Friday, May 25, 2007

"The Assault on Reason," by Al Gore; Politics of Substance? Seriously?

I'm sure there've been lots of great things going on downtown this week, there always are. There've probably been gallery openings galore, movies here there and everywhere, bands playing up a storm, and I hear the weather hasn't been half bad either. So I hope you've been having a great time with it all. I wouldn't know much about any of that though . I've been holed up inside all week, busy with my favorite new toy, Al Gore's latest book, "The Assault on Reason." Right this second, I'm so in love with our once, and if you ask me, hopefully future, next president, that I'd even consider having his babies, and
I'm really not the kind of girl who suffers from baby cravings, generally speaking. But I'm pretty sure the odds of Tipper quietly stepping aside on my behalf are minimal at best, so I'll take what I can get. And what I can get, in this instance, "The Assault on Reason," is a more than adequate consolation prize.

I didn't always feel this way about Al Gore. Not even close. Back in 2000, like a lot of other people, I thought he was kind of just fine. Better than that other guy, but not anything to get all excited about. I didn't do anything crazy like voting for Nader, and I wasn't one of those people going around saying things like "Bush, Gore, what's the difference?", the differences were abundantly clear to me, even then, but I just wasn't that into him. That all changed when I heard the speech he delivered on Jan. 16, 2006, Martin Luther King Day, at Constitution Hall.

In that speech, Gore became the first national political figure to call into question, loudly, passionately, and cogently, the attacks the Bush administration had been making on our constitution. Finally, in that moment, I heard someone saying out loud, on TV, all the things I'd been thinking and talking about for the past five years, and doing so incredibly well. It was one of the best political speeches I'd ever heard. Since then, I've been ranting about it to anyone who'd listen, and watching Gore's every move, looking for any clues they may offer as to his plans for 2008. And of course, he insists he isn't running, but then again, he's not not running either. He may just be trying to kill me.

I'd vaguely known he had a new book coming out this month, but had assumed it was going to be another about global warming. And granted, he's right about that, and it's all very important, but, to be honest, it's a little boring to me at this point. So I was not so much planning to rush out to the bookstore and grab the first copy I could get my hands on, of another book about the melting glaciers and boiling oceans. If I were a better person, I'm sure I'd have an inexhaustible interest in all of that, but I'm just being honest here. Save the planet, I'm all for it, even glad to help out if I can, but I don't really want to read about it anymore right now.

I did end up rushing out first thing Tuesday morning for "The Assault on Reason," though, because it's not about global warming after all. It's about, well, as the title suggests, the alarmingly diminished place of reason in our public discourse, and, ultimately, the slow disappearance of our public discourse altogether. Once again, Gore's gone and gotten at the very things I'm ranting and raving about all the time.

For a political geek like me, "The Assault on Reason," was a real page turner. Once I picked it up, I really did not want to put it down until I was all done. Gore asks the important question of how we as a nation have allowed our public discourse to arrive at this point, of so little debate, so little reason, and so much fear and secrecy, and offers some compelling answers.

There are moments, though, when "The Assault on Reason," feels almost like two books crammed into one. First, there's the more abstract question of American political life and public discourse, it's history and future, which is certainly worthy of a book of it's own. Then, there's the very specific subject of the Bush administration, and the ways in which it's policies and practices have pushed us in certain directions. Again, a topic that could fill shelves full of books on it's own. One thing is very clear, Gore has really just about had it with Bush, and his lawless ways, and the impunity he's enjoyed.

There's not much in the way of new information about Bush and company, but given the inexplicable timidity of our media these days, there is something incredibly refreshing about having it all laid out, clearly and cleanly, page after page, with footnotes and everything. Fact after indisputable fact. Here's what was done, here's what was not done. Iraq, Cheney's energy commission, 9/11 warnings, on and on. Fact based writing. Lovely stuff, that.

More interesting to me, ultimately, are Gore's thoughts on how America has allowed itself to arrive at this point. As he notes in his introduction, "It is too easy - and too partisan - to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes." And somehow, or other, an awful lot of us, at some point along the line, decided that was more responsibility than we wanted to handle, and bowed out, not all that gracefully either.

Gore, for the most part, pins the blame on TV's having taken the place of print as the main media outlet for news. In addition to everything we usually hear about television news being entertainment driven, profit driven, biased to the right, left, wherever, and just plain bad, Gore argues that print media, back in the revolutionary day, was more interactive than television. That, I'm not so I'm convinced of. I'd like to believe that any old literate citizen could, once upon a time, walk into a newspaper office with a well reasoned opinion piece, get it printed up and disseminated to his or her peers, but I'm pretty skeptical on that one.

The larger point he's making, though, is that our public political discourse has somehow stopped being much of a two way street. Information comes at us, through our televisions, radios, and even through our newspapers, but we don't have much of a chance to talk back in any meaningful way, nor are we really doing much talking to each other. The solution Gore offers is a utopian vision of the internet, with it's low bar for entry, citizen journalists, and the possibility it creates for anyone, anywhere in the world to communicate with anyone else, at least in theory. I'm big fan of the internet too, but I'm not so sure I'm buying it as the big solution to this particular problem either.

While Gore's critique of television as a one way medium is certainly valid, as is his suggestion that people will feel less attached to a political process in which they feel they have no means of engaging in dialogue, is spending more time at home alone with our computers really the answer? Gore ignores the extent to which television was, and remains, an isolating influence on American culture. Rather than going out into shared public space, looking for company, conversation, and entertainment, we started spending more and more of our time at home, alone, with our TV screens. Granted, the internet does put us in front of interactive screens, but a screen is not another person, the quality of the interaction will never be the same. It remains a very private sort of discourse, never truly becoming public, subject to the scrutiny of witnesses, and the clear light of day.

All that TV we're watching isn't doing anyone any good, it's true. But bringing one more illusory companion into our solitary lives won't help matters much. An return to a culture of actual public discourse, between people, in public, however, might go a long way towards setting things right. All of that said, I give Gore tremendous credit for being the person to begin this much needed conversation, to publicly acknowledge the presence of something very, very wrong here, something deeper and more widespread than the actions of a single White House resident, however intellectually dishonest and morally vacuous that resident may be. Though he states the many cases against Bush, he refuses to fall into the easy trap of blame, and so denies his reader that safety net as well. Gently, Gore reminds us of our own ultimate accountability for what is done in our name, and of our responsibility to reinvigorate our public discourse, one way or another.

And on that note, I think I'll take my own advice, and go find out what's happening outside right now myself. There's a book signing in Union Square today that I’ve been thinking I ought to check out!


Ben Varkentine said...

As much as I may wish Al Gore had been president these past six years, I've still never quite been able to jump on the "draft" bandwagon.

I've never quite forgotten one or two things, like that the man thought Joe Leiberman was right for VP.

I'm also one of those who thinks Gore plays a better role more-or-less outside the system, from private life.

He's in the rare position of one who can criticize the system while knowing it inside out.

That said, I loved his appearance on The Daily Show last week and have ordered the new book from my local library.

PS: I got your comment on my old post. My apologies for the sexist assumption.

I think I was just looking for something to tie the two blog entries together in the headline.

I'll go check on that contact link...

Gaije said...

I'm not so into the whole drafting thing myself, as I don't think anyone who doesn't really want any job that difficult is likely to do such a great job of it. But, that said, given the other options, who would you prefer? If Gore were nowhere in the equation at all, I'd probably be all over Obama, but it's hard to say, because he won't definitively say he's out, so I'm left lingering in this wierd, noncomittal limbo.

I know what you mean about Gore's history, espescially where Lieberman's concerned. But, if I recall correctly, Lieberman hadn't yet demonstrated himself to be anything like the tool he is today, back in 2000. At the time, my biggest complaint about the choice of Lieberman as a V.P. candidate was that he brought nothing to the table that Gore himself didn't. Gore needed someone more charismatic and people pleasing than he himself was, to balance out the extent to which he tends to exist largely within his own head, and seems to assume everyone else does the same. If there's a politician out there more tedious than Lieberman, I don't know who it is, plus, demographically, all he brought to the table was New England, which was pretty much of a blue state given in the first place. I don't remember, at this late date, who I might have thought seemed like a better option at the time, but from a strictly strategic standpoint, a charismatic southern, or, better yet, southwestern governor, with some national standing, would have been ideal.

P.S. I didn't take offense at the mis-gendering, just thought it was kind of funny. And kind of wierd to find that DK post from so long ago had been reposted in so many places I'd never noticed, when I was idly doing the "I should be writing, but I'm days away from any deadline, so instead I'll indulge in a little narcissistic self googling," kind of thing.

And I think the thing w/the contact on your profile is that it's set for AOL IM, which I don't have, so it just wasn't doing anything for me. Whih makes me realize I don't know if my profile's even set up w/any sort of contact info at all, and I should maybe check on that, for the sake of all those throngs of adoring fans I'm sure I have out there!

Ben Varkentine said...

Yeah, all I had to do was check a little box that said it was ok to display my email.

Not sure why I didn't in the first place...