Saturday, June 16, 2007

Al Gore's Plea for Reason

This blog is not meant to be a political blog, although it inevitably becomes one when those who reject evolution fall predominantly into one US political party. For the most part though, I prefer to get readers from any part of the political spectrum excited about fascinating developments in biology.

But in this post I'm going to favorably review a book that some readers will have (mistakenly) dismissed as just a partisan rant, since it comes from a former and possibly future Democratic presidential candidate, the man who is second only to Hillary Clinton as the subject of passionate vilification by the right-wing media. I'm reviewing The Assault on Reason here because Gore touches some of the biggest points of intersection between science and politics, and because the vision of democracy he articulates is essential to a thriving scientific enterprise. When entertainment or marketing campaigns stand in for serious political debate, liberal and conservative citizens alike become detached from the political process and develop at best a feeling of apathy, and at worst, one of cynicism, towards rational thought. Science itself can easily get swept up in this wave of cynicism, as we often see in the intelligent design debate where scientists and creationists are seen by many people as simply partisans slugging it out over an issue that has no relevance or rational solution. In The Assault on Reason, Gore goes deeper than just criticizing the policies of the current US administration; he tackles problems with the basic processes of our democracy that all of us should care about.

Before getting to the substance of the book, I'd like to deal with a point that some might use as a spurious excuse to dismiss the book: this book is not a great literary achievement. Gore often rambles, leaves some arguments incomplete, has some excessively repetitive passages that should have been edited, resorts sometimes to clich├ęs, makes overly-broad statements about narrower points, and many chapters have a blurred focus. In short, this book could have used some tightening up. But none of this matters because Gore's essential vision is clear and consistent throughout. And, in spite of the weaknesses in the book's structure, Gore writes in clear language, unlike most politicians who, even with the help of ghost writers, often make you wonder how they ever made it through college.

The organizing theme of The Assault on Reason, which frames almost all of Gore's major points, is that the predominance of television as a news source, coupled with political marketing campaigns designed to "manufacture consent" have suffocated debate in our democracy, and thus have allowed unscrupulous individuals and coalitions to use wealth to promote their own interests at the expense of both the public good and the rule of law. Prime among these individuals are of course George Bush and Dick Cheney, along with their major financial and political backers. Gore's book is not 'balanced', at least as the term is generally defined today, in which (as Thomas Pynchon put it) "every 'truth' is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one." Gore is clear in his indictment of the Bush administration:

"The essential cruelty of Bush's game is that he takes an astonishingly selfish and greedy collection of economic and political proposals and then cloaks them with a phony moral authority, thus misleading many Americans who have a deep and genuine desire to do good in the world. And in the process he convinces these Americans to lend unquestioning support for proposals that actually hurt their families and their communities." (p. 82)

Gore labels one faction of Bush's supporters as 'economic royalists,' "those who are primarily interested in eliminating as much of their own taxation as possible and removing all inconvenient regulatory obstacles." These economic royalists believe that “laws and regulations [to protect the public] are also bad - except when they can be used on behalf of this group [the economic royalists], which turns out to be often." The latest of many examples of this approach to government is Bush's (now withdrawn) nominee for head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, lobbyist Michael Baroody - who was conveniently promised a $150,000 departing gift from the industry he would have been charged with regulating had he been confirmed. Unfortunately many more such nominees have been confirmed, and they are now in positions where they can abuse their regulatory authority to provide government favors to their former, and inevitably future corporate employers at the expense of the law and the public good.

Gore's intention is not to merely argue policy issues, although he does offer plenty of blunt criticism on the handling of the Iraq war, national security, civil liberties, and climate change. His claim is that is the Bush administration and its allies have, in their relentless pursuit of power, repeatedly crossed lines that, for the health of our democracy, should not be crossed. From the abuse of signing statements that undermine the Legislature's constitutional check on the Executive, to the excessive secrecy on even trivial or obsolete matters, the dismissal of the right to habeas corpus, and the partisan screening for career positions at the justice department, the integrity of our government is being chipped away by people whose concern for our governing institutions falls well below their concern for their political party or their economic allies.

The effect of all this is to weaken citizens' interest from their own government. Instead of acting as the ultimate check on abuses in government, the citizens are left believing that our government can only be influenced by those with money, and that rational debate is pointless or not possible. On all the major issues Gore discusses, the unwillingness of voters to punish dishonesty and incompetence is traced back to the combination of the obsessive secrecy prevailing in the Executive Branch and the manufacturing of public consent through TV marketing. Gore gives a disturbing example of this phenomenon of consent manufacturing from his own campaign for the Senate, when his campaign advisers were able to successfully predict an 8.5% bump in the polls based on a carefully crafted TV ad campaign played in just the right markets.

This is the constant message of the book: the mix of secrecy, money, and most of all, the manufacturing of political consent through television, have led to a complete lack of any effective challenge to the destructive actions carried out by the Bush administration and its allies in their single-minded pursuit to propagate not just an extreme political ideology, but their own power and wealth. Gore’s key insight is that the problem is not simply due to the unscrupulousness of Bush and his cronies - such people have existed as long as human society, and were recognized by America’s Founders, who sought to create a system that would limit the damage these types of self-serving people could do. It is the substitution of democratic debate with the propaganda of professional marketing and television that has disengaged citizens from the political process and enabled the damage that has been done under the current leadership.

The apathy or fatalism of even socially conscious, educated citizens has had a severe effect on my generation. At least as I've experienced it, the few people my age who are really politically engaged tend to hold a true-believer, Monica Goodling-style outlook (in which no aspect of our government should be immune from partisanship), while the rest of us take a South Park, “all politicians suck” view, devoid of any hope of seriously influencing the political process. As Gore writes:

“If the information and opinions made available in the marketplace of ideas come only from those with enough money to pay a steep price of admission, then all of those citizens whose opinions cannot be expressed in a meaningful way are in danger of learning they they are powerless as citizens and have no influence over the course of events in our democracy - and that their only appropriate posture is detachment, frustration, or anger.” (p. 250)

Along with this detachment from government comes a cynicism about reason and debate:

“When ideology is so often woven into the “facts” that are delivered in fully formed and self-contained packages, people naturally begin to develop some cynicism about what they are being told. When people are subjected to ubiquitous and unrelenting mass advertising, reason and logic often begin to seem like they are no more than handmaidens for the sophisticated sales force. And now that these same techniques dominate the political messages sent by candidates to voters, the integrity of our democracy has been placed under the same cloud of suspicion.” (p. 251)

It's easy to guess what Gore's proposed solution is before you get to the end of the book: the internet. The internet is the only media technology out there with the potential to compete with television for our attention, and it's advantage is that users don't have to just be passive absorbers of an extremely expensive message. The price of admission to the internet is low, and in some ways the internet resembles the raucous print culture of the 18th and 19th centuries. Gore's book is less about the assault on reason than it is about the assault on the reasoning process, and it is this process that the internet has the potential to renew. You may hate what I've written here, but you have the opportunity to reply in the comments (hopefully with more than just "you're an ass") where thousands (OK, on this site, just dozens) of people will read it. Just maybe, and there have been hints in the last few election cycles that this might actually work, people without access to big-media air time will be able to create a critical mass of public opinion on an issue that will make our representatives seriously worry the effect of inaction on their job security.

Gore's book should read by those who consider themselves principled conservatives, although the irrationally excessive hatred of the man that I've observed my conservative friends will probably keep many away. That's unfortunate, because he offers what should be common ground for people of both parties who believe our fundamental system of government should be preserved. Principled Republicans should recognize that the traditions and institutions their leaders are trashing have protected their party in other eras when the Democrats have been in power. We can argue about gun control, abortion, stem cells, military funding and whatever else, but if we can't agree that the First Amendment, the rule of law, and vigorous checks and balances among the three branches of the federal government are worth protecting, then we can't function any more as a coherent nation.

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