THE ASSAULT ON REASON
By Al Gore
The Penguin Press, 308 pages, $25.95
If anyone has the right to fulminate on the irrationality of American political debate, it’s Al Gore. During the 2000 Presidential campaign, the national media turned him into a hapless unofficial extra from Revenge of the Nerds, a stiff who made false claims about inventing the Internet and inspiring Love Story, a wimp who consulted advisors about how to dress in a more convincingly masculine fashion. At the same time, the press corps—by rehashing G.O.P. talking points about his diabolical lust to “say anything” for the sake of winning the Presidency—led us to believe that Mr. Gore was boiling with Machiavellian ambition.
Now, seven years later—or seven years too late—Al Gore is good and mad. In The Assault on Reason, he provides a bracing account of how this country has drifted out of the orbit of the deliberative democracy envisioned by its founders—perhaps fatally so. In Mr. Gore’s telling, a shallow, celebrity-addled popular culture has conspired with the manipulative, fear-mongering agenda of the Bush administration to create a republic ruled more by tetchiness and intolerance than truth and law.
As Mr. Gore reminds us, polls show that almost half of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was instrumental in carrying out the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11—an improvement over 2001, when 75 percent of us subscribed to this White House–approved delusion, but nonetheless an exceptionally poor display of collective mental prowess.
There’s a simple way to explain our befuddlement—and our mulish attachment to plutocratic measures like estate-tax abolition, and our seeming indifference as the White House pillages the Bill of Rights, and scores of other all-American errors Mr. Gore catalogues in The Assault on Reason: We, the people, are boobs. We will swallow any lie fed us, and ask for more; it’s a wonder, to borrow Bob Dylan’s line, that we still know how to breathe.
No national politician wants to make that argument. And so Al Gore blames the messenger—i.e., the media, and first and foremost, the reliably hateful medium of television: “The replacement of an easily accessible, print-based marketplace of ideas with a restricted-access, television-based realm has led to a radical transformation of the nature and operation of the marketplace of ideas in the United States.” He also suggests, leaning on some speculative-sounding research culled from former adman Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, that the act of viewing television contorts the physiology of our brains so that they become soft-pated panic centers: “The physical effects of watching trauma on television—the rise in blood pressure and heart rate—are the same as if an individual has actually experienced the traumatic event directly. Moreover, it has been documented that television can create false memories that are just as powerful as normal memories. When recalled, television-created memories have the same control over the emotional system as do real memories.”
Sorry, but no. If this were “actually” the case, as Mr. Gore insists, we would all be severely traumatized by the continually broadcast footage of the World Trade Center attacks. Or permanently scarred by the compulsive broadcast of events such as “the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy … Anna Nicole Smith’s death, embalming, and funeral plans”—the vacuously ghoulish fare Mr. Gore justly derides as symptomatic of a terminal “strangeness of our public discourse.” TV footage can be harrowing or trivializing; Mr. Gore wants it to be both at once.
There’s another problem with the well-worn claim that TV has lobotomized a once-vigorous, civically engaged citizenry: The country’s “marketplace of ideas” has always featured lots of cut-rate demagogy and lethal propaganda. From the Salem Witch trials down through the anti-Masonic party and the Ku Klux Klan, from the McCarthy era and the War on Drugs to the invasion of Iraq, we Americans have often let ourselves be ruled by spasms of hatred and ignorance while spurning the counsels of reason.
That’s especially true in times of war. A brief sample of the manipulation of mass opinion in support of an imperial wars of conquest: The Mexican-American War burst forth only after President James Polk sent U.S. troops to cross the Mexican border with the more or less explicit instruction to loiter there until someone in uniform shot at them. During the Spanish-American War, newspapers whipped the nation into a frenzy of indignation that had very nearly nothing to do with delivering Spain’s subject colonies from the yoke of Old World oppression. All this before the cathode ray tube eroded our intelligence.
Fortunately, Mr. Gore’s assault on television abates as The Assault on Reason gathers momentum and focuses on the specific crimes, lies and delusions of Bush-era governance. Mr. Gore spares little scorn for the man who didn’t quite beat him in 2000—nor should he. Mr. Bush “is, in fact, out of touch with reality,” Mr. Gore writes, and “has such an absolute certainty in the validity of his right-wing ideology that he does not feel the same desire that many of us would in gathering facts relevant to the questions at hand.” The American far right, he argues, is little more than “a political faction disguised as a religious sect,” and its retinue of cable cheerleaders are just “propagandists pretending to be journalists.”