The Assault on Reason
By Al Gore
The Penguin Press / 308 pages / $25.95
Why do our leaders feel that they can speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth only after they have left politics? After spending nearly half his life in public office, from which he was separated involuntarily in the 2000 election, Al Gore knows the answer. As he explains in his new book, the American political system has degenerated into a rigged game that suppresses honesty and rewards deception.
To anyone paying attention over the past few decades, the underlying causes that Gore identifies will be familiar, including the ascendancy of mindless television, the domination of corporate money, the concentration of ownership in influential media and the decline of engaged citizenship. In The Assault on Reason, he lingers over those well-worn topics and others, employing the same didactic method that used to provoke irritation or even ridicule during his hotly contested presidential campaign.
Yet Gore's professorial style, with its touches of sarcasm, omniscient tone, erudite asides, and yes, its occasional exasperated sighs, elicits a different response today than it did seven years ago. Many of the same publications that once poured scorn on him now offer up paragraph after paragraph of admiring prose.
The change in attitude is as obvious as the reason behind it: The overwhelming scientific consensus has since confirmed Gore's years of warnings about the most important issue facing the planet, a stunning reversal that suggests those who mocked him were fools in the first place and that we can continue to ignore him only at our own peril. Even when he is saying something we already know, his voice adds a note of prophetic confirmation. Then again, Gore has changed too. Always unusually smart and farsighted, he nevertheless spent most of his public career emphasizing the expedient and conventional rather than the critical and visionary -- as nearly every ambitious politician must. Liberated from those constraints by defeat, he kept silent until fall 2002, when he spoke out forthrightly against the invasion of Iraq.
The tentative, calculating, painfully moderate approach of the past was gone, along with all of the baggage of the Democratic Leadership Council that he had helped to found. He was no longer the same politician who could comfortably have Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate. And in the years that have followed his Iraq speech and his endorsement of Howard Dean for president in the 2004 race, Gore has continued to speak out not only on global warming but also against the erosion of civil liberties, media consolidation, denigration of science by the federal government, and right-wing threats against the judiciary, developing themes that he examines closely in these pages.
What he is telling us today -- with the moral authority of a man who many believe was wrongly barred from the presidency -- is that American democracy and indeed American society are in danger from the authoritarians of the right. Without much polite varnish, he warns that self-serving plutocrats and self-righteous theocrats have nearly banished reason from the public square; their machinations disable us as we try to confront the enormous problems that threaten our future. According to Gore, Americans cannot adequately protect the nation from terrorism because our ideas about national security have been distorted by fear and falsehoods. Nor can we address what he calls "the carbon crisis," potentially "the worst catastrophe in the history of human civilization," because the truth about global warming has been obscured by industrial and government propaganda.
In his introduction, the former vice president acknowledges that while assessing our contemporary ills, it would be "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." Yet although he clearly identifies other culprits, placing special emphasis on the baneful hypnotic power of television and the irresponsibility of the networks, he provides in this book one of the most comprehensive indictments of the Bush administration that has ever appeared in print. He goes so far as to hint that, in their abject service to power and their quest for dominance both at home and abroad, the president and his associates have imperiled their souls.
Gore generally prefers facts and analysis to metaphysics, however. Characteristically, he reviews anew the history of duplicity and incompetence that led to the administration's downfall in both the Iraq war and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He refuses to assume that we already know what we ought to know (and what most of his readers in fact almost certainly do know). He is more compelling when he brings to bear his experience and knowledge on crucial issues that rarely receive sufficient coverage, such as nuclear proliferation and media concentration.
His insistence on detail and thoroughness, which may seem like a personal tic in an era of sound bites, is rooted in his conviction that most Americans have little understanding of the world in which they live. He worries that mass alienation from politics and immersion in the entertainment culture along with poor civic education have created a population that is woefully uninformed.
He cites polls and studies showing that the majority of citizens know almost nothing about the Constitution or the system of checks and balances that forms the basic structure of American government.
In his same concluding chapter, however, he suggests that the Internet, a text-based medium that encourages participation rather than passivity, may still save us, if we only have the wit to preserve it from corporate encroachment. For someone who became intimately aware of the system's worst flaws, he remains remarkably optimistic that the emerging technologies will enable democracy's advocates to triumph.
At a time when we are learning that political responses tend to be more emotional than rational, as he surely understands, his stubborn faith that we will someday return to reason is touching. That faith inflected his political career, for better and for worse. It does not explain why this most qualified and courageous Democratic candidate has -- so far -- decided not to run for president again.
Joe Conason is a columnist for the New York Observer and Salon.com. He wrote a version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.