I never spend money for political books for the same reason I never spend money for clothing with a logo on it. So I write this now only because my creaky old landlady rented Al Gore's DVD, An Inconvenient Truth, and watched it. That experience got her so het up that she laid out still more of her precious Social Security dollars for a copy of Gore's latest book, The Assault on Reason (New York: Penguin Press, 2007, $25.95).Now she's got the book, the poor woman can't understand it. She brought it to me and said: "You read a lot. Will you read this book and tell me what you think of it? Please?"
Not to say that The Assault on Reason is entirely Wrong. Assault does in fact have a couple of good points. One is that there's humor here. On page 35, for example, Gore explains how to hypnotize a chicken - a trick he learned while growing up on a farm in Tennessee. "There's a lot you can do with a hypnotized chicken," he writes. "You can use it as a paperweight, or you can use it as a doorstop, and either way, the chicken will sit there motionless, staring blankly."
I laughed as I imagined walking into the Gores' home and seeing hypnotized chickens act as doorstops and paperweights and, no doubt, performing other helpful tasks. I couldn't figure out how I grew up on a farm in Iowa without learning to hypnotize chickens. I laughed much harder when it came to me that I never learned to hypnotize chickens because I had a girlfriend. My laughter grew hysterical when I wickedly pondered how far the story about Al and the chickens might go toward explaining Al's relationship with Tipper.
I found more good yocks on page 95, where Gore quotes economist John Kenneth Galbraith: "Under capitalism man exploits man. Under communism it's just the opposite." Readers shouldn't fret if they're not laughing with me on that one. That the best jokes are never funny is simply one of those ironies that put me in stitches whenever I'm reminded of them.
Gore's argument is straightforward. His contentions, stripped of the science with which he supports them, can be summarized in a few paragraphs:
America's democratic republic, as The Founders conceived and designed it, relies upon our free press as a marketplace of ideas. It was supposed that literate, politically conscious citizens would visit the marketplace, pick over the wares, inform themselves, and use what they learn to make rational decisions about politics and government. Problems arise when our free press abandons its duty to purvey useful information. If the press devotes itself instead to blind partisanship, inanity and fear-mongering, the marketplace of ideas becomes a poisoned well that cannot sustain our democratic, republican system.
The problem of silly, biased, fear-mongering journalism was bad enough before television, when America got the bulk of its news from print media. Today, when America gets the bulk of its news from television, the problem is much worse. That's because, in order to get the message conveyed by printed words, readers must engage in rational thought about what they're reading even as they read it. Television, on the other hand, is a medium that bypasses reason and appeals directly to the gut.
Television advertising, in particular, is scientifically designed to play upon viewers' subconscious fears in ways that evoke a gut response of a certain sort at a rate of about once per second. The pace is hypnotic and is meant to be so: Minds mesmerized by fear can be taught to buy things they do not need, to fear things that don't exist, and to like things that are not good for them. Advances in psychology and neuroscience are seized upon and put to use by advertisers, pollsters and media gurus, who work as hired guns for anyone who can afford them. Just as these people can sell us things we didn't know we wanted, they can sell us political candidates, political issues, and ideologies we didn't know we liked.
In the early 1960s, television replaced print media as America's marketplace of ideas. Now, thanks to television, citizens who visit the marketplace to shop for ideas are increasingly illiterate, politically ignorant, and suffer from a diminished ability to reason. Thanks to television, America's marketplace of ideas has been captured and is controlled by people whose agenda (to say the best of it) is elitist and anti-democratic. Thus television as we know it, Gore tells us, threatens to destroy America's democratic republic.
Gore strengthens his argument by citing discoveries in neuroscience that explain how fear works on the human brain, how the brain is hard-wired so reactions prompted by fear are shunted around the reasoning process. He throws in supportive evidence from psychology, from history, and in sum he makes a pretty good case.
No doubt. And no doubt there are any number of teletubers out there who'll squawk like outraged chickens when they're told they don't know as much as some of the birds in Tennessee. Disregarding their objections, however, there's nothing new or wildly controversial in Gore's indictment of television. Scholars have argued for decades that TV makes fools of those who watch it.1 The honest public knows it's true: They don't call it "the boob toob" for no reason.
Having identified television as a bane of rational thought that poisons Americans' minds, Gore uses chapters One through Five to indict the medium as an accomplice in various crimes against democracy. Chapter 1 discusses "The Politics of Fear" (use of fear to gain power and manufacture consent); Chapter 2 is all about "Blinding the Faithful" (hijacking and weaponization of religion for political ends); Chapter 3 explains "The Politics of Wealth" (corruption, monopoly, media manipulation); Chapter 4 names some "Convenient Untruths" (substitution of crank ideology for rational policy, use of mass deception to justify same, use of secrecy to duck responsibility for resultant chaos); Chapter 5 describes "The Assault on the Individual" (diminishment and/or nullification of civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution).