Jim Sleeper: Review of Al Gore's The Assault on Reason
[Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, may be reached at email@example.com.]
Lots of former Bush boosters have been in damage-control mode ever since the spotlights of "shock and awe" that they focused on Iraqis and American liberals began turning back on them. Some even associate themselves retroactively with the early war skepticism and genuine contrition of William F. Buckley Jr., who wrote recently, "If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the [Iraq] war."
Al Gore is having none of it. In his new work, "The Assault on Reason," he quotes Buckley's confession and answers, "One of the central points of this book is that we as Americans should have 'known then what we know now' -- not only about . . . Iraq but also about the climate crisis, and what would happen if the levees failed to protect New Orleans . . . and about many other fateful choices that have been made on the basis of flawed and even outright false information."
Gore insists that Bush boosters, especially, had every reason to know but made reason itself their enemy. And they intimidated us "as Americans" out of our civic-republican capacity to work up sound public intelligence through open communication, disciplined inquiry, and the self-confidence not to jump to conclusions.
While the pre-Bush past wasn't quite as Periclean as Gore implies, he's right that it's "simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse." Something has changed for the worse, and Gore names not William Kristol or Rupert Murdoch, but viruses they carry that are weakening our "immune system" against sound-bite alarmism.
The most virulent of these, he thinks, is "corporate consolidation and control over the marketplace of ideas," which diminish entrepreneurial and democratic freedoms by monopolizing the electronic media, whose relentless, ever-more-intimate intrusions are turning us from active citizens into passive consumers, sapping our disposition and skill to govern ourselves.
Gore isn't remotely conspiratorial or anticapitalist about this, as some may claim. He revives analyses of the public sphere by Walter Lippmann, Marshall McLuhan, and Jürgen Habermas to show how TV's one-directional image-making stimulates impulsiveness over reflection. Print's "meaningless" symbols make you think; repetitively violent TV imagery does the opposite, leaving a mental "vacuum . . . filled by fear, superstition, ideology, deception, intolerance, and obsessive secrecy."...