Assault on Reason

I’ve finished reading Al Gore’s text, The Assault on Reason. I feel as if I’ve been assaulted. If ever anyone wanted to believe that W’s actions were merely misguided, rather than politically motivated, dishonest, unreasonable, illogical, and sometimes criminal, I don’t think it would be possible for them to believe so after reading this book.

Before reading this text, I was naively holding out hope that W might believe that what he was doing was best for all Americans, even if it often privileged the wealthy at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Now, I have no further illusions. The way that Gore portrays this administration leaves little room for me to accord such thought.

In describing the problem, Gore holds little back. His argument is that this administration believes they are entitled to the economic gains they have engineered, wrestle even more executive power, and that we have done too little to stop it because the majority of us spend 3/4 of our free time watching TV and not participating in any discussion of ideas, and as such the idea of engaging with with or questioning any of the decisions that are made for us becomes very difficult and highly unlikely. Add to the public’s passivity, an unceasing rhetoric of fear propagated by the current administration, and it’s likely that many people don’t know what to do to make a difference.

Prior to reading, I would have expected Gore to quote prior presidents such as Jefferson and Lincoln. However, Gore quotes from a diverse number of sources on the order of Habermas, Lawrence Grossman, Lippmann, Neil Postman, Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, George Orwell, and Martin Luther King Jr, among others in the 273 citations. His manages an intellectual and informative tone, without sounding preachy, petty or partisan. Early on he states, “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” (2). He doesn’t let us or himself off the hook. He does discuss how we are being manipulated by TV programming, so-called news, as well as the 30-second political ad. I found his discussions on brain activity and psychology fascinating, but some people might get bored by these discussions. Nevertheless, Gore argues that we must understand how and why the problem came about if we are to have a chance at solving it.

In the introduction, Gore promises to describe and assess the damage, and he does a good job of it in the first eight chapters. He also promises that his last chapter will be a roadmap for change–a strategy outlining how reason can be restored to democracy. Unfortunately, this last chapter is all too short in my opinion. At just 25 pages, he has little room to layout a detailed strategy. Instead, he offers examples of how those of us who are connected to the internets might be a force for change, including more participatory TV such as the network he helped found, Current TV.

There were only a few times when I cringed at the way he expressed his ideas. He discusses extensively how the 24 hour cycle presents us with repeated news about unimportant and uncritical topics. He conveys that the TV news serves its corporate interests at the expense of critical, investigative journalism and that journalists are unable to do their jobs. However, in support of this point he quotes Dan Rather’s statement about TV being “dumbed down and tarted up” (17). I think Rather’s comment has more to do with his personal feelings of being replaced by Couric. According to Rather’s page at Wikipedia, the entire comment was: “the mistake was to try to bring the ‘Today’ show ethos to the ‘Evening News,’ and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience.” I find the ‘tart it up’ comment offensive. And, Gore is trying to appeal to a younger, more connected audience with Current TV, so the use of this particular quote is problematic for me.

The second discordant moment I had while reading was his use of the word simple and simplicity. In chapter two in his discussion of how Bush uses faith to divide issues into absolute wrongs and rights, Gore writes,

Simplicity is always more appealing than complexity, and faith is always more comforting than doubt. Both religious faith and uncomplicated explanations fo the world are even more highly valued at a time of great fear. Moreover, during times of great uncertainty and public anxiety, any leader who combines simplistic policies with claims of divine guidance is more likely to escape difficult questions based on glaring logical flaws in his arguments.(55)

This paragraph is all well and good. However, a few pages later, Gore writes,

When you boil down precisely what went wrong with the Bush Iraq policy, it’s fairly simple. He waged the politics of blind faith. He used a counterfeit combination of misdirected vengeance and misguided dogma to dominate the national discussion, bypass reason, silence dissent, and intimidate those who questioned his logic both inside and outside the administration. (60).

His word choice here is problematic. As an editor, I would have suggested a different word than ‘simple’ in this paragraph. How about, ‘it’s fairly straightforward.’ Then I wouldn’t have a problem following a critique of simplicity in one area with a concise statement of the problem in another that followed so soon thereafter. However, in neither area, do I find a problem with the larger argument at hand.

Overall, I’m glad I read the text. If I was going to review or debate many of the issues he discusses, I could use his footnotes as a starting place to extend my reading. I just wanted two more chapters at the end. I want more that I can do to help because sometimes it does feel like there is little I can do to change or do to make a difference.

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