Keywords: Al Gore; The Assault on Reason; democracy; reasoning ability.
Every day now I see Al Gore on TV being interviewed: Larry King, Charlie Rose, McNeil Lehrer – you name it. He’s promoting his new book, The Assault on Reason, and I respect the man enormously now. On the other hand, what he is saying does not square with some of the things I think I know – or at least used to think I knew. So I’m trying to put it together to make a coherent picture.
He certainly makes a strong case that the American mind has become too shallow to support democracy. But it’s not just the American mind– it’s Canadian too, and if I were living abroad I would probably see the same things: the fact that Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith get so much media coverage, and that the general population doesn’t know beans about the things they should be concerned about. They believed (and many still do) that Saddam Hussein had caused the events of 9/11. That’s pretty ignorant, considering that the correct evidence was perfectly available. Anybody could have found out the truth if she or he had tried.
But on the other hand, it’s not just the average citizen who was clued-out. It was the members of Congress too, just to mention a few. So if professional politicians don’t take responsibility for finding out what is so about world affairs, the problem lies deeper and cannot be solved just by goading people into reading the newspaper.
Judy Woodruff today asked him whether he thought that President Bush and his staff had been lying. He said that it was either that or they were extraordinarily gullible. And that gullibility is a big part of the mental torpor he is trying to pull us out of.
He has succeeded somewhat with me; I am at least watching the McNeill Lehrer Hour now instead of CBS news with Katie Couric — and feeling more virtuous, but not very interested in the discussions.
There are two parts of the argument and I’m not sure I am convinced of either one. First, he says we are dumber nowadays than we used to be. Is that true? IQ is raising. The reading scores of school children keep improving. I am still convinced that Steven Johnson is right when he says that people are capable now of following more plots in a TV story than in the 1970s. I think people are actually gaining intellectual skills, so maybe there's something missing from Gore's argument.
The other part is his claim that emotion is somehow antithetical to reasoning. I believe that he could get people interested in issues if he embedded the discussions in dramas that stirred up emotions. I don't think emotions interfere with reasoning, but that you can't reason properly without involving feelings. They should and usually do work together. The West Wing stimulated genuine political debates among viewers. Talking heads do not.
But then, all these pieces of the puzzle don't fit together. I'm not sure what my opinion is tonight. I just don't think Gore has got it together either. He does say that we need a new form of multi-party discourse, and that the Internet is making that happen. That analysis seems promising. I will just have to defer judgment until I see the larger picture somehow.