the assault on reason

“Time” has an excerpt from Al Gore’s upcoming book “The Assault on Reason.” Here’s a clip:

…Our Founders’ faith in the viability of representative democracy rested on their trust in the wisdom of a well-informed citizenry, their ingenious design for checks and balances, and their belief that the rule of reason is the natural sovereign of a free people. The Founders took great care to protect the openness of the marketplace of ideas so that knowledge could flow freely. Thus they not only protected freedom of assembly, they made a special point–in the First Amendment–of protecting the freedom of the printing press. And yet today, almost 45 years have passed since the majority of Americans received their news and information from the printed word. Newspapers are hemorrhaging readers. Reading itself is in decline. The Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television.

Radio, the Internet, movies, cell phones, iPods, computers, instant messaging, video games and personal digital assistants all now vie for our attention–but it is television that still dominates the flow of information. According to an authoritative global study, Americans now watch television an average of 4 hours and 35 minutes every day–90 minutes more than the world average. When you assume eight hours of work a day, six to eight hours of sleep and a couple of hours to bathe, dress, eat and commute, that is almost three-quarters of all the discretionary time the average American has.

In the world of television, the massive flows of information are largely in only one direction, which makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation. Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They hear, but they do not speak. The “well-informed citizenry” is in danger of becoming the “well-amused audience.” Moreover, the high capital investment required for the ownership and operation of a television station and the centralized nature of broadcast, cable and satellite networks have led to the increasing concentration of ownership by an ever smaller number of larger corporations that now effectively control the majority of television programming in America.

In practice, what television’s dominance has come to mean is that the inherent value of political propositions put forward by candidates is now largely irrelevant compared with the image-based ad campaigns they use to shape the perceptions of voters. The high cost of these commercials has radically increased the role of money in politics–and the influence of those who contribute it. That is why campaign finance reform, however well drafted, often misses the main point: so long as the dominant means of engaging in political dialogue is through purchasing expensive television advertising, money will continue in one way or another to dominate American politics. And as a result, ideas will continue to play a diminished role. That is also why the House and Senate campaign committees in both parties now search for candidates who are multimillionaires and can buy the ads with their own personal resources.

When I first ran for Congress in 1976, I never took a poll during the entire campaign. Eight years later, however, when I ran statewide for the U.S. Senate, I did take polls and like most statewide candidates relied more heavily on electronic advertising to deliver my message. I vividly remember a turning point in that Senate campaign when my opponent, a fine public servant named Victor Ashe who has since become a close friend, was narrowing the lead I had in the polls. After a detailed review of all the polling information and careful testing of potential TV commercials, the anticipated response from my opponent’s campaign and the planned response to the response, my advisers made a recommendation and prediction that surprised me with its specificity: “If you run this ad at this many ‘points’ [a measure of the size of the advertising buy], and if Ashe responds as we anticipate, and then we purchase this many points to air our response to his response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5% in your lead in the polls.”

I authorized the plan and was astonished when three weeks later my lead had increased by exactly 8.5%. Though pleased, of course, for my own campaign, I had a sense of foreboding for what this revealed about our democracy. Clearly, at least to some degree, the “consent of the governed” was becoming a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder. To the extent that money and the clever use of electronic mass media could be used to manipulate the outcome of elections, the role of reason began to diminish….

As a result, our democracy is in danger of being hollowed out. In order to reclaim our birthright, we Americans must resolve to repair the systemic decay of the public forum. We must create new ways to engage in a genuine and not manipulative conversation about our future. We must stop tolerating the rejection and distortion of science. We must insist on an end to the cynical use of pseudo-studies known to be false for the purpose of intentionally clouding the public’s ability to discern the truth. Americans in both parties should insist on the re-establishment of respect for the rule of reason….

And the speculation about Gore’s candidacy continues.

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7 Comments

  1. j7uy5
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    He’s right, of course. In my view, instant-runoff voting would go a long way toward addressing some of these problems.

  2. dr. teddy glass
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    And the anti-Gore smears continue as well.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dave-johnson-and-james-boyce/and-away-we-go-as-al-gor_b_48784.html

  3. Ol' E Cross
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    First Gore tells me to give up my ATVs, now he wants me watch less HDTV?! What a buzz-kill. Next thing you know he’ll tell me to stop having casual sex without a condom.

    America is about convenience, Mr. Gore, not inconvience. It’s about something ..? something ..? and the American Way!

  4. murph
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    On the topic of Al Gore’s causes and a well-informed citizenry, anybody catch the news that Rupert Murdoch is now a climate change believer?

    In an interview published on Grist and Salon.com, Murdoch says it’s all about the benjamins – the MySpace generation has the climate change religion, and Fox News needs more viewers! His apparent commitment extends to the point of blacklisting naysaying politicians – “I think that that would be a litmus test, almost. If you had someone who is totally opposed to doing anything about climate change, I would oppose them.”

    One year from now, then, the Republican party will no doubt be at war with climate change. The Republican party will have always been at war with climate change. Alt fuels will be the Republican Party’s allies in the war with climate change. (As alt-fuels have always been, in all sincerety, the Republican Party’s allies in the war with climate change.)

    Watch out for those strange bedfellows, Mr. Gore.

  5. Dave Morris
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    OEC-

    There is an interesting Notebook in the recent Harper’s that plays off the idea of the word (in)convenience. It is not aavailable on line yet, but here is a link to some snippets:

    http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/5/12/02418/8290

    Here is a teaser-

    .. It is not enough to acknowledge that global warming exists; we also need to ask what global warming means. Surely one thing it means is that a culture that has as its highest aim the avoidance of anything remotely resembling physical work must change its life …

  6. Dave Morris
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I meant to paste the second half of the quote as well:

    But that is only half a meaning, less than half. We’re told that “the science is all in on global warming” and that it’s just about unanimous. … But the science has also been in, and in for a while, and is every bit as unanimous in concluding that we are members of a single species, descendents of common ancestors — family in every conceivable sense of the word. How can we imagine that we will address one overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion without having acted fully on the other? …

  7. egpenet
    Posted May 18, 2007 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Gore-Obama in 2008!

    My lapel button says it’s so.

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