Book review: “The Assault on Reason” by Al Gore

I acquired The Assault on Reason by Al Gore almost by accident. Coming back from the Fulbright Conference in Kolkata, we had a medium long layover in Bangalore. The airport has some nice duty free shops, though, sadly, none that carry Canon dSLR equipment (neither do the duty-free shops in the Colombo airport). I did run across an odd bookstore called Crosswords, though, at first, I could not quite pinpoint why I thought it was odd. I finally realized that among the titles for sale included books that must be long out of print in the US. So, although all the books were new, the shop had a selection that you might find in a good used bookshop. And being India, books are cheap.

The Assault on Reason is probably not yet out of print in the US, but it caught my eye. I had seen something about it on the Internet and the title makes a good title for a topic that I have become more and more concerned about in (I will be honest here) the last eight years, the Bush-Cheney years. More and more, it seems, debate on questions of public policy are less about pragmatic questions of constructing policies that work, but are more about policies that fit one’s own ideological viewpoint independent of any evidence about what policies do the most good. Thus, lacking any considerations of evidence, the debates descend to pointless, often acrimonious shouting matches in which no minds are changed  and no compromise can be reached. Arguing political ideology, especially without allowing evidence of the effectiveness of the resulting policies, is equivalent to arguing about religion, it is all about faith and tradition, not about facts.

My political ideology tends toward the conservative when it comes to economics and toward the liberal on social issues. Of course I would be very unhappy with Bush and Cheney in any case since they were so much in favor of government interference in people’s lives on the one hand and such profligate, irresponsible spending of public money on the other hand. This spending continued, totally heedless of the debt Bush and Cheney were running up in our name, unless, as has been rumored, theirs was a deliberate attempt to bankrupt, and thus limit the power of, the federal government for the foreseeable the future.

But, oddly, those were not my biggest complaints about Bush and Cheney. My biggest complaints were that they governed by ideology and not facts, and that they deliberately distorted, lied about, fabricated, and suppressed facts when such facts did not match their ideology. The reason this bothered me more than their actual policies was that government based solely on political ideology is indistinguishable from government by religious zealots. Bush and Cheney, by their actions, were subverting American democracy at its heart.

To be fair, there are plenty of people on the left and the right who frame political debates in this fashion. For example, for a very long time now, no one in favor of increasing the production of electricity using nuclear power could be nominated by the Democrats to high office. The actual facts about safety and ecological impact of nuclear power ceased to matter. Only now, when we face a much larger ecological threat from carbon emission, is  nuclear power being re-considered. It pains me greatly when I think of the years, money, and soldier’s lives we have wasted being chained by a narrowness of public vision and the greed of private enterprise to oil from the Mideast. The illogic of those who oppose abortion also opposing sex education and contraception is another example. Sex education and contraception are proven means to reduce the rate of abortion. Anti-abortionists could further reduce abortions by creating and funding a system to facilitate adoption and to support public policies that guarantee maternal support and medical care for mothers and babies. That, largely, they do not, casts doubt on their true motives. Are they against abortion or are they just moralists in that long tradition of people who believe that sex is the greatest evil of all and women (not men) should be punished for the evolutionary advantages of sexual, as opposed to asexual, reproduction.

Hmmm. I seem to have strayed from Al Gore and his book. So it turns out that Al Gore is as concerned as I am about this issue (the twisting of the truth issue, not the sexual reproduction issue), so much so that he took the time to write this book, a non-trivial amount of work. In addition to the issues I ranted about above, Gore has some thoughts on some of the root causes of the problem and a vision of how it might be addressed. Gore, rightly in my view, attributes the possibility of government-by-ideology to a question of public access to information and to public access to the means of publishing information. In Gore’s view, Bush and Cheney’s sins against democracy had to do with their control of information available from government agencies, often the only source of important information used to shape policy. This was most evident in their manipulation of data gathered by our intelligence services. In hindsight, all of the reasons used to justify invading Iraq were invalid, and evidence suggests that Bush and Cheney knew that very well and were a party to fabricating those justifications. Frankly, their actions come as close to war crimes as the actions of any president I can recall. What can be worse than fabricating reasons to start a war that kills thousands of American soldiers and a substantial fraction of a million Iraqis? In the case of global warming, Bush and Cheney appointed a young political operative with no significant expertise in science to censor and otherwise edit scientific reports from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) on climate change. These are the scientists that we the people pay to keep on top of issues related to climate and weather. I am not saying that any group of scientists are always right, but these are the people who are presumed to be the government’s experts on climate and weather. A rational government starts by assuming that their own experts are right and acts to investigate further. It does not start by suppressing their views to fit a political ideology.

Hmmm. Straying again. Gore further mentions the threat to the flow of information to the citizens of our democracy of the current state of journalism. Economics is killing off the newspaper. Ironically, the newspaper is both the “traditional” home base of investigative journalism and the “traditional” home base of biased, politically influenced journalism. But the latter downside used to be balanced by the fact that all sides had newspapers and reporters and so information managed to find its way to the public from one source or another. But recently, laws designed expressly to keep our sources of news diverse have been removed. So a cable company can own the newspaper in town and also some of the radio stations. Reporters are pure expense items from a business point of view, so using their product in all of their media outlets make sense economically. Giving a journalist time to do investigative reporting is also expensive and is being done less and less. So the information we are getting from journalists is both reduced in quantity and quality and subject to corporate control by a very few players in any media market. Laws that used to require “equal time” for political candidates are being gutted in the name of freedom of speech for corporations. (While I knew this in principle, Gore cited the Supreme Court case that established that corporations had the same rights and responsibilities of individuals. This both gives corporations freedom of speech rights to use their money to promote political causes and complicates our personal income tax forms, since the same 1040 form used by individuals must cover all the complexities of corporate taxation as well. Think about that as you are working on your income tax form this year and then join my movement to disenfranchise corporations. :^) ) The end result is that citizens of our democracy, who must have good information to make considered decisions with, are getting less and less diverse and unbiased information.

Gore, of course, was pilloried for his supposed claim to have invented the Internet during the run-up to his nomination for president. However, he is an ardent backer of the Internet and holds out hope that the Internet can solve the problem of the information needs of a democracy’s citizens. In particular, he points out that the cost of making information available on the Web is  cheap and hence accessible to everyone. He discusses this as a reversal of the process that began with the advent of television and radio of information traveling in only one direction: from those who could afford the expensive equipment  necessary to broadcast TV or radio to the passive consumer of information who could not respond in any effective way. Gore tells us that in the early days of our country, the printing press served that role, as it was not too expensive for an ordinary citizen to print and distribute a broadsheet, for example.

Gore warns, however, that protecting this accessibility to the Net is vital to the future of democracy in America. This access is already under attack. The buzzword is “net neutrality”, the idea that the information that anyone makes available on the Internet will be treated equally by those who maintain the transmission systems of the net. Those who do maintain the transmission systems of the Internet are, of course, already major players in entertainment, TV, and news delivery. Companies like Comcast and AT&T are already seeking permission to charge information suppliers additional fees for a higher tier of service in terms of the speed of delivery of data from source to destination. This could lead to a situation where those without deep pockets would be unable to deliver information of high quality in a timely way. Once again, the information flow would become one way and filtered through a few corporate entities.

I totally agree with Gore on this point. A democracy cannot function if the information that citizens use to cast their ballots is controlled by a few vested interests, if it is only money that talks. Even absent this influence, money already has a hugely corrupting influence on our politics, just from the fact that every senator and congressman has to spend so much time raising money for expensive, empty of content but of proven effectiveness, 30 second TV ads for the next campaign and has to consider the campaign finance impact of every congressional vote he or she casts. If that congressman can not even count on being able to communicate clearly to his or her constituents why they chose a principled, if unpopular, position on some issue, then democracy, already ailing, is effectively dead.

Gore also strikes a blow against the efforts on the right to co-opt our Founding Fathers. This galls me no end because our Founding Fathers were very progressive men of their day. I recently read a right wing screed about how Thomas Jefferson was the first superintendent of public schools in the District of Columbia and he made sure that each child had a Bible. So surely Thomas Jefferson would not be in favor of separating church and state. They must be joking. Thomas Jefferson was so disenchanted with the Bible that he created his own! The Founding Fathers nearly to a man were very much in favor of separating church and state because of the wide diversity of religion in America and the spectre of what religious wars had done to Europe in, what to them would have been, the recent past.The right can not invoke the Founding Fathers in their causes today without grossly distorting history.

So, generally I agree with Gore on almost every point and am happy that he has written about this very important threat to democracy. Those on the left and those on the right should be equally concerned about this issue of the citizens need for information in order to intelligently cast their vote. But, I must say, the book itself is a “snooze.” By contrast, Gore was great in the movie The Inconvenient Truth, one of the best examples of science explanation for the public I have ever seen. But even with the fact that the subject of The Assault on Reason is a hot-button issue of mine, I struggled to get through it. The book is not well organized and is repetitive. The same message could probably have been more effectively communicated in a New Yorker article or in half of the 308 pages that he ended up using. This is the side of Gore that doomed his election chances. He is not a dynamic communicator, either as a speaker or as a writer. The Bush-Cheney years might never have happpened if Gore had half the dynamism of a Barack Obama. As it was, look how close he came. Do not get me wrong. Gore is fighting the good fight and I support him in these new endeavors as I did when he was running for president. And he can not use ghostwriters for his books, or actors for his movies, and retain his credibility. I’m a bit of a dork myself, so I am greatly sympathetic to Gore’s plight. I, certainly, could do no better.

My other criticism of the book is that Gore spends too much time flogging the Bush-Cheney administration. There is no question in my mind that they worked this government-by-deception scheme deliberately and to maximum effectiveness. However, the book, having come out as it did before the election, comes across as being merely for partisan political gain. But the importance of information in a democracy is much deeper than that and Gore’s effort to convince the reader that the fate of democracy itself is at stake suffers from not criticizing those on all sides who practice the same tactics.

So, I’m not sure I can recommend The Assault on Reason as a good read, but it is a start if you haven’t thought about this issue. I do recommend that you write your congresspeople to support net neutrality, however. Oh, and to support efforts to expand access to broadband in rural areas, like Mount Vernon, OH.

Tim

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1 Comment

  1. Kris said,

    April 10, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    Interesting review, Tim. Gore’s focus is on the U.S. dilemmas but there is another shadow cast by the same forces. If trends continue in this path, the good example formerly offered by U.S. public service media will be lost, dooming even more would-be active citizens from participation in meaningful policy debate. When corporations rule the world, what is left for the rest of us?


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