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The Right Man for the Job

By (December 1, 2007) No Comment

The Assault on Reason

Al Gore
Penguin Press, 2007

Seven years past his loss in the 2000 elections, and Al Gore has already fashioned himself a legacy to trump Jimmy Carter’s, our most prolific philanthropist ex-president. Ronald Reagan didn’t have the chance. Bush Sr. has been as ineffectual out of office as he was in it, and Clinton hasn’t grabbed as many headlines as one would expect. But Albert Gore II, demonstrating formidable media savvy (and—not the same thing—deep concerns over the media) has broken away from the pack he was almost a member of to form a television channel, advise Google, become the face of the environmental movement, win an Oscar and write a few books.  

The Assault on Reason represents a break from Gore’s usual efforts to convince America that heat trapping gasses are trapping heat. Now he wants to convince us that partisan politics, shallow media, and the erosion of meaningful dialogue mean that our democracy is broken. We should hardly need anything but our eyes and ears to tell us this, but the sad fact that Al Gore is able to make a career out of stating the obvious is the strongest evidence of all that he’s right.

And so we have this book. Ideally, one speech ought to do it. News outlets would latch on to the impassioned speech of a respected former Vice President, and debate would ensue. Some pundits might quip that it’s hard to imagine an impassioned oak tree, but the focus on someone’s wooden mannerisms or their cackling laughter ought not to be the point. The Assault on Reason is an impassioned indictment of the state of America today, and despite a few glaring omissions, it’s largely successful.

It opens with a question: “Why do reason, logic, and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?” The assumption underlying the question is that reason did play a prominent role in our democracy, but it doesn’t now. The book makes the Bush administration its main focus in this regard, characterizing it as a secretive, ideologically-driven departure from years previous. Gore chronicles the lack of democratic credentials thoroughly, but though the tone of dialogue in our country has shifted, propelled by both events and elections, the principle medium and methods of communication have scarcely changed in the last few decades. The author, to his credit, is aware of this. So what on its face seems like it could be a typical partisan screed turns out to be a thoughtful analysis of how we carry out democracy.

To this end, Gore examines the mediums within which we conduct the national “conversation.” What he ultimately concludes is that the dialogue of democracy has become a monologue, and he traces this to the advent of the radio. Before we filled the airwaves, the printed word was the only means of long-range communication, and anyone who learned to read it learned to write it as well. So as a nation, the medium for our democracy was inherently dialectical.

Radio represented a drastic change. Though its wide reach made for a more cohesive national consciousness, the listener couldn’t shout into the thing and reach FDR sitting at his fireplace. Instead of facilitating dialogue, “it allowed political leaders and those who could afford to broadcast to enter the homes of listeners from thousands of miles away.” But constraints like the “equal time rule” and the “public interest standard” were placed upon those granted broadcast licenses and kept the radio from being the tool of mass manipulation it was in Italy and Germany. What Gore neglects to mention here is that this system of free licenses was the progenitor of the free system we have now for television, and that the content and ownership constraints placed upon license holders were rather paltry. They were easily whittled away with time and money, and we never got to see what a medium technically owned by the people would be like if they were allowed to make use of it.

It wasn’t just the medium that changed, but the way the message was presented. While radios were appearing in homes across America, psychology-based communication was being pioneered by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. It was a “modern science of mass persuasion—based not on reason, but on the manipulation of subconscious feelings and impulses.” As Gore recounts, Bernays left his native Austria for the United States, where he

transformed commercial advertising and began a similar transformation of political persuasion. The combination of psychologically driven public relations and electronic mass media broadcasting led to modern propaganda. Reason was displaced not only by the substitution of broadcasting for print, but also by the science of PR as the principal language by which communication occurs in the public forum—for both commercial and political purposes.

The goal was, in the words of Bernays’ business partner Paul Mazur, to “shift America from a needs to desires culture;” a process Walter Lippmann dubbed “the manufacture of consent.” As Gore notes, the implications for both the economic marketplace and the marketplace of ideas were “disturbing.” Reliance on advertising for revenue limits participation in the political and economic spheres to those who can afford to put their views across. And those who did have access were more committed to selling their product than any higher ideal of the truth.

Bringing us further away from using reason as our arbiter of truth was the advent of television, which displaced newsprint as the principle source of information for Americans over forty years ago. According to Gore, its ability to convey image and sound

to hundred of millions of Americans simultaneously increased the impact and inherent power of the television medium over the printed word by several orders of magnitude…All of a sudden, in a single generation, Americans made a dramatic change in their daily routine, and started sitting motionless, staring at flickering images on a screen for more than thirty hours each week.

Describing the impact of television also leads Gore to the one genuinely—though inadvertently—funny moment in the book. Most of the book is intelligently and accessibly written, but here Professor Gore lapses into the turgid prose of academia:

I believe that the vividness experienced in the reading of words is automatically modulated by the constant activation of the reasoning centers of the brain that are used in the process of cocreating the representation of reality the author has intended. By contrast, the visceral vividness portrayed on television has the capacity to trigger instinctual responses similar to those triggered by reality itself—and without being modulated by logic, reason, and reflective thought.

For Gore, the final element in the decline of the public forum is the consolidation of ownership and the emphasis on the maximization of profit. News divisions are streamlined, celebrity gossip is rampant, and entertainment is mixed with information. The author acknowledges that this process has been ongoing for decades, pushed forward by the Reagan administration’s rollback of media ownership restrictions. He does not, however, mention the role that President Clinton played in this when he signed the 1996 Telecommunications Bill, which cleared away even more barriers to media consolidation. Still the picture of a long-term decline remains in the face of this omission, and the author claims it has reached a zenith with the presidency of George W. Bush.

  Chronicles of the Bush Administration’s secrecy, mistakes, and lies have littered the publishing world for years, but what makes Gore’s book different is his attempt to place these things within a larger perspective. The 43rd presidency makes use of the aforementioned decay in national dialogue to replace reason and debate with fear and deception. A “well informed citizenry,” the key to our founders’ vision of a functioning democracy, is less informed that it’s ever been, and less able to make its voice heard. The Bush administration isn’t simply a radical departure from the past, it’s the nadir in what has been a steady decline lasting the better part of a century. While Gore’s criticisms aren’t new, the nuance and depth with which they are handled is uncommon and unexpected considering their source, a former politician and an influential member of the Democratic Party.

So what is it exactly that Gore says we have departed from? As mentioned above, the leaders of the American Revolution considered a well-informed citizenry, exercising reason, to be the key to a democracy, provided it had the right institutions to facilitate national discussion and to keep any one group from gaining too much power. Along with our recent decline in civic participation and discourse has been an erosion of checks and balances, most glaringly exemplified in the theory of the “unitary executive,” a doctrine that asserts the absolute primacy of the president in making foreign policy decisions. Gore’s invocation of the Founding Fathers can become tiresome, as it does in any contemporary political tract. But it does serve to underscore the extent to which America today has drifted away from the theoretical framework our founders envisioned.

For those hoping for someone to carry these ideas into the race for the presidency, The Assault on Reason is an ill omen. It is not a call to the partisan faithful; it’s a structural critique of the way politics and democracy are carried out in this country. If Al Gore were to run, he would have to play down much of what he has said here. Note the similarities between his criticism of the media and those of others, most notably Noam Chomsky, who with Edward Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent, a book containing many of the same criticisms about media ownership and psychological manipulation. Gore is compelled to mention this book in his discussion of public relations, for while he does not explicitly state its influence, it’s hard for anyone who’s read both to miss. Such fundamental criticisms are still anathema inside the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and Noam Chomsky might as well be a heretic. Bringing ideas like these into the mainstream would present a formidable challenge even for someone with Gore’s reputation and resources.

As if to underscore this point, our author can’t seem to find much beyond stop-gap measures to forestall the erosion of democracy. He notes that once the system of checks and balances is weakened and the law is broken (as the Bush administration has done), the backward slide into authoritarianism is that much easier. He acknowledges the importance of reemphasizing education to fight ignorance, but cautions us with the well-educated society of Nazi Germany, which reveals the dark side of the Enlightenment: the ability to cloak malignant abstract thought when it is “organized into clever, self-contained, logical formulations” that can have a “quasi-hypnotic effect” on the populace. To fight this, we need a well-informed population, not easy when special interests are so difficult to dislodge and companies are so hard to break apart. None of the current candidates for president is likely to reverse this massive concentration of power; they haven’t even made it an issue. Gore also claims campaign finance reform misses the point because advertisement is still the principle means of directly reaching the public.

He rests much of his hope for the future in the continued freedom of the internet; its diffuse and participatory nature, its (at least for the time being) reliance on text. He enjoins us to come together to prevent internet service providers from creating a tiered access system, where the ability to publish content is restricted to those able to pay for it. But given the history of media regulation in this country, and given a government dominated by compromised men and influence-peddlers, the future looks uncertain at best.

Does The Assault on Reason provide a window into what might have been had Al Gore been elected president seven years ago? We can’t be sure what effect the intervening years have had on him, but the book strikes a bittersweet note. Like The West Wing, it presents the image of a man engaged, principled, and intellectually curious, the mirage of a president who, whatever his politics, could actually understand a dense passage about the effect of television on the national consciousness. But like that rose-tinted television show, what sticks in one’s mind most is the feeling of an opportunity missed, an alternative cast aside at a critical juncture in favor of blind emotion, ignorance and fear.

Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.