A disappointing book. Starts out strongly with quite an erudite examination of American history, but then descends into a long, long list of factual yet useless critiques of the policies and actions of the 2000-2008 US federal executive branch, and concludes with a call for Internet Net Neutrality.
Network neutrality has many merits, but I don't think singlehandedly saving the United States of America from unreason is one of them.
I'm afraid I am quite the literalist. I expect a book to be about the topic stated in its title. For example, I expected Laura Penny's Your call is important to us : the truth about bullshit to be about businesses and the false language they use. The phrase "to serve you better," for example, deserves an entire chapter, since it almost always translates into "we are inconveniencing you, our bothersome customers, in order to make more money for our shareholders". But instead, Penny's book is a long, long rant about how the B-C administration sucks, and the American right sucks, and big corporations suck. Which, as I've said, even when true, is not illuminating. A much better book is Death Sentences, which actually is about the assault upon our capacity to reason with language that is "business speak".
I therefore expected Gore's book to be about the systematic undermining of reasoned thinking in the United States, and its deliberate replacement with appeals to emotion and faith. Similar books in this genre are Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, Schneier's Beyond Fear, or Glassner's The Culture of Fear.
And indeed, Gore's first chapter, "The Politics of Fear," (available free online from ABC News) explores this terrain quite well. But as he progresses through the next seven chapters, I'm afraid Mr. Gore's passions gradually over-ride his reasoned discourse, so that we go from the misuse of religion (and the current executive and his party), through the misuse of wealth (and the executive), to chapters that, well, are all anti-current-administration, all the time.
In Al Franken's book Lies and the lying liars who tell them, he had two chapters amusingly titled "Ann Coulter: Nutcase" and "You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter". Gore's book has rather more reasonable-sounding chapters, but in the middle section, they could be fairly accurately retitled "Worst. President. Ever.", "You Know Who I Don't Like? President #43" and so on.
This is unfortunate for two reasons. One is that this meaty diatribe in the midst of a book about reason is going to be the main section that many partisans seize upon. The second, and more important, as I stated in my opening paragraph, is that it is factual yet irrelevant. The entire section could have been replaced with a reference saying "See factually documented issues with current executive in (selected list of books, articles, and websites)" with Gore's formidable intellectual energies then going into analysis.
Because reason is not about listing facts, it is about analyzing them to come to useful conclusions. Yes, all these things happened. The war. The Kyoto situation. But WHY. Why aren't the American people reacting? Why aren't the American people informed? Why do they fear the wrong things and draw the wrong conclusions? Why are the people in power making certain choices? Unless we can understand why people are doing things, we can't start to develop a strategy to address the situation. This book needs to be less case for impeachment, more What's the Matter with Kansas? writ large.
And I find it odd that Gore does not take a global view. This is a man who as I've said is very intelligent, with a particularly incisive understanding of how to separate local, regional, and international concerns (demonstrated by his environmental analyses in Earth in the Balance). Yet not once does he step outside America to ask why, if other Western nations also have television and corporate power, two of the key threats to reasoned discourse he identifies, yet those other nations still have populations that participate in their political processes and that demonstrate a reasonable understanding of science and current affairs.
I'm also a concerned that, rather than being a reasoned argument starting with facts and using analysis to draw conclusions, Gore has decided on his conclusions in the same way that he accuses his opponents of doing, and then chosen his examples to support his conclusions.
Fundamentally, his conclusion is that active two-way Internet participation will re-invigorate American democracy. I will have lots more to say about that, but to start with, in order to draw this conclusion, he then has to construct two eras: the print era, in which there was reasoned bidirectional discourse, and the radio/television era, in which there is not. In the print era, he argues, barriers to entry were low, so that differing ideas could circulate and be debated. I will state clearly I am no expert, but I don't believe such a golden era existed. There was, to be sure, a time of vigorous pamphleteering, but surely never more than a tiny percentage of the population was ever involved in actually writing and circulating pamphlets. Surely the more defining characteristic of that time period was that people who engaged in democratic discourse were often deeply educated (whether formally or self-taught) in the world's classics of literature and thought, and expected to engage in the Enlightenment ideal of active, informed debate. They knew much, they were richly adept with the English language, and they both cared and acted.
Certainly it's true that television is a one-way visually-driven reactive medium, versus the imaginative, reflective medium of print. But as I said above, since pretty much everyone in the Western world has a television, there has to be more to the change in American discourse than just a change in communications technology.
What exactly, I can't say, since it's a topic that needs someone to study deeply and write a book about, a book that sadly this is not.
After his long listing of the current administration's sins, Gore devotes just a single chapter, chapter 9, to his proposed solutions. Outrageously, he discounts somewhat the value of education in addressing the failures of reason
Education alone, however, is necessary but insufficient.
Hmm. If one may venture, as
Ghandi Gandhi said when asked what he thought about Western civilization, that "it would be a good idea", similarly perhaps before dismissing the possibilities of American education, it would be a good idea to, well, actually have some. Some education that at least leaves students upon graduation clearly understanding how America's constitutional democracy works (which Gore demonstrates with various poll statistics that they currently don't) and also able to read and write well enough to understand the power and limitations of language and, as a bonus, maybe know some science and basic techniques of logical reasoning as well?
Alas, Gore's prescription for debate amongst an informed citizenry consists instead of:
- broadband Internet ideally able to stream television-quality video continuously
- advocacy web sites
- wikis and particularly Wikipedia
- "Web 2.0 social networks"
- most important of all, Network Neutrality
Err, yeah, good luck with that.
Don't get me wrong, I think the Internet has a role to play in reasoned discourse.
A small role. A useful tool for pointing attention to falsehoods and referencing inconvenient truths.
But electronic communications have a fatal allure of virtual action.
Concerned about the environment?
No need to go outside and walk in the woods,
or clean up a polluted lot in your neighbourhood,
or knock on your representative's door and explain the urgency of your position.
No, instead you can just fire off an email, write a blog posting, and then turn up the air conditioning and the lights and stretch out on the couch and read a good book.
You want to make things happen?
GO OUTSIDE, DO SOMETHING AND TALK TO PEOPLE IN PERSON