Friday, June 22, 2007

"Assault on Reason"

Al Gore's new book The Assault on Reason was reviewed on June 10 in the Oregonian by Les Au Coin, Oregon's former congressman, in the article "A reasonable truth: Gore takes off the gloves." AuCoin sums up Gore's project saying:
Now comes [after Inconvenient Truth ] "The Assault on Reason," which warns against a threat not to the natural environment but to the American political environment and democracy itself.
and continues by outlining four main arguments or themes under this umbrella. [For an excerpt from Assault on Reason in Time magazine May 17, 2007, click here.]

1 -- The first deals with the way that broadly expanded and accessible literacy (due to explosion of printing with moveable type) opened knowledge and speaking beyond the elite.

2 -- The second claims that now, however, the corporate globalized media has not opened knowledge and the power of words further, but rather closed down public participation in information.
Says AuCoin:
By blurring news and entertainment -- especially on television "news," where most Americans get their information -- they sate the public with journalistic air balls such as Britney Spears' shaved head and Anna Nicole Smith's baby, disproportionately leaving too much consequential information in the hands of elites.
A quick survey of the news programs would confirm this. And the corporate broadcasters claim that they only "give the people what they want." (Their same argument in defense of all the sleaze they show.) Even PBS cannot get in all the "real" news.

I always thought that PBS, the PUBLIC system constantly criticized by conservatives as too liberal, would have the real news. But, according to a journalist friend of mine, PBS does not or cannot present a truly liberal perspective because it is constrained by the government funding to have 2 conservative speakers for every 1 liberal.

3 -- The third claim is that without complete access to what is really going on (with American TV viewers mesmerized by Info-Tainment), voters don't know and can't think about what is happening in places of power. AuCoin shows Gore's point:
Eschewing the free exercise of reason in public affairs, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have "taken us further down the road toward an intrusive 'Big Brother'-style of government -- toward the dangers prophesized by George Orwell in his book "1984" -- than anyone ever thought would be possible."

What is the solution? According to AuCoin, Gore sees the Internet as the way that the public, anyone, can counteract the government's (the powerful) hold on knowledge and truth. Certainly the internet does open more knowledge more widely, though not everyone has access to a computer and internet, so there is still a digital divide in power/knowledge.

Further, I keep hearing that there are new proposals for variable internet speed would make some sites more quickly accessible (those of rich conglomerates) while the small or independent sites would be harder to find. I keep wondering if this is a real proposal or another of those urban hoaxes that go around. However, apparently the new postal rates are set up to heavily favor the mass mailers and penalize the small presses, which is a parallel to the internet access question, so maybe this proposal is not a hoax. Certainly, it would make perfect sense for those in power to restrict as much as possible access to information.

However, AuCoin sees problems with Gore's confidence in the internet:
Gore believes when the Internet reaches its potential it may well eclipse the mainstream media and its "one-way" communication of "infotainment" with a spirited, interactive exercise of grass-roots reason and analysis.

Gore's prescription suffers in contrast to his erudite diagnosis of the problem. He ignores, for instance, the habit of blog readers to frequent sites that support their biases and ignore sites that don't, behavior that falls short of thesis, antithesis and synthesis -- analysis that guards against any assault on reason.
Although AuCoin's reservations about how/what people read online may be true, these same reservations can be launched against the way people read newspapers: turn to the sports or the comics or the TV guide.

If information is free and relatively easy to get, the people at least have a chance at leveling the playing field which is essential for democracy. After all, if the internet were not so powerful, why would countries such as China work so hard to censor it?

Note: It is interesting to look back at what John F. Harris and Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post said about Assault on Reason back in September 2006 when Gore started it.

Note #2: Here's an excerpt from the excerpt which is perfectly relevant to our WR 222 class:

As a college student, I wrote my senior thesis on the impact of television on the balance of power among the three branches of government. In the study, I pointed out the growing importance of visual rhetoric and body language over logic and reason. There are countless examples of this, but perhaps understandably, the first one that comes to mind is from the 2000 campaign, long before the Supreme Court decision and the hanging chads, when the controversy over my sighs in the first debate with George W. Bush created an impression on television that for many viewers outweighed whatever positive benefits I might have otherwise gained in the verbal combat of ideas and substance. A lot of good that senior thesis did me.

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