Book Review: Al Gore's The Assault On Reason
Al Gore's The Assault On Reason
By Michael Stillman
The latest book from environmental crusader and former Vice-President Al Gore, The Assault on Reason, is now on the shelves. Gore combines sharp insight, strong political views, and a plodding writing style to create his latest polemic. It is a worthwhile, if at times tiresome, read. One should not confuse Gore's basic dullness with an absence of good ideas. Many did that in 2000, and, in many people's opinion, we have paid a very high price.
Gore has much of a political nature to say, which should at least be heard by the other side, but won't be. Reality is two kinds of people will read his book: those who agree, and those looking for a way to discredit him. Such is the nature of politics today. We hear what we want to hear and close our ears to all else. No wonder reason has been assaulted.
I'll refrain from writing about the more political parts of the former Vice-President's observations (which is most of the book). Gore offers several insights on issues of the day that are hard to argue, and then explains how they have been used by the other side to the detriment of our well-being. We will try to stick to the observations and leave it to you to decide whether you wish to listen to his explanation of how they are misapplied.
Gore is very focused on how the growth of television has negatively affected our ability to reason. Few in the book trade will dispute him on this point. Television is a one-way medium. In the day, pamphleteers could express differing points of view, and people were more likely to listen to candidates and debate their ideas. The publishing of pamphlets was not prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, you cannot discuss opinions with a television set. The communications all come in one direction, and with a cloak of authority. Those who control the airwaves can effectively control what people hear, and very few people of modest means can afford to own a television station. That limits who gets to speak.
Add to television sophisticated marketing techniques and the mess gets much worse. The result is the 30-second spot, which tells you nothing of substance about the candidate, but is nonetheless very effective in convincing people how to vote. Gore gives a candid look at the effectiveness of television advertising from his first senate campaign. His experts told him, "If you run this ad at this many points, and if Ashe responds as we anticipate, and then we purchase this many points to air our response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5 percent in your lead in the polls." Gore adopted the plan and described himself as "astonished" when, three weeks later, his lead had increased by precisely 8.5%. No one in marketing would be so astonished. It is a science, but it is downright scary for Gore's example shows our democracy can be readily manipulated by marketing strategies, not substance. We are doing what we are told, rather than reasoning for ourselves.
Book Review: Al Gore's The Assault On Reason
Al Gore, looking young and thin, on the dust jacket.
Here's another important point Gore makes. Today, too many young people have a total disinterest in government and politics. They just don't care who is elected or what their government does. Some people attribute this to selfishness or narcissism, others to declining quality of education. Gore says it is neither. His belief is that since people no longer feel like they have any control over government, they see no point in participation. So they pay no attention and don't get involved. I do not know whether he is right, but it's a plausible explanation.
Finally, Gore offers a description of the difference between his view on handling international differences and that of the man who defeated him -- sort of -- for the presidency. I don't think followers of either would necessarily disagree. Gore believes the best sense to instill in the people of the world toward his nation is respect. The other side, he says, believes more in instilling fear. I believe he is correct in this assessment. This is not to say that people on Bush's side don't also want to generate respect, or that people on Gore's do not want to create a certain amount of fear. It is not an all or nothing proposition. However, the rapid use of force in Iraq, and the saber-rattling in places like Iran and Syria show a belief that goals can most readily be achieved through force and fear. Gore's position favors attempting to establish friendly relations with people and talk as much as possible, that is, generate respect so that others will want to cooperate. This includes, in places such as Iran, attempting to appeal over the leaders' heads, directly to the people. One tactic attempts to garner support through reason, the other through fear. Which is more effective is an item of debate, but selecting the superior strategy, whichever that may be, will be crucial to America's survival in the years ahead.