03 July 2007

Review: The Assault on Reason by Al Gore

What did I do during my summer vacation? Well, lots of stuff, but one thing I did was read Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason. I’m such a dork, in fact, that I pre-ordered it from Amazon. It was a very interesting read, although, like An Inconvenient Truth, it was nothing I hadn’t heard before. Gore does a huge service to Americans who are not as interested in the nitty gritty of policy as I am, and sums it up in simple and accessible terms. Not to say that average Americans need to have these things dumbed down, but that most people are too busy to familiarize themselves with the nuts and bolts of the constitution, policy, history and science.

The main thesis of Assault is that our democracy is in a steep decline because as a society, we have lost our ability to engage in a public discussion about the direction our country is taking. The main culprit is television, according to Gore, which I completely agree with. Television is a very passive medium from which to gain information about the world. It is also the main source of news information for Americans, with its ubiquity and ease of use. There are no special skills necessary for watching television; in fact, children are taught from birth how to “use” the television for person enrichment and entertainment. Gore states that, because watching television is a passive activity and one which the watcher cannot easily debate with (with an audience, at least) that our democracy is suffering. People are no longer engaging in political debate, and the days of town hall meetings and letters to the editor are considered quaint by those shaping policy. Gore considers the high point of democracy to be the rise of cheap printing; namely newspapers, leaflets and pamphlets. As printed material became more widely available and cheap, more average citizens began to read and participate in the political discourse. Newspaper sales are lagging now, which means that when a person writes an editorial or a letter to the editor of the newspaper, fewer and fewer people are responding to it. And, much like television, newspapers are owned by huge conglomerates that are hard to infiltrate with a dissenting opinion.

As I stated before, I agree with this, but I also think that Gore could have gone a bit deeper. His main thesis that atrocious things are happening in Washington because people don’t debate anymore is a strong one, but I don’t think that the media are the only culprit. In fact, it may be just a symptom. Why else could our society be so disengaged from the policymaking that often affects daily life? One thing that I’ve noticed in the past decade or so is the American ideal of “rugged individualism” run amok. In the early days of the republic, and during Western expansion, individualism was a proud feature of our culture. The idea that Americans are so tough and can pull themselves up by the bootstraps is a romantic visualization of the past, promoted by history books and movies. To some extent, this is true, but nobody ever considers how unbelievably hard life used to be, and how many people didn’t make it. So, we carry that individualism into our modern day lives. The nuclear family is the epitome of family life in this culture. We all live in our cookie cutter houses with a white picket fence, spouse (opposite sex, of course), 2.5 kids, a dog and a cat. (I realize that this isn’t the case for most of America, but I’m dealing with the generalization that Americans like to put forth.) We are so pressured to leave our families behind in order to create families of our own, and then we are shamed into ever asking friends, family, society for help when trouble comes. We drive to work in our cars alone, work in an office or cubicle alone, and use the self-checkout line at the supermarket. Instead of going to the bank teller, we withdraw cash at the ATM. Instead of talking to a colleague or friend, we send email, text, or instant messages. In sum, we are very detached from our fellow human beings. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with the actions I just outlined; I often take advantage of ATMs and self-checkout lines myself. What I am saying is that we, as a society, are forgetting how to speak to each other about important matters.

The result of this is that the large media outlets (television, radio, and newspapers) usually only focus on extreme opinions because they are sexier. We hear a lot about anti-choice groups and their shenanigans, but we rarely hear from folks who are more mainstream. We hear a lot about the anti-capitalist “freegans” but rarely hear from people trying to live a realistic but sustainable life. We are left with the impression that our neighbors hold extreme opinions because of the bumper stickers on their car.

An interesting phenomenon has been in the works with blogging, though. People are finding ways to become active again by connecting with others around the country and creating real movements. Disregarding my lack of enthusiasm for the nuclear family (anyone who knows me knows that I hate living so far away from my family and that I’m making progress to get back to them) I think that virtual relationships are our salvation for this political crisis. Gore mentions this only in passing in Assault, but I think as relationships evolve, we should pay more attention.

UPDATE: Amanda has chosen Assault for the next Pandagon Book Club selection. You can also buy the book there.

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