Saturday, June 09, 2007

Al Gore - Promoting Discourse

Picture of Gore's new book, The Assault On ReasonThis is the third post of my three-part series on "Promoting Discourse". (The second was my my previous post, about Thank You For Smoking; the first was about Charlie Rose).

Perhaps you are surprised, given my political leanings to the right, that I'm writing a complementary post about Al Gore of all people. I'm a bit surprised as well. But discourse is about bringing opinions from all sides (and hopefully facts to back them up) out into the open in a healthy and productive way. No political party or group of people sharing a political philosophy have a monopoly on valid input about political discourse.

And Al Gore brings such input to the table. His new book, The Assault on Reason is precisely about the need for good public discourse.

A number of media outlets have spun the book to be something more sexy than I think it was intended to be. ABC News ran an article "Gore's 'Assault on Reason' an Assault on Bush", for instance. I'm sure feuding political figures makes a more attention grabbing story than "our public discourse system is broken."

Now, in fairness, I haven't read the book. I've read what excerpts I can find and listened through two interviews with Gore about it though. (One was, if you've been paying attention you can probably guess this..., with Charlie Rose. :D .)

Based on those interview and excepts, I think Gore's central message is summarized nicely in this excerpt of an excerpt from the book:

Why has America's public discourse become less focused and clear, less reasoned? Faith in the power of reason—the belief that free citizens can govern themselves wisely and fairly by resorting to logical debate on the basis of the best evidence available, instead of raw power—remains the central premise of American democracy. This premise is now under assault.

American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

In that much, allow me to strongly concur with Mr. Gore.

Rather disappointingly (and ironically), the two interviews I listened to about Gore's book (or at least, that was their intended topic), turned into good examples of what's wrong with current public discourse. (By the way, the second interview was on The News Hour, moderated by Gwen Ifill.) (Brief aside ... I used to be an avid watcher of the Gwen Ifill-moderated Washington Week program, until she tried to make Bill Bennett out as a racist over the whole Freakonomics thing. Talk about bad discourse... Now I'm perhaps overly critical of anything Ifill does.)

Anyway. The Rose and Ifill interviews of Al Gore on "The Assault on Reason" themselves assaulted reason. Neither interviewer could resist devolving into questions about political "horse racing." The question of "Will you run in '08" made up a good bulk of both interviews that should have gone to discussing his book further. In the Rose interview, Gore answered with good humor that he was "worried about being repetitious" with his answer. (In 2000, of course, Gore was chided for being too repetitious.)

Both interviewers also tried to goad Gore into small minded partisan bickering. Ifill wanted Gore to endorse impeaching Bush. Rose wanted Gore to call Bush a "liar." I applaud Gore for overcoming both lines of questioning.

People generally blame political parties for driving issues to extremes, but in this case both interviewers were the ones abetting the political culture of "wedge issues."

I can forgive Charlie Rose (to some degree; and even to the degree I don't, I still think he's the television interviewer most positively impacting public discourse) for his questions because they were taken from a pool of questions provided by the live auditorium audience in front of whom he was interviewing. The whole series of impeachment questions Ifill asked were downright ridiculous, irrelevant, and outrageous though. Partisan fueled impeachment is perhaps the antithesis of good public discourse and the reign of reason. The series of questions should have had no place in the interview.

Getting back to Gore's book, I should point out that I emphatically support his main message - that public discourse and reason is desperately missing from today's political landscape. In his book though, Gore takes this premise to the next step with an argument I don't buy. He uses actions of the Bush Administration as his "proof" that reason and discourse have gone out the window.

Gore makes the assertion that anyone that is rational would have never gone into Iraq. I share Gore's outcry that so little discourse occurred prior to the invasion. But I disagree with the assertion that had all the available intelligence been put out for review in a public forum, it would have been impossible for someone to have arrived at the conclusion to invade.

Gore includes a statistic that "three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on Sept. 11" in 2001. That's a huge failure in public discourse, but I never believed that and it didn't factor into my judgment, at the time, that going into Iraq was the right choice. (My judgment was primarily influenced by Iraq's failure to comply with U.N. Resolutions 678, 687, and 1441. I am continually baffled as to why Iraq didn't comply with them given the fact they apparently didn't actually have WMD... ("We aren't developing or hiding weapons, so we must interfere with your weapons inspectors!" is a huge non sequitur.))

On the whole though, I'm glad Gore is putting his influence behind fixing our use of "the marketplace of ideas." If he can gain nearly as much traction on this issue as he did on "climate change," the American people will be much better off.

No comments: