Monday, January 14, 2008


Al Gore is best known these days for his work on the environment. A lot of people missed the fact that his recent book The Assault on Reason is about a wholly different kind of environment: the place of political ideas and discussion.

Although Gore certainly offers a critique of current political leaders in the United States, his main point is more about the way we--a country founded with a commitment to democracy-- can find ourselves not only in these current crises, but also with an opposition party pretty much unable to mount any sort of defense.

Gore blames the enormous role of corporate television--and I'm with him. It was the development of print that helped lead the world to democracy, and it is the increasing rejection of print that makes democracy much less viable. Visual media elicits emotional responses versus the intellectual engagement elicited by print. And when television becomes so expensive to produce and so dependent on corporate advertising, our emotions can be quite easily co-opted by the highest bidder. Television brainwashes us, he argues persuasively. And because "the consent of the governed" can now be a"a commodity to be purchased," rigorous thought and reasoned debate are no longer at the core of this country. Instead we're all obsessed with the latest bombshell-gone-bad or the current celebrity criminal du jour.

Most people who criticized Gore's book when it came out last year were conservative pundits irritated by Assault's "scathing critique" of the Bush administration. I live for scathing critiques of conservatives and found the majority of Gore's "skewers" to be pretty much old hat statements of fact, not radical assaults on Dubya.

Many in the media who reviewed the book or interviewed its author disparaged the book indirectly by pretty much ignoring everything except the then-possibility of Gore running for president. Just as Gore argues in this very book, media often latches on to a dramatic distracting story rather than engages in a true exchange of ideas. The treatment of his book was yet another example to prove his point.

So I'm in agreement with most of Gore's political ideas. I'm irritated by a lot of the reviews it received. I'm more anti-TV than he is, I suspect.

So why did I dislike this book so much?

I was set off by the way-too-easy solution he posits at the end: a partially interactive television station (kind of youtube posted to the boob tube) that he and his partner have developed. "I believe Current TV is demonstrating that democratizing television can facilitate widespread participation in our national discourse," writes Gore.

Of course, he does acknowledge that blogs and wikis might be relevant to his efforts to bring democracy back to the United States.

Gore is just asking to be mocked. He created the Internet, he is creating a radical shift in television, he alone is saving the world from evil.

Rather than acknowledging the deep problems this country faces--that this world faces--and then making us sit with that pain and try together to develop approaches that might lead us forward, Gore abandons his tack and is suddenly adamant that there is nothing to worry about. He writes with what sounds like pure jingoism about how wonderful the US is and how he is "more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail and that the American people are rising to the challenge of reinvigorating self-government."

You know, Al--I was convinced by what came before your conclusion: that things here were in the process of going to hell in a handbasket and that we're going to get pretty darn hot pretty darn soon if we aren't really vigilant and ready for action. (Is global warming just because our handbasket is getting closer to hell?)

Now I read that the answer is just another kind of TELEVISION?


Angela Moore said...

What an interesting take on this book. I have not read it but all of my friends who are active in environmentalism rave about it. It sounds over simplistic, and you have definitely peeked my interest a bit!

Mango said...

I agree that oversimplification of major issues is never going to move us toward solutions. It is, in fact, part of the problem. There is no one right answer, no magic pill.

I like Al Gore and I think the attention he has brought to planetary woes is important. Maybe he should stick to what he knows best.

I will check out the book!

The Tell-Tale Heart said...

Okay, so I can see that you didn't like the book. I actually knew that when you kept throwing up your hands in exasperation as you were reading it.

Now, what I want to know is how you think we should respond to those 'end of environmentalism' guys who point out that we are all gloom and doom? Are you/we in a place where the only books that appeal to us simply reinforce how bleak the outlook for the future is (or that it is even worse than we thought)?

Given Al's main points, if you were his editor or sounding board, where would you have encouraged him to take the conclusion?

The Tell-Tale Heart said...

PS-Congrats on being both positive and critical in your review!

Carrie K said...

Or are the only things that appeal to us now ones that agree with our thinking or don't require any thought at all?

I'll have to read his book now though.

One point about television - it's driven by ratings. It's just too bad that more people don't like what I want to watch on TV.


Related Posts with Thumbnails