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The Assault on Reason

Al Gore

(Penguin)

The Point Is Moot

The Senate was silent on the eve of war because senators don’t feel that what they say on the floor of the Senate really matters that much anymore—not to the other senators, who are almost never present when their colleagues speak, and certainly not to the voters, because the news media seldom report on Senate speeches anymore.
—Al Gore


Having been cast out of the political process by an easily duped electorate and impatient Supreme Court justices, the independently wealthy Al Gore has become a man of leisure, freelance educator, able to travel the world lecturing on whatever subject strikes his multifarious brain. Denied the position of commander in chief, he’s now the scolder in chief, wagging his finger at an audience who knows things have gone horribly awry since the (in golden-hued retrospect lenses, anyway) halcyon days of the 1990s, but want to hear about it from a known source. So what if he’s boring? So was that middle school civics teacher, but you respected him, too. Trusted him, as well.


Respect and trust come to mind while skimming through Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason (more later on why I say skimming). It is hard to not have a sense of respect for the man who penned this well-intentioned work, as it seems at first motivated by nothing less fundamental than a righteous regard for the truth, a thing that has been flayed and brutalized in more brazen ways during the last six years than at almost any other time in modern American political history. One also has to respect Gore for how he wrote it, without betraying hardly a shred of sour grapes—because while we Americans may not have a problem with stolen elections or a dangerously overzealous executive branch, what we really really can’t stand is a sore loser.


At the beginning of The Assault on Reason, one feels to be in the presence of something grand and overwhelming. The author appears to be at the brink, a rational man who has, like so many of us, been pulling his hair out for several years now in impotent rage over the avalanche of nonsense issuing from positions of power in this country. When Gore writes, “It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse,” it is hard not to have the sense that a corner has been turned. After chastising a vacuous media for shoveling out bread and circuses to the American masses while they went to war and sacrificed their democracy in return, Gore turns to the Republican progenitors of irreality, hitting up the grand old master of such things, George Orwell, for a devastation critique of the current situation: “Sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”


Yes! The lunatics have been running the asylum for too long. It may not be much that most of us haven’t read in some other form in different media previously, but there is a refreshing zest to seeing stiff old Al finally cut loose on the b.s. artists. It’s as though the clock had been turned back to the 2000 presidential debates and instead of just sighing at the lies being spewed by Bush, Gore had instead turned to him and cut the moral dwarf down to size with a withering dose of reality. Gore says of the White House and its Congressional allies that “what makes their zeal so dangerous for our country is their willingness to do serious damage to our American democracy in order to satisfy their lust for one-party domination of all three branches of government and the enactment of dogma as policy.” It’s tough language, backed with sharply rendered arguments, and for a time that’s enough.


What robs The Assault on Reason of much of its potential punch, though, is Gore’s inability to go further into the nuts and bolts of the situation he attacks. Too often, the book reads as an executive summary of most every administration critique published over the past several years. There’s not much here that a rational person wouldn’t agree with, but it’s also mostly been said before, and often with more power and heft. It’s difficult, then, not to end up skimming through some chapters, searching for something new, or at least a fresh perspective, to latch on to. The perfidy of the administration and its lickspittle attack media is quite well known, what’s needed is a meta-analysis of how we came to this unfortunate place in history.


Namely, if the main thrust of Gore’s book is that the group in his targets (the neo-con/ Karl Rove/ Cheney/ corporate/ evangelical nexus of the current Republican party), and Gore wants to determine how they were able to pull such a fast one on the American public, then a serious analysis of modern political and media spheres of influence is needed. The book does make a stab at such an analysis, but it ends up being another, rather winded variation on the same theme that’s been pounded on since, at the very least, Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Namely, Americans get too much of their information about the world from TV, that passivity-inducing idiot box which produces all those 30-second campaign ads which politicians spend all their time away from Washington raising money to pay for. When Gore writes, “It is the public’s lack of participation that empowers its abusers,” he’s absolutely right; but his solution seems hardly up to the task.


Given his repeated insistence on the need for interactivity—something that Gore argues, not quite convincingly, was much more common in the pre-TV era, when supposedly everybody was printing their own opinions on pamphlets and broadsheets—it was only a matter of time before he got around to his own pet project. Current TV, that television/ Internet hybrid featuring user-generated content, has been quite important to Gore for awhile, and he refers back to it more than once in The Assault on Reason. Mind you, he’s not so crass as to use the book as a sales pitch for his newest business venture, but when he writes near the end that “the key requirement for redeeming the integrity of representative democracy in the age of electronic media is to ensure that citizens are well and fully connected to an open and robust public forum,” it doesn’t take a genius to imagine what forum he had in mind.


There’s nothing wrong with a better method of public discourse, of course, but given the desperate conditions we are currently facing on multiple fronts (and which Gore has amply detailed in this same book), Current TV is not quite going to have people out there storming the barricades. The former future president is not wrong in what he says, you just wish that he were more right.

Rating:

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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