Al Gore and the assault on reason

We saw Al Gore Monday at Town Hall, promoting his book The Assault on Reason. My wife managed to snag a couple of the $5 tickets before they disappeared online in under 3 minutes – some kind of record. She’s getting really good at this.

I managed to spot a couple of empty seats right up front, in the 3rd row or so, just before the ushers decided the unreserved seats were all taken, and stopped letting people in lest they snag one of the many seats reserved for Town Hall members, with some extras added right in front of the stage for local political luminaries – my wife recognized City Councilwoman Jean Godden, the former Seattle Times gossip columnist.

Gore came off like a cross between a professor and a preacher, pacing up and down the stage while delivering a rapid-fire account of the entire history of human civilization and its “information ecology” from the emergence of language 50,000 years ago to the emergence of radio and TV. His main point seemed to be that up until recently, we were able to compare notes and talk about what’s real and what’s important in a rational fashion, so as to decide together what to do about it.

But now obviously we can’t, since you can’t use reason to explain why we invaded Iraq – not when 75% of Americans thought at the time it was because Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack – or why we’ve been ignoring the threat of global warming, when the evidence is substantial and the consequences dire if we can’t reverse it – nothing less than the collapse of human civilization as we know it.

Unfortunately, however, Gore didn’t seem to have any really good answer for why reason has failed us. He seemed to suggest that radio and TV are to blame, especially now that they are controlled by a few large media conglomerates and beholden to the other large corporations that advertise on them, and that the Internet (which, as we all know, Gore invented…) might be the answer, if we can prevent these conglomerates from seizing control of it and continue to guarantee net neutrality – he never actually came around to clinching those points.

Gore also seems misguided about how much reason and reality guided humans in the past in making social decisions. He cited Socrates as an example of reason in the past – but didn’t mention, as I recall, that all the work he did in the Agora engaging other Athenians in conversation in pursuit of the truth only succeeded in getting him tried and executed by them.

At one point Gore made a passing comment that he wasn’t one of those new fangled philosophy types who thinks we create our own reality socially – he quipped he wasn’t enough of a philospher himself to understand them. And he mentioned that schizophrenics make up about 1% of the population throughout history, and that the language that allowed humans to socialize and create a reality-based civilization leads them astray, when they hear voices that tell them things that aren’t real – but never followed up on this insight.

What seemed missing from Gore’s talk was an alternative explanation for why we’ve lost touch with reality in the US recently – and why humans have historically done so throughout history, until reality hits them on the head with the truth, or rears up its ugly in a revolution that sweeps all the illusions that have kept certain groups in power away before it.

After all, wasn’t it Karl Marx who long ago, back in the 19th century critiqued all this under the name of ideology, and demonstrated how throughout history ideological constructs have been deployed by those in power to keep those they dominate and exploit in the dark as to just how unjustified they are in doing so?

And that being the case – how come Gore never once mentioned Marx?

I suppose because Marx currently is, like Hegel before him, a dead dog that no one wants to think about anymore – not matter how accurate his critique might be of what’s lead up to our current impasse, and where we might need to go now. Just as the Athenians executed Socrates because his quest for the truth and his habit of using conversation to trap them in contradictions that revealed they really didn’t know what they claimed to know – that they really didn’t know what was real or true, so we no longer study the contradictions of capitalism that reveal why it’s a shoddy was of organizing the social economy.

After all, why should we need to, since socialism has fallen in Eastern Europe, and is hardly even practiced anymore in Russia and China.

We won, the great threat of the liberated masses is no more – and yet we wonder why a world run by corporate masters and their political allies seems so unreal.

Gore fielded one interesting question at the end of his talk – how do you go about convincing people who believe unreasonable things that they’re wrong? By engaging them calmly in conversation, and using reason to show them their errors and convince them what is really true, answered Gore.

But after this final question, the Town Hall meeting broke up so people could line up in a very long line to get their books signed, with Gore pledging to sign every last one.

I’d have felt more confidence in his theories if Gore had urged us all to stick around, break up into small groups, and discuss our differences of opinion about the major issues of the day – with him dropping in on the groups to hear what was being said and sign any books people had.

That at least would have been a start. But like Obama, I guess Gore really hasn’t thought that much about how his own adoption of a rock star persona is interfering with what he actually wants to see happen in the world.

This post needs editing. Come back for a tighter version later.

Posted Saturday, June 9th, 2007 under Uncategorized.


  1. Nicely done.

  2. Aaron James McNally says:

    I liked this piece a lot. I only have one aside, which is a complete digression. Barack Obama is actually quite conscious of his rock-star persona complex. The recent article on him in GQ discusses it to some extent.

    As for your blog article in general, I wonder why anyone is even interested in Al Gore’s assessment of the history of rational thought? (I’ve always thought of rationalism as something that emerged with the rise of Western secular humanism and modernity.) How is Al Gore qualified to speak on these topics? I noticed from your assessment that Karl Marx was not the only important name missing from his discussion.

    If I were to make a quick off-the-cuff comment on Gore in this respect, I would say something like “I am entirely leary of a popular politician using his celebrity to attempt the work of academic intellectuals.” This is not to say that it can not or should not be done, but I fear that the risk we run is very ironically contrary to Gore’s goals. We may, indeed, be sacrificing strict rationalism to the whims of policitcal fancy.

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