics].
... the creativity of self-government ...
... the national conversation of democracy ...
... this human impulse to demand the right of co-creating shared wisdom ...
The Assault on Reason truly is a must-read for progressives of every stripe (and if you check my history of book reviews, I’ve never urged a “must read” on readers before). The tone of the whole is one we need to all embrace—a clear-eyed, sobering assessment of where and why this country has strayed from its ideals, mixed in with a guardedly optimistic and passionate call to rededicate ourselves to the challenge of this moment in history to compel this nation to live up to its high aspirations as an example of true self-government.
As Gore so inspiringly phrases it: This is a moral moment.. It’s up to us to seize it.