I am conflicted about Al Gore’s latest book. On the one hand, I want to praise its more admirable qualities. It is a book written by a man who is genuinely passionate about solving the problems he perceives as plaguing this country. And for what it’s worth, I happen to agree with him on most of his claims. Although his thesis–that contemporary public discourse in American society–has steadily eroded in quality due to the decrease of rational thinking–is not a particularly original one, Gore states it compellingly and with great vigor. And although this thesis is hardly innovative or ground-breaking, Gore manages to bring in knowledge from seemingly unrelated fields, such as neuroscience, information theory, and philosophers that most Americans don’t know about, and does so in a way that neither treats his readers as idiots or overwhelm them with things that only academics would need to know.
The book is a compelling read, written with pretty fluid prose that is not too academic for its intended audience. It is well-researched, with almost every single claim backed up by citations, although it certainly does not live up to the rigors of citation required by the academia, but that is expected given the audience. Gore systematically lays out compelling evidence of the deliberate misinformation that is prevalent in contemporary American society, and although sometimes he comes off as just a tiny bit didactic, it is not condescending.
So what is my critique of the book then? In some sense, my critique of the book has less to do with Gore’s overt thesis, but more with the underlying assumptions of that thesis. But first, some superficial complaints. Gore tries very hard to avoid giving off the impression that somehow contemporary American society is unique or exceptional in the history of America as a society that is plagued by the lack of reason. And on most accounts, he succeeds, qualifying his claims by providing examples of past instances in which the American public were just as unreasonable and passive in public discourse. However, I always got the sense that he, no matter how hard he tries, did not avoid nostalgia altogether. And some of his claims about America’s past are simplistic and reductive.
In fact, Gore’s central thesis is itself overly reductive. He constantly claims throughout the book that before the advent of mass communication technology like radio and TV, the American public was able to meaningfully engage in debate about public issues through the newspaper, citing that medium’s ability to a real two-way communication. While this may be true, the claim itself is just too reductive. Gore necessarily glosses over historical examples that show that the newspaper was not impervious to the kind of misinformation and psychological manipulation that the current mass-communications technology engenders. All you have to do is to look back in the first couple of presidential election campaigns in American history to see the newspapers in those days were in fact mostly controlled by political campaigns who had no qualms to report all kind of scandalous and extremely bitter accusations against the other party.
And then there is also this almost child-like optimism about the capability of reason. But I have to say that I’m by nature a skeptic of the Enlighten project, which Gore is clearly in love with. At times, Gore exudes a kind of confidence about the capability of collective, rational public-discourse to solve America’s problems that I think is unwarranted. But can I really blame Gore? After all, he is clearly working with a traditional Liberal framework. His critique of contemporary American society and the way it carries on discussion of public issues is that they fall short of the Enlightenment standards of Reason that America’s founders envisioned it. Thus, to Gore, the solution is to restore that Enlightenment standard of Reason, and then a collective wisdom based on the meritocracy of ideas in a marketplace of ideas would help America come up with the solutions.
Gore does try to address this assumption somewhat in his book, but it’s a pitiable attempt, since it constitutes nothing than some obligatory qualifying statements about the potentially dangerous qualities of reason and rationalism when taken to the extreme. This constitutes a serious failure to anticipate what I consider to be the most obvious counter-argument to Gore’s thesis. Gore automatically assumes that everyone has already agreed to the Enlightenment project, and that all one needs to do is somehow “re-discover” the principles of the Enlightenment. This is to do injustice to his own central argument.
Furthermore, Gore’s arguments about collective public discourse is heavily linked to his discussion on the free-market. To Gore, the free-market is inextricably connected to open discussion, since both relies upon this metaphor of a marketplace. Good decisions about collective problems, Gore contends, are arrived by through collective engagement and competition, letting the ideas with the most merit win out. But in making this claim, Gore doesn’t adequately address this one important problem: namely, that a completely free-market will eventually favor conglomeration, which Gore sees as the major problem in mass-communications technology.
Gore argues that the current structure of conglomeration by media giants like ClearChannel or Murdoch is somehow an unique deviation from the norm of competition, but this assumption is not correct. In order to get your message across to the largest number of people, you need an incredible amount of technological, social, political, and financial resources, resources which a single individual or a small group of people simply cannot provide. This eventually will lead to conglomeration, with the result that the original message will get “dumbed down” or compromised in order to satisfy the large number of actors and stake-holders that is needed to bring about it to a large demographic.
And this one problem is symptomatic of Gore’s entire argument: it is simply too reductive. It fails to address the concern that it is Reason, or the Free-Market itself that may be the cause of certain problems that Gore is trying to solve. Gore, perhaps naively, assumes that if people would simply go back to this norm of rationality and free-marketism, then everything will be fine, but he doesn’t really consider the possibility that people in general may not use reason and the free-market for the public good, for the res publica. So in some ways, Gore’s thesis is almost an anachronism, smelling of the kind of optimism about the capability of Reason and the Free Market that characterized the excitement of the Enlightenment. However, as history has shown, the project of the Enlightenment–that is to say, Reason, Progress, Man’s Perfectability–while not completely bankrupt, is no longer impervious to failure. And for Gore to simply ignore the failures of the Enlightenment is unjustifiable, considering how erudite Gore is on other
But alas, Gore holds up one final solution which will escape the logic of my critique: the Internet. To Gore, the Internet represents the next evolution of communications that has proceeded from oral history, to print, to radio, and now to the television. To Gore, the Internet solves the problem of conglomeration because of its almost anarchic freedom. And unlike traditional mass-communications, which require huge resources to access a large demographic, the Internet can reach an audience that traditional media can only dream of with little cost. Thus, Gore sees the Internet as combining the two-way, interactive nature of the printed word with the technological abilities of radio and TV. Therefore, Gore concludes, the Internet is the site of the future republic’s collective decision-making,allowing almost all voices to be heard, thus truly embodying a completely free market-place of ideas.
Again, this is an overly reductive argument. For example, Gore doesn’t seem to address an alarming trend that has emerged with the Internet in regards to political discussion. One would usually assume that in a completely free marketplace of ideas, extremism would be lessened, since one idea has to compete with countless other ideas, thus in the process blunting the edges of extremism. However, if political blogging on the Internet has shown anything, it’s that extremism has in fact increased. Just read any partisan political blog, and you will find people who are totally resistant to competing ideas and ideologies, instead just harping on their own ideas over and over again. Thus, the competition between these political blogs isn’t so much a debate than it is a shouting-match in which no one is ever willing to consider one’s own positions in light of adversarial claims.
And second, Gore doesn’t address the very real concern that the Internet, for all its ability to reach a large number of people, simply does not produce ideas of any worthwhile quality. Empirical evidence suggests that the large majority of people do not go online to read legislative texts, look up the contracting activities of federal agencies, or contribute meaningful, thoughtful editorials. In fact, most people go online to look up celebrity gossip, pornography, and post inane videos of themselves on the Internet. Sure, there will be a competition of ideas, if such
things can even be called “ideas”; in the end the best idea will emerge on the Internet, but what if the best idea is simply not up to par?
Finally, is the Internet really impervious to conglomeration? Again, the answer isn’t so simple as Gore makes it out to be. The recent contest over the Net Neutrality Act has already shown that there is now already a movement that seeks to give more privilege to large content-providers, i.e., large multi-national corporations on the Internet. Rubert Murdoch just purchased MySpace, and political campaigns are now using MySpace and Facebook and YouTube to advertise, thus once again giving more influence to those with more resources. Gore once again does not address the potential of the Internet becoming a place where underneath the anarchic surface lies a carefully controlled environment of corporatization.
And this brings me back to my fundamental critique: Gore does not adequately address any potentially undermining arguments. He assumes too much about Reason, about the free-market, about the Internet. Is Gore naive? I don’t think so, because this book is written in a mature, calm fashion, a refreshing breath of air from what we have come to know as “political discourse” on shows like Crossfire and Wolf Blitzer show. Which makes it all the more puzzling. And my only answer is that Gore is so used to thinking in a Liberal framework that he does not even recognize the bias inherent in this Liberal way of thinking. And by Liberal I don’t mean contemporary uses of the word, but the intellectual-historical sense of the word.
Some might say that I miss the point in blaming Gore for being too Liberal in his mind-set. After all, they’ll say, what do you expect? Do you expect Gore to call into question the entire Liberal enterprise? That is certainly not his job, they will say. And I might be inclined to agree with them, but what is ultimately frustrating to me is that Gore doesn’t go far enough. He does an excellent job at diagnosing the problems, but he finds his solutions only within a familiar and well-tread theoretical ground of Liberalism. And for a man with Gore’s intellect, this is a shame. I do not expect him to share my skepticism regarding Liberalism, but the least he can do is to attempt to address this skepticism with the same kind of vigor and passion that he does in correctly diagnosing the problems with America today. This failure to do so makes The Assault on Reason ultimately a dissatisfying book.