Saturday, June 02, 2007

Summer Reading Book Reviews: The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore

This summer I've not only been able to spend even more time with my family (we're potty-training Adam right now - just over two days, and so far only one "accident"!), but I've also been able to do more reading. Well, maybe not more volume reading - at the seminary we joke that if you want to read less, go to law school! But, at least more voluntary reading, and more less-overtly-religious reading.

For our religion to have any bearing at all on our lives or the lives of those around us - and thus for our religion to have any real life to it - it must be informed not only by the abstract teachings of our faith traditions and mystical reflections, but also by all of the events and situations around us. Simply put, faith that is not in contact with the broader world is poor and powerless faith indeed.

My own theology is to a great extent informed not only by my reading of scripture and theological texts, but also (I hope) by my reading of contemporary situations. It is a theology in constant dialogue with political and ethical concerns. That it dialogues with political concerns is on the surface more than a little bit dangerous. A sharp separation between church and state is vital to the interests of both state and church, and Barth correctly identified the idolatry inherent in the mingling of political and religious symbolism in the German national church.

But a broader understanding of politics as the arena in which ethical concerns play out in social situations means that if there is any ethical content to our religious views, then our religion does have a political component to it. And that political component matters. Of course, that political component need not be fiercely partisan. I still shudder when I recall, as an eighteen-year-old, a conversation with a friend of mine. We were discussing our fledgling political affiliations. When I told him I was thinking about registering as a Democrat, he said something like, "But I thought you were a Christian." In his church, as in so many Evangelical churches, the Christian faith had been confounded with the Republican political party.

So, when I say that my theology is informed by my political and ethical concerns, I do not mean that my theology should be read as a mingling of political and religious symbolism, nor do I mean that my theology easily confuses my identity as a Christian with my standing as a Democrat. Jesus wasn't an American, much less a Democrat or a Republican. And, if I understand him at all, he would have serious issues with both parties.

When I say that my theology is informed by my political and ethical concerns, I simply mean that a theology that fails to speak to present social issues is a poor theology indeed. And, if a theology is to speak to present social issues, it must be well informed on those present social issues to which it seeks to speak. Which is a long, long way of saying that this summer instead of reading theology texts, so far I've been reading more overtly political texts. And, reading those texts is no less vital to my theological formation than reading the Tillich and James that I had planned to spend my summer reading.

In the past week or so I've read three books that I highly recommend to anyone who is concerned about the present state of American politics: Al Gore's The Assault on Reason, and Is Bill Cosby Right? (Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind?) and Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (which I wrote about here) by Michael Eric Dyson.

In The Assault on Reason Al Gore builds a strong argument that the present state of American politics (which he views as a threat to the very fabric of our democracy) has been caused by the removal of the mediation of reason and logic in our political conversation. Simply put, public discourse is coarse, and decidedly one-sided. While infotainment programs like Crossfire and Hannity and Colmes and the like pay lip service to the value of opposing viewpoints meeting together and discussing reasonably, they only further aggravate our public discourse. This is due both to the nature of those programs - in which it is assumed that there are two relatively equal sides to any issue, and as such one's preference is essentially arbitrary - and (more in keeping with Gore's thesis) of the nature of television itself. Gore repeatedly emphasizes that television is a one-sided form of communication, in which the average American receives but never sends information.

This is a far cry from Gore's reading of the Enlightenment, which he argues (persuasively, I might add) shaped our system of government. The Enlightenment, Gore argues, favored a "marketplace of ideas" in which everyone's views competed with each other, with reason mediating between them. In his idealized reading of the Enlightenment, there was a meritocracy of ideas that led to much better decision-making structures in government.

To build his argument Gore uses a common device: the Myth of the Golden Past. This is, I suppose, a necessary evil, in that most public arguments appeal to some idealized reading of history, and then use that idealized reading to critique the present situation. As such we are perpetually in a state of falling from the ideals of our past, and as such constantly need to reclaim our lost heritage. Gore presents this myth in the best way, constantly checking against the tendency to create a past that never existed. And, of course, he is right that reason once played a role in public discourse, and that its role has been greatly diminished in a state in which money, rather than the free exchange of ideas, counts as speech.

Because of the role of money as speech, granting access not only to politicians but also to the television "airwaves" that comprise the bulk of public speech, fewer people can actively participate in public discourse. This diminished participation in conversation leads, Gore argues, to a diminished participation in democracy, and a frighteningly poorly informed public who is thus total unable to hold politicians accountable.

However, framing his argument this way allows Gore to sometimes overlook the extent to which the Enlightenment - and, as such, the Constitutional government of our Founders - similarly suppressed participation. While Gore argues that the Enlightenment favored a meritocracy of ideas, there were many factors preventing all persons from freely participating in this conversation. Gore rightly acknowledges that literacy was a barrier, but he glosses over the role that race and class played in literacy. That education was by no means universal means that just as money keeps most citizens from participating in public discourse today, so race and class - in determining who was literate and who was not - kept most citizens from participating in public discourse in the Glorious Past to which Gore's framing of this myth points. He in not entirely blind to this, but because it represents such a vital criticism of his thesis, he doesn't exactly dwell on it.

While Gore's book is replete with example of how the Bush-Cheney administration has destroyed the very fabric of our democracy, he ultimately sees the present regime as a symptom rather than an ultimate cause of the problem. Much like his work on global climate change, this book is full of disturbing (and compelling) statistics, arguments, and observations. But, perhaps the most disturbing section is found in the middle of Chapter Nine, in which (as he often does) he begins to move from a disturbing diagnosis of what he sees as the problem, to a compelling set of constructive solutions. However, before he get hope, we have to have a full accounting of the problem, and the despair which eventually shakes us from our collective slumber. That problem, Gore argues, is principally ignorance and indifference, which conspire to allow the powerful to accumulate ever more power, ruining the democratic element of our governance. He cites a litany of studies to show just how ignorant we Americans have become:

... if citizens are deprived of a meaningful opportunity to participate in the national conversation, they can scarcely be blamed for developing a lack of interest in the process. And, sure enough, numerous surveys and studies have documented the erosion of public knowledge of basic facts about our democracy.

For example, from the data compiled by the National Election Studies on one recent election, only 15 percent of respondents could name even one of the candidates in their election district. Less than 4 percent could name two candidates...

Similarly, according to a study conducted by FindLaw.com, only 24 percent of Americans could name a single Supreme Court justice. In the survey, respondents incorrectly identified George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Supreme Court justices...

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducted a study in 2005 of what our nation's college students knew about the Constitution, American government, and American history that provoked the American Political Science Association Task Force on Civic Education to pronounce that it is "axiomatic that current levels of political knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States."

The study found that less than half of college students "recognized that the line 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' is from the Declaration of Independence." They also found that "an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly identify the source of the idea of 'a wall of separation' between church and state."


While the current political environment has labeled Democrats "Defeatocrats," this book should not be read as a bashing of the American people, or a having of a white flag to the forces that have rendered democracy all but obsolete in the face of the accumulation of executive power. Rather it should be read as a love letter to the American people, begging them to reclaim their heritage. While isolated texts from this book can be misrepresented as an attack on American dignity, the book is actually a great expression of hope. In fact, it is an almost dangerous hope that the damage done to our democracy, much like the damage done to our environment, can, in fact, be undone.

It is well worth a read for anyone who has the courage to read it.

In the near future I will also offer similar reviews of the two Michael Eric Dyson books that I read, both of which I enjoyed even more than I did Gore's manifesto on democracy and public discourse.

1 comment:

Troy said...

Chris,

it has been far too long. I've been curious about this book, and about Gore in general, and knowing your mind, his book must be worth it.

And I was led to the grace under pressure blob from your post below. Life is so pure when grief moves through it. Who was it that told your friend that his wife didn't lose her battle with cancer, she defeated death?

Right now, my faith is vague, faint, shadowy. Still in practice, surely. My son was confirmed last week and it was a tremendous experience. I had a good time at church on Trinity Sunday, singing, 'Holy holy holy' and taking communion. The sermon, not often good, was quite good.

But death appears so utterly final, so disruptive, abrupt. As if a human being were a glass pane and the pane has been shattered. Death is the ultimate human conundrum, frustration, and horror. I do not believe anyone who tells me otherwise. For me, death does not complete the cycle of life. It brutally negates it.

But to believe that Christ truly has removed the reality of death, for Christians, perhaps, as I hope, for all humans, is a very tough thing to trust or understand. I suppose there is nothing else I can say about this at this moment.

Thanks for much for continuing blogging. It was wonderful to see you still at work here. I am also very glad you are in seminary, and your family is whole. Glad as I could be, my brother.

Be well Chris. Hopefully I'll be posting here more than twice a year now :)

Troy