An Inconvenient Truth
THE ASSAULT ON REASON
By Al Gore
Penguin Press. 308 pp. $25.95
Al Gore possesses a skill that no other American politician can match -- or would want to. He has a consistent ability to express fundamentally reasonable sentiments -- often important ones -- in ways that annoy the maximum possible number of people.
In the seven years since his narrow failure to become president, Gore has been an active and admirable public servant. He has explored ways of using technology to enhance civic participation, spoken out courageously against the fraudulence of the Iraq War and forced the issue of climate change into the front ranks of worldwide debate.
Even as a citizen activist, however, free from the burdens of office and campaigning, Gore nearly always manages to sound like Gore. His documentary film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," is sophisticated, provocative and in many ways convincing. But it is also smug and self-centered, and its failure to consider even moderately differing points of view serves to alienate skeptics rather than to persuade them.
Something rather similar might be said of Gore's ambitious new book, The Assault on Reason. Gore argues that there have been two major assaults on reason in recent years: a gradual, insidious one brought about by structural change in the public media and a deliberate one foisted on the electorate by an administration insensitive both to individual rights and to honest public discourse.
Gore blames television for what he sees as an alarming decline in the quality of political discourse in America. When political news was communicated mostly through newspapers, he argues, there was a lively exchange of opinion and an opportunity for reason to win out in the marketplace of ideas. Once newspapers were replaced in this role by the 30-second televised campaign commercial, rational debate withered away.
He blames George W. Bush for just about everything else. Gore's attack on the Bush administration -- on the invasion of Iraq, the curtailment of civil liberties at home in response to global terrorism, and the refusal of the White House and federal agencies to take the dangers of climate change seriously -- is scathing. In denouncing the president who defeated him, Gore sacrifices some credibility as a disinterested observer, and readers who wish to treat the book as an extended harvest of sour grapes have a license to do so. Nevertheless, much that he writes seems to be on the mark. History, Gore writes, will judge the Iraq war -- a "decision to invade and occupy a fragile nation that did not attack us and posed no threat to us" -- as "not only tragic but absurd." After four years and more than 3,000 American deaths, most of the American public is inclined to agree with him.
Gore also laments that "paid disinformation -- in support of candidates and ballot initiatives -- is polluting America's democratic discourse." Anybody who has been around a congressional campaign lately -- or even watched one on television -- will have little inclination to dispute that point.
The Assault on Reason is, like much of what Gore has said over the years, essentially truthful. It is also the apparent product of a man desperate to display his erudition at every possible moment, appropriate or not. Virtually every major figure in the history of political theory turns in a cameo appearance, often making the same point someone else just made. Within the space of a few pages, we are treated to the wisdom of Louis Brandeis, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke, John Donne, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the Roman rhetorician Lactantius. One begins to wish that Bartlett's Quotations had gone out of print.
Then there are the strained attempts to explain relatively simple political events through detours into the chemistry of the brain. The Bush administration, Gore says, has not only lied to the voters about its intentions, it has damaged the nation's capacity for judgment by stimulating the "affect heuristic" and generating fear responses in the portion of the brain called the amygdala. In a book by a Nobel laureate neurophysicist, some of these ideas might strike the reader as odd but provocative speculation. In this book, they simply come off as pedantry.
The Assault on Reason is a serious work by an intelligent man with an incurable habit of calling more attention to himself than to the ideas he wishes to communicate. It is worth reading, but it is maddening. In one respect, however, it is entirely satisfying: Unlike virtually all other books bearing the names of prominent politicians, this one raises no serious questions about its authorship. Only Al Gore could possibly have written it. ·
Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine and author of "The United States of Ambition" and "The Lost City."