Book Review: The Assault on Reason

Summary: A blistering, brilliant counterattack on the forces that have conspired to undermine American democracy.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is a passionate, scathing book that paints a clear picture of where America has gone wrong. Our democracy is far from dead, but as events of recent years have shown, it is ill – perhaps gravely so. The appalling levels of ignorance of basic scientific and political facts among the voting public; our heedless and disastrous rush into war with Iraq; a political class that considers voter consent something to be bought and sold; a shallow, sensationalist for-profit media; an increasingly corrupt, secretive and authoritarian government – all of these are symptoms indicating that something has gone fundamentally wrong with the process of rational deliberation that America’s founders considered to be necessary for the long-term health of our democracy. Simply put, facts, logic and reason no longer play the crucial role in our national conversation that they once did. What has gone wrong, and how can we fix it? These are the questions that Gore takes up and attempts to answer.

In the opening chapters of his book, Gore identifies one factor as playing a major, central role in this decay. His choice may be surprising to some readers, but I think he builds a strong case for it: not religion, not conservative politics, not excessively wealthy and self-interested corporations, but television.

Television is not the chief villain behind the assault on reason because it panders to the public with frivolous, titillating spectacle (although it does do that, and Gore does castigate it appropriately; this must be the first book ever written by an American vice president that contains the phrase “Britney and KFed”). Instead, there is a more fundamental problem: unlike print and the Internet, television is a time- and space-limited medium with high barriers to entry, making it in its essence a medium of the rich and powerful. It is not a place where people can have a two-way conversation; rather, it turns people into passive receivers of information, unable to respond as they see fit. Worse, television is not a meritocracy. One’s ability to participate in the medium is not based on the merit of one’s ideas, but rather on how much money one can afford to spend to purchase airtime for them.

The overwhelming reliance on television as a source of information means that the average elected official’s most pressing task is raising money to purchase the thirty-second TV advertisements that have become the major means of communicating with constituents. Again, this has diminished the meritocracy of ideas and in its place raised up a system where excessive flattery and attention to the wealthy have become a politician’s primary requirement for remaining in office.

With television has come advertising, which has resulted in the growth of a system where the effort to convince people through reason and evidence has taken a backseat to discovering the most effective means of manipulating them. This is what Gore calls “the manufacture of consent”, and though it began as a commercial effort, it has spread into politics. Unlike print, television can present vivid, visceral images that bypass the faculties of reasoning and trigger emotional responses – especially fearful responses – far more directly, overwhelming the faculties of deliberation.

The creation of a silenced, disconnected public whose consent can be manufactured for a price has led directly to the destructive rise of conservative politics. This movement is summed up by its standard-bearer, George W. Bush, whom history will without a doubt judge as one of America’s worst presidents of all time. In a set of searing chapters, Gore lists the sins of the Bush administration: their obsessively secretive nature that deprives the public of information it needs to make reasoned decisions; their systemic and sustained campaign of deception to drum up support for their agenda; their disregard for evidence and expertise whenever those things clashed with the decisions they had already arrived at; the authorization of torture and deliberate attempts to create legal ambiguity surrounding the treatment of prisoners; and their authoritarian view of unlimited executive power which leads Bush to conclude that he has the right to seize and imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial, to wiretap and search without warrants, to preemptively attack any country he decides may become a threat, or to disregard inconvenient laws via “signing statements”.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fierceness of Gore’s critique, which is one of the most comprehensive indictments of the Bush administration I’ve ever seen. After all this time, it seems he’s finally grasped the tactics being used against the progressive movement and what is at stake. His call for a rebirth of reason in politics and a return to evidence-based argument is dead on target, and it was a refreshing change to see a politician speak out with such candor, away from the sterile and overscripted world of campaigning. There are a few awkward passages and parts of the book that could have stood some more editing (in particular, his occasional references to religion as a motivation for progressive action felt clumsy and forced). But overall, this was a stellar book, argued with clarity and passion, and Gore’s diagnosis of the problem cannot be denied. Manufactured consent and stifling mass media are poisoning our democracy, and to counter it, we badly need a return to reason and a willingness to embrace a principle of decision-making based on facts and evidence.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    Fix television? What you need is a publicly funded media organisation – not by donations, but by a compulsory licence on all those who own a television – with a remit to produce a huge output of television, radio, interactive and online services without any advertising or sponsorship. In turn, this would encourage commercial operators to compete – and although they would moan every so often about ‘market distortion’ – they would raise their game. In order to raise extra revenue, your national broadcasting organisation could sell its product overseas and become a truly global brand with a reputation for integrity which Americans could be justifiably proud of.

    Sorry, crazy talk. It’s almost socialist and would never work in practice ;-)

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com Ceetar

    Unfortunately, I suspect the group of voters most likely to take television at face value are also the group of voters least likely to read a book like that.

  • Polly

    I’ll take the banal point first: I try really hard to practice proactive ignorance with respect celebrity gossip…but to no avail. I’m constantly bombarded with news of Paris Hilton and Britney. I don’t even know how I know this cr4p, and more importantly I DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT CELEBRITIES’ LIVES! But, it’s unavoidable.

    I think the internet has the potential, and in fact is, a tremendous positive counteracting force against the soundbite culture. Huge amounts of information from a variety of sources can be gleaned with relative ease. The internet is very egalitarian in that virtually anyone can communicate to a mass audience. It’s usually easy to reference one’s sources with a link that makes checking those sources easier for the reader. So presenting source material becomes a minimum standard. Where schools and parents are unable to provide education, the internet can fill the gap with information about anything and everything. For example, your schoolboard decides you shouldn’t know about evolution? Type “evolution” into a search engine and read up on both sides of the “debate.”
    There are still limits, but I think the average person has far mor resources available to him/her for making decisions than ever before. Whether they choose to use this tool is another question.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Dominic Self

    I can’t quite tell if you’re being sarcastic or not? The BBC is nothing to be internationally proud of, it’s a joke, and the licence fee we have to pay in Britain is absolute daylight robbery. Every man and his dog has to fork it out, even though most of them don’t watch the half baked rubbish the ‘beeb’ produces.

  • http://www.patmuchmore.com P4limpsest

    @ tobe38

    I’ve been reading this great blog for a long time, but I don’t usually contribute to comment sections. Still, your point brings up an issue I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m in the US, but have actually enjoyed a number of BBC shows, and it does seem like something to be proud of. Although I dig the libertarian vibe in a lot of ways, I also think it’s important to have cultural products which aren’t entirely beholden to mass appeal. The only way I see to do this is with government subsidy. Perhaps there’s a happy medium somewhere that doesn’t require total state sponsorship, but I can’t imagine what that is.

    Wasn’t Richard Dawkin’s _The Root of All Evil_ a BBC production? I thought that was a fantastic show, and it’s very hard for me to imagine that being made in a purely free-market television environment. Maybe I’m just blinded by the far-more-religious nature of my country vs. the UK.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ P4limpsest

    As it happens, The Root of All Evil was made by Channel 4, which is independent.

    Having said that, I left my last comment in a bit of a hurry, and in the few hours since I wrote it I have started to wonder if I was a bit hasty. The truth is, I haven’t really looked into it properly, and that’s the biggest obstacle to critical thinking.

    I was arguing from emotion. The licence fee is a hefty bill for us to pay each month, and I don’t personally find that the quality of the TV they show here is very good. They run endless repeats, their sports coverage is poor, I rarely find myself on a BBC channel.

    But I’d overlooked the radio stations and the websites and everything else. I’ll try and do some reading and come to a more rational, considered view. I might post an article on it.

  • stillwaters

    I can sum up the symptoms of an ill democracy with one word … Republicans.

    Notice that they have been in control of all three branches of government for the last six years and see what a mess we are in. I don’t mean to imply that all Republicans are a problem. It is the neocons that have hijacked the GOP for their own fantastic, idealological agenda that has led to this sick democracy we have today.

  • http://www.kuliniewicz.org/blog/ Paul Kuliniewicz

    Given that view of TV’s impact on society, it will be interesting to see what sites like YouTube will end up doing, if anything, to counter it. After all, YouTube and its ilk are essentially just TV with a worldwide audience and almost all the barriers to entry removed.

  • Doug

    Quick editing note…

    First line of third paragraph: “Television is not the chief villain behind the assault on reason because…”

    Obviously, the ‘not’ doesn’t belong :P

    Doug

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    Why must Al Gore persist in proving Douglas Adams right? Nothing against Adams, but I really wish one of these people who deserved power actually wanted it (insert a “still” for Gore… damn theft of the 2000 election really set us back).

  • Peter WR

    @Tobe38:

    If you think about it, the license fee is actually about the same as a basic satellite subscription, which makes it very good value indeed. Granted, there’s a lot of absolute crap on the BBC these days, but that’s more the fault of successive governments forcing them to chase ratings (not to mention the sheer amount of airtime they have to fill with an ever more thinly-spread budget) than any shortcomings in the BBC’s own ethos – indeed, as a sometime film-maker (and current we editor) who’s had a lot to do with BBC staffers, I get the impression that they’d much rather be making the kind of programmes that p4limpsest admires – “cultural products which aren’t entirely beholden to mass appeal” than the endless makeover/celebrity chef/property-value shows they’re forced to make to get the ratings up.

    Personally, I find I watch relatively little TV these days – even Channel 4 is going down the lowest-common-denominator route, “Root of All Evil?” notwithstanding – and the Internet is now my major source of information, usually via the BBC, Guardian and a few others. I’m optimistic that the new media, with their low cost of entry (to bring the discussion back to Ebonmuse’s review!), will *eventually* improve not just the quantity, but the the quality of information we can access. It may take a while to evolve new mechanisms of trust and verification of information and sources, but as a web professional I see those mechanisms evolving on an almost daily basis.

    In short, I’m optimistic. Reliable, intelligent, accessible, information-rich sites like Ebon’s and yours make me more so by the day.

  • Peter WR

    … and if anyone’s wondering what a “we editor” is, of course I meant WEB editor. As a wise person once said, “For godzake, poorfread”!

    :-)

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    The BBC is nothing to be internationally proud of, it’s a joke, and the licence fee we have to pay in Britain is absolute daylight robbery.

    Complete with nasty little letters that they send around and the motto “Easier to pay. Harder to avoid.” — very true whether you have a TV or not! Still, I have to echo the sentiment that the BBC produces some good stuff with the rubbish; I’ve seen a few good BBC documentaries in my time, and never anything of the same quality from America.

    Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the local “Hot Science” forum has had to move to a bigger theatre this year — now there’s an example of a successful blow for reason! Kim Hill, who made her career on the government-run (advertisement-free) Radio New Zealand, is the best argument for government-sponsored media ever, refutable only by the possibility that her brilliance might be world-wide unique (mind you, I remember Brian Edwards, who used to run the Saturday morning programme, and he was pretty good, too, in his way).

    I think, too, that having one or two publicly funded sources of information and entertainment can raise the bar for commercial media. People realise there’s a market for more intelligent commentary, and follow suit so they don’t become known as the “stupid channel”.

  • http://www.kimboosan.net KimBoo York

    I think in light of Gore’s argument (one I happen to agree with, BTW) it will be interesting to watch the development of YouTube (and other outlets, which do exist) in influencing elections. Getting your “advert on the telly” is nearly free (as long as you can fork over for the computer, internet hookup, and a video cam of some sort) and watching the advert is incredibly convenient. I only watch 2 hours of TV a week, if that; everything else I hear about and want to watch I catch on YouTube or just wait for the DVD. I think a lot of people are doing similarly.

    Will this migration, if it occurs at the significant proportion I think it will over the next five years, effect elections? Should be interesting to watch.

    Good book review, thank you so much for it!

    ::::KBS

  • http://youtube.com/leearnold Lee A. Arnold

    Please have a look at this video book report on THE ASSAULT ON REASON:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=P6nTAR2MVYQ