Al Gore published another book earlier this year, The Assault on Reason. I want to recommend it, but I feel that it will just be frustrating for readers who either disagree with him and get bored with hearing how bad the Bush administration is or who agree with his view and find it a reaffirmation of all that has gone with politics in the last generation or so and still have no idea what to do about it.
The book struck a chord with me because it picks up on a theme that unifies much of my own political involvement. The central theme is that modern media, particularly television, has made it impossible to sustain a rational dialog on difficult issues. I first experienced this perspective as a volunteer on the Gary Hart campaign of 1988, when my fellow students came up with the slogan, “Democracy, not media-ocracy!” in an effort to draft Hart back into the race after he withdrew following the Donna Rice scandal. In law school, my most interesting and challenging class was taught by Professor David Skover, later an author of “The Death of Discourse,” a study of how media changing society has affected our interpretation of the First Amendment. During the course, we read Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and other writers describing the transition from an oral, pre-literate society to the modern, literate, principally-print based world. Writing changed the way people thought and made logic-based problem solving and long term planning possible. Then along came new media. Television, the theory goes, is changing the way we all think to a more image-based, empathetic, mode where long books and reasoned debate are not effective.
Still awake? If you are reading a blog like this, you must still be grounded in the print-based world. In his book, Gore uses this idea of declining rationality to explain how the Bush administration has skillfully exploited media politics to short circuit reasoned debate, particularly on the Iraq war. It can be a bit elitist; essentially Gore asks and answers the question, “How can so many people be so stupid as to believe what our President is saying and allow us to get into such a mess (Iraq)?” Adequate information was available to make better choices, but it was ignored.
It is worthwhile to read the book just to refresh one’s perspective on the bill of particulars against Bush, but it feels we are swimming upstream, as I first noted. If you believe the country is so divided, like the book “What’s The Matter with Kansas” posits, then it is truly depressing and hopeless. But if you believe Barack Obama’s more upbeat perspective that we really are not so divided and simply lack leadership (his) to bring us all together, The Audacity of Hope, there is a ray of hope out there…but then Al Gore kind of dashes it again because he points out the structural problem in politics today:
We assume collective action can work. We may not completely agree in the “Wisdom of Crowds,” but generally, as a democracy, we believe that better decisions are made when more people get together and discuss an issue than would be made if an isolated group of individuals did the decisionmaking. But in order for that to work, you have to have reason and participation. Participation today is overwhelmed by the one-way stram of video information that is being produced by those who can afford to produce it. Most of us are sitting home passively watching television. We don’t have a means to contribute. So what happens instead is the Manufacturing of Consent.
So we have two problems: 1) people are not rational anymore and 2) the government functions without input from people. Even if you could improve #2, #1 is a big problem. Again, sounds a bit elitist, but that’s the reality…probably because their involvement doesn’t matter, most people have no interest in reading long boring books about things they can’t do anything about.
So what can we do? “Creative Class” people are rational, right? We still read books and pretty much all we do is create knowledge, so we cannot have been “corrupted” by television yet. But we have withdrawn.
Gore devotes a couple pages to the possibilities the internet might offer for citizen engagement, but then touts his Current TV project as part of the solution. You can go to that site and upload your own TV mini-documentaries and they will show up on some cable channel no one knows about someday. I think that’s a long shot…but it is something at least. Of course there is also YouTube, where any idiot can upload any idiotic thing…point is, there is at least a potential channel here for citizen journalists to participate. Five years ago, no such thing existed and we were all at the mercy of main stream media to vet our attempted video contributions. But still…you have to be able to make a video…but…a lot of people are pretty motivated to figure that out, so there is hope.
The blogosphere has exploded since the writing of Al Gore’s book and lost of people are talking, but is anyone listening? I am amazed when I go to progressive sites like Common Dreams or the Daily Kos and try to keep up with the volume of writing that goes on. It is impossible. But I am concerned that these sites are relatively small (compared to the millions of voting TV watchers) and filled with “true believers;” I don’t know that the ideas and discussion can ever work their way into the process of governance because a 30-second ad showing the World Trade Center collapsing seems to instantly negate all the research, reading, writing, and discussion devoted to attempting to inform and educate Americans that Saddam Hussein (now dead) had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 and in fact, would have been a mortal enemy of those terrorists. When you see these TV ads and then read public opinion polls, you feel like you brought a knife to a gunfight.
I wanted to write shorter blog entries and suggest actual steps people could take to become more empowered, but I think, today, all I say is, “stay tuned.” I will write more about these enabling technologies and I think we have to remain optimistic and look for opportunities to jump in. We are in a process of adapting; we cannot just “kill our televisions” and become anti-TV snobs. We need to create something new and better. We need to resist the negativity and anger–whether we believe Al Gore is a prophet or a sour grapes filled loser idiot–and keep asking questions to keep learning.