“If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.”
That bumper sticker slogan echoed through my mind repeatedly while listening to The Assault on Reason audiobook.
If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention; Or at least you are not paying attention to that which matters most. In this still timely tome, Al Gore mounts an assault on the criminal excesses of the Bush Administration, recounting its repeated violations of the laws and values of the United States in its deceptive mounting and disastrous execution of the Iraq war, the Federal law-breaking NSA wiretapping program, the sanctioning of enhanced interrogation techniques (read: torture) in violation of international treaties, the creation of an environment of policy and practice conducive to prisoner abuse, and the disregard for habeas corpus and judicial protections contravening our commitment to due process under the law, among a host of other impeachment-worthy crimes and hypertension-inducing misdemeanors. Gore makes an attempt to be balanced in his criticisms, substantiating his accusations with the relevant evidence throughout, qualifying his statements, acknowledging the counter-arguments, and giving the benefit of the doubt when possible. Even so, many of his characterizations of Bush’s actions and policies come off as inflammatory, but more often than not, justifiably so, in my opinion. That G.W. Bush was not impeached and forced from office was astounding to me given how comparatively “minor” were the charges that brought down Richard Nixon. That his administration’s prima facia criminal misdeeds are not being investigated now by an independent prosecutor leaves me frustrated and disenfranchised. Gore repeatedly stresses that ours was founded as a nation of laws, not of men, and upon this principle our freedoms find protection from tyranny. But if our laws can be broken with no consequences, what of that?
Gore lays much of the blame for the absence of any appropriate accountability for the string of Bush Administration transgressions on the role television has taken as a our culture’s core communication conduit. TV, much more so than the print media that dominated the early politics of our republic, is a highly centralized, purely one-way broadcast medium monopolized by moneyed interests owing to its cost structure. These characteristics combine to create the potential for a dangerous concentration of power. Moreover, television is entrancing in a way that print media is not, allowing it to bypass our critical reasoning faculties and appeal to base emotion directly. Gore charges the Bush Administration with skillful use of television to create an atmosphere of fear to manipulate public opinion and silence critics as the key to his success in escaping the bounds of a constitutionally limited executive while avoiding consequences. This is the central assault on reason: television’s hypnotic capability to distract us with sensationalistic drivel and manipulate us with sound bites and fear-inducing images.
I have no doubt that Gore’s diagnosis is, on the whole, valid. What I think Gore glosses over a bit too quickly is the lack of leadership by congressional Democrats during the Bush Administration, who, with a few distinguished exceptions, sat on their hands, largely capitulating to Bush’s agenda and failing to call him to account for his overreaching acts. Gore’s analysis does treat this failure from a systemic perspective, noting that the importance of television in election politics forces politicians to spend much of their time raising funds to buy expensive TV ads in order to take their turn hypnotizing voters in order to get re-elected, with much of the remainder spent reacting to the ways in which the public has been manipulated by other politicians, pundits, and moneyed interests through the same medium, leaving little time for matters of governing in the public interest. I agree with that diagnosis, too, as well as the primary remedies that Gore calls for—voluntary public financing of campaigns, increased civic participation through the far more democratic and participatory medium of the Internet—but I believe that these external factors do not absolve Congress from allowing Bush Administration abuses from going unchecked.
To my mind, Gore’s other oversight is that he fails to clearly define what reason is, a shortcoming for a book with the word “reason” in its title and whose central thesis that it is under attack. This omission leaves the work without a consistent framework would allow it to separate reason from unreason and analyze the core issues more systematically. And while I would not deny Gore the persuasive tools of anecdote and analogy in his writing, the lack of such a definition and system of analysis leaves him open to the charge of sophistry when he does employ them, since such techniques are often ironically the agents of unreason in polemics. To be fair, some of this impression may arise from having listened to the audiobook rather than reading the text; The vocal intonations of the reader may have increased my perception of the emotive content of the arguments presented. Moreover, it is understood that The Assault on Reason is not an academic text. Rather, it is a mass market book meant to persuade, and true to its core commitment, it maintains a high standard of rational argument throughout.
Whatever its minor shortcomings, I think The Assault on Reason is an important book. Even though the Bush Administration is mercifully out of power, the damage done has not yet been repaired—among other lingering issues, overreaching planks of the PATRIOT Act and the FISA remain in effect—and, moreover, the underlying systemic distortion of political discourse generated the dynamics of television as our still dominant communications medium remain in full effect. Much work lies before us.