I never spend money for political books for the same reason I never spend money for clothing with a logo on it. Thus I write this now only because my creaky old landlady rented Al Gore’s DVD (An Inconvenient Truth) and watched it. That experience got her so het up that she laid out still more of her precious Social Security dollars for a copy of Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason (New York: Penguin Press, 2007, $25.95).
Now she’s got the book, the poor woman can’t understand it. She brought it to me and said: “You read a lot. Will you read this book and tell me what you think of it? Please?”
So I read The Assault on Reason, and I told my landlady what I think of it, and now I’m telling the world: She’d have done better to spend her money on a Molly Hatchet souvenir T-shirt – one of those with a kick-ass, Frank Frazetta illustration on the back. She’d look better wearing the T-shirt than carrying the book around town because, while Gore’s book arguably makes a more high-toned visual statement, the shirt would cover more and cover it to a better purpose.
Not to say that The Assault on Reason is entirely Wrong. Assault does in fact have a couple of good points. One is that there’s humor here. On page 35, for example, Gore explains how to hypnotize a chicken – a trick he learned while growing up on a farm in Tennessee. “There’s a lot you can do with a hypnotized chicken,” he writes. “You can use it as a paperweight, or you can use it as a doorstop, and either way, the chicken will sit there motionless, staring blankly.”
I laughed as I imagined walking into the Gores’ home and seeing hypnotized chickens act as doorstops and paperweights and, no doubt, performing other helpful tasks. I couldn’t figure out how I grew up on a farm in Iowa without learning to hypnotize chickens. I laughed much harder when it came to me that I never learned to hypnotize chickens because I had a girlfriend. My laughter grew hysterical when I wickedly pondered how far the story about Al and the chickens might go toward explaining Al’s relationship with Tipper.
Known and very popular cialis coupon which gives all the chance to receive a discount for a preparation which has to be available and exactly cialis coupons has been found in the distant room of this big house about which wood-grouses in the houses tell.
I found more good yocks on page 95, where Gore quotes economist John Kenneth Galbraith: “Under capitalism man exploits man. Under communism it’s just the opposite.” Readers shouldn’t fret if they’re not laughing with me on that one. That the best jokes are never funny is simply one of those ironies that put me in stitches whenever I’m reminded of them.
Another good point about Assault is that it’s built correctly. Gore divided his book of 308 pages into an Introduction and nine chapters of more or less equal length. The front of the book features a Contents section. At the end there is a brief Conclusion, after which Gore pays his debts with some Acknowledgments. The Notes are informative, though I can’t say I care for the method of citation employed. The Index looks good if one doesn’t actually use it. Start asking questions of the Index, one finds it’s incomplete. Strictly regarding appearances, however, Assault includes everything readers expect from a competent author and a respectable press.
America’s democratic republic, as The Founders conceived and designed it, relies upon our free press as a marketplace of ideas. It was supposed that literate, politically conscious citizens would visit the marketplace, pick over the wares, inform themselves, and use what they learn to make rational decisions about politics and government. Problems arise when our free press abandons its duty to purvey useful information. If the press devotes itself instead to blind partisanship, inanity and fear-mongering, the marketplace of ideas becomes a poisoned well that cannot sustain our democratic, republican system.
The problem of silly, biased, fear-mongering journalism was bad enough before television, when America got the bulk of its news from print media. Today, when America gets the bulk of its news from television, the problem is much worse. That’s because, in order to get the message conveyed by printed words, readers must engage in rational thought about what they’re reading even as they read it. Television, on the other hand, is a medium that bypasses reason and appeals directly to the gut.
Television advertising, in particular, is scientifically designed to play upon viewers’ subconscious fears in ways that evoke a gut response of a certain sort at a rate of about once per second. The pace is hypnotic and is meant to be so: Minds mesmerized by fear can be taught to buy things they do not need, to fear things that don’t exist, and to like things that are not good for them. Advances in psychology and neuroscience are seized upon and put to use by advertisers, pollsters and media gurus, who work as hired guns for anyone who can afford them. Just as these people can sell us things we didn’t know we wanted, they can sell us political candidates, political issues, and ideologies we didn’t know we liked.
In the early 1960s, television replaced print media as America’s marketplace of ideas. Now, thanks to television, citizens who visit the marketplace to shop for ideas are increasingly illiterate, politically ignorant, and suffer from a diminished ability to reason. Thanks to television, America’s marketplace of ideas has been captured and is controlled by people whose agenda (to say the best of it) is elitist and anti-democratic. Thus television as we know it, Gore tells us, threatens to destroy America’s democratic republic.
Gore strengthens his argument by citing discoveries in neuroscience that explain how fear works on the human brain, how the brain is hard-wired so reactions prompted by fear are shunted around the reasoning process. He throws in supportive evidence from psychology, from history, and in sum he makes a pretty good case.
At the same time, he tries to soften the impact of what he’s saying on those who might be offended by its implications: “I’m not saying that television viewers are like hypnotized chickens,” he writes, “But there may be some lessons for us larger-brained humans in the experiences of barnyard hens (Assault, p. 36).”
No doubt. And no doubt there are any number of teletubers out there who’ll squawk like outraged chickens when they’re told they don’t know as much as some of the birds in Tennessee. Disregarding their objections, however, there’s nothing new or wildly controversial in Gore’s indictment of television. Scholars have argued for decades that TV makes fools of those who watch it.1 The honest public knows it’s true: They don’t call it “the boob toob” for no reason.
Having identified television as a bane of rational thought that poisons Americans’ minds, Gore uses chapters One through Five to indict the medium as an accomplice in various crimes against democracy. Chapter 1 discusses “The Politics of Fear” (use of fear to gain power and manufacture consent); Chapter 2 is all about “Blinding the Faithful” (hijacking and weaponization of religion for political ends); Chapter 3 explains “The Politics of Wealth” (corruption, monopoly, media manipulation); Chapter 4 names some “Convenient Untruths” (substitution of crank ideology for rational policy, use of mass deception to justify same, use of secrecy to duck responsibility for resultant chaos); Chapter 5 describes “The Assault on the Individual” (diminishment and/or nullification of civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution).
Readers who are not teletubers should find nothing new or wildly controversial in any of that, either. Americans who haven’t spent the last fifty years in a persistent vegetative state have seen all of those evils at play in our national affairs. And honest readers (be they sane) must also agree with chapters 6 through 8, where Gore recounts ways in which our leaders (primarily George Bush and his GOP), using television as described in chapters 1 through 5, have damaged our republic and our democracy. And that’s the last of my good news about The Assault on Reason.
The first problem I noticed with Assault is that it suffers for a lack of candor. On page 1, for example, Gore writes: “The persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary, seems to many Americans to have reached levels that were previously unimaginable.” That’s true enough, but it overlooks the fact that, had American leadership always deemed falsehoods unacceptable as a basis for policy, the “reliance” Gore laments would never have been formed.
I also feel compelled to say that, as a reader, I’m willing to credit Gore with being a sane person and with owning a reasonably good memory. But if I do so then I’m stuck with the fact that he is lying to me: For if Gore is sane and has a good memory, then he obviously hopes readers have forgotten the things he said, the “facts” he employed, the rosy predictions he made – “even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary” – when, in 1993, he and President Bill Clinton rammed the North American Free-Trade Agreement down America’s throat.
Gore commits the same crime on page 24, where he justly condemns the use of fear as a tool in American politics. And though on page 42, he writes that “the use of fear as a political tool is not new,” he somehow forgets to mention that he and his allies exploited fear without scruple when, in 1993, they gang-stomped Ross Perot’s opposition in their rush to get NAFTA ratified.
Gore fudges again on page 81, charging that the Bush administration, in its 2003 rape of Medicare, used bribes and intimidation to extort “yes” votes from congressional representatives. I know he’s right. I also know that in the heat of the NAFTA haggle, the Clinton-Gore lobby twisted congressional arms and spent like drunken swabs when buying votes to achieve their own corrupt ends. But Gore doesn’t confess to that.
Of course the Democratic Party was in bygone times the leviathan of American politics. Gore lives deep inside that ancient, foetid whale and there, in his dank, dark, “visceral prison,” may not see well enough to find his own backside. So it may be an ideologically induced purblindness and not a pathological dishonesty that causes Gore to make such oversights. But the oversights are there nonetheless, and their presence doesn’t flatter the author – even if they don’t all polish his own apple.
In his Introduction, Gore polishes journalism’s apple. There he tells us that at the time of the O.J. trial, he thought “ . . . exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the trial was just an unfortunate excess – an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time” (Assault, p. 3).
“Normal good sense and judgment of our television news media?” “An early example of a new pattern?” Oh, puh-LEEZE, Al! People have complained, scholars and even journalists themselves have written about the imbecility of television news for decades. TV news may be exponentially worse now than it was in years past, but, being nearly 59 years old myself, I don’t recall that TV news was ever such a much.
Gore shines up to journalism again on page 17, where he states flatly that “this generation of journalists is the best-trained and most highly skilled in the history of their profession. But they are often not allowed to do the job they have been trained to do.”
How’s about that one, historians? If Al Gore hadn’t told us so, we might never have known that Judith Miller is a better journalist than Ida Tarbell, that Sean Hannity is better than Ed Murrow, or that Cal Thomas is better than H.L. Mencken.
But perhaps Gore didn’t mean it that way. What seems base flattery of the sociopathic careerists who presently characterize coverage of our national news may be nothing more than an attempt to except or insulate news-media grunts from criticism, which Gore in the next few chapters fires at news media themselves and at the monied interests that control them. If such an exception was his intent, he should have written it plainly rather than couch it in an outrageous statement that raises doubts about his knowledge, his motives, his vision, his judgment and his courage. As it is, one finds good reason to question all those things in this hypnotized turkey of a book.
Regarding the War on Drugs: Gore passes up several opportunities to denounce the drug war or to call for an end of it. Instead, he writes that “ . . . the global challenge of defeating drugs and corruption . . . has never been more serious given the growing strength and sophistication of international crime organizations ” (p. 163).
Regarding the War on Terror: Gore writes that “Our top priority should be preserving what America represents . . . and winning the war against terrorism first” (p. 177).
Nowhere in Assault does Gore question either the drug war or the terror war as policy. Instead, Gore asserts repeatedly (explicitly or implicitly) that Bush is screwing up those wars and that Gore (or another Democrat) could run them more effectively. Thus there’s nothing new here, nothing bold or innovative, just more of the same old, boringly familiar, carefully triangulated, entirely illiberal and ineffective, Clintonesque, GOP-Light, New-Democrat donkey crap. There may be some difference between positions staked out by Gore in 2007 and those taken by John Kerry in 2004 and Gore in 2000, but I don’t believe the difference would buy my landlady a used T-shirt at the Salvation Army.
Coming from an influential Democrat, Gore’s argument against television at first seems to hold a great deal of promise. But that argument and the hope it engenders soon get lost, buried beneath tons of rage against the Bush régime. Between pages 102 and 238 (fully half of the text), the word “television” gets no mention whereas Bush and his GOP get their asses beat on virtually every page. When in Chapter 9 Gore finally returns to his prosecution of television, he does so only to offer an uproariously stupid and outrageously self-serving solution, which he believes will break the grip that commercial television and its army of brilliantly talented, professional liars now hold on the mind of America. I won’t tell here what Gore’s proposed solution is because – even if you’re dumb enough to buy The Assault on Reason after reading this review – you still deserve one good laugh for your money.
At the beginning of The Assault, Gore serves up a caveat: “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” (p. 2). That’s plain enough, and it’s absolutely right. Yet I think it is insufficient because that caveat, like Gore’s indictment of television, gets lost in the tenor and intensity of the Bush bashing that takes over in subsequent chapters. And while Gore frequently dips into history to add depth and weight to his arguments, the dipping too often works either to puff himself up or to beat Bush down.
Without defending Bush in any way (Nobody deserves bashing more than George W. Bush), I see clearly that the raw meat and red pepper that flavor Gore’s narration will impress uncritical readers with the idea that the Bush administration is some sort of an aberration, a freak hatched from a cuckoo’s egg nefariously laid in democracy’s otherwise un-fouled nest. My heart is with the partisan Left when I say it’s too bad things are not so. But a longer, more informed view of history recalls Gore’s caveat and leads to the helpful realization that the Bush administration is a symptom, an outcome – a fruit, if you will – borne by the tree of a republic that was poisoned over the course of two centuries by greed, corruption, dirty politics, bad legislation, stupid policy, monopoly capitalism, racism, jingoism, Red baiting, militarism, war, secrecy, a piss-poor education system, and a host of other toxins. The Internet (See Chapter 9) will not save America from the sum of those evils, and one doesn’t annul the effect of a 270-page, anti-Bush rant by tacking two pages of airy rhetoric about Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King on the end (pp. 271-73). With this book, with his indictment of television, Gore could have led readers to see that getting rid of George Bush and Dick Cheney is merely the necessary first item on a large list of urgently needed, long overdue, systemic reforms. Gore failed to do so. Others can say what they will: I say The Assault on Reason crashes on the rock of that failure.
When I was a young man, I found that going alone for two or three days into the vastness of the Arizona desert deepened my understanding of my self and helped me get along in the world. Countless others, better minds by far than my own, have realized personal growth through immersion in solitude. Jesus, for one, spent 40 days in the wilderness and came back preaching the long view: “Repent,” he cried, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Al Gore, by comparison, spent four years in the political wilderness after his Y2K defeat and now comes back preaching: “The last two centuries have demonstrated the superiority of free market economies over centralized economies and the superiority of democracy over forms of government that concentrate power in the hands of a few” (Assault, p. 100).
There it is: Al Gore is incapable of the long view. One hopes for original thought and creative ideas from a mind like Gore’s as one hopes to walk on water. America was clearly wrong to elect George W. Bush president in the year 2000, and America was even more wrong to reelect Bush in 2004. On the other hand, America was right to reject Al Gore. For all he’s a champion of environmentalism and technology, The Assault on Reason clearly shows Gore is not the man who could or would lead us to an American renaissance.
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