Monday, June 25, 2007

ANOTHER APPROACH TO REASON. Al Gore's The Assault on Reason means well, and does well by several topics, most of them having to do with the Bush Administration's mismanagement of the country, on the one hand, and its ingenious management of ass-covering techniques on the other. Being a detail-oriented fellow, Gore lines up a good bill of particulars; many of these are familiar to people who get their news elsewhere than rightwing blogs, but they have a salutarily disturbing effect when seen in a bunch.

The problem is the prescription. Gore is very concerned with the "one-way" nature of political communications in our era which in his view causes citizens to "disconnect from the democratic process." He sees TV as the main culprit, so naturally he is convinced that we should attack the problem by using recent innovations to circumvent television's power -- he has, alas, a modish faith in blogs -- and by legislation on the order of the old Fairness Doctrine. He talks about Attachment Theory and the amygdala and the hippocampus as if explaining the psychological and physiological roots of our enthrallment by the idiot box will shake us from it.

This allows an opening for unsympathetic operatives like David Brooks to dismiss Gore as a "radical technological determinist," which, in addition to being a slander, is a shame. Because there is an earthier explanation of the problem.

First, rich people with a strong interest in distorting the truth use their financial advantages in every communications outlet -- not just on TV, but in newspapers, magazines, and even on the blessed internet. Gore is clearly aware of this, especially when it comes to environmental matters, but I think his faith in governmental solutions misleads him -- if, as he suggests at one point, we achieved "full transparency in the funding of nonprofit organizations" (including the ones sponsored by oil and gas companies), the villains would simply find a new way to disseminate lies. If Fairness Doctrine II came to be, they would use all their considerable powers to override it.

Second, while the multiplicity of lying opportunities cannot be pared down, we can yet equip our citizens to better apprehend the difference between their asses and a hole in the ground. Gore actually says that "education alone... is necessary but insufficient" without a way of "catalyzing the formation of a critical mass of opinion supporting their ideas." I say, let's take it one step at a time. If, as Gore admits, our people have had their heads stuffed full of nonsensical ideas, would it not be wise to teach them how to think? It is rather shocking that, in a book that includes "reason" in the title, Gore would say of the Enlightenment that
The Enlightenment, for all its liberating qualities... also had a dark side... abstract thought, when organized into clever, self-contained, logical formulations, can sometimes have its own quasi-hypnotic effect and so completely capture the human mind as to shut out the learning experiences of everyday life.
Q.E. fucking D., of course, but when the problem at hand is a proliferation of gibberish, can we afford to be so worried about the threat of sophomoric reasoning that we disdain reason altogether at the user end? With public education itself increasingly under siege, it would seem that any progressive attempt to fight the tsunami of propaganda would have to include, if not start with, a serious effort to teach young people how to reason.

No Child Left Behind is in place, but for obvious reasons a boondoggle; if we are to have Federal education standards -- and though in the main I am against them, let us for the moment argue on Gore's statist grounds -- why not use the structure to require meaningful education in critical thinking? Get middle school kids to use Google to formulate arguments for both sides of issues suggested by current events. Hell, throw in rhetoric while you're at it. In the ensuing years of political argument over the efficacy of this plan, millions of schoolchildren will have at least seen that the necessary information is available to them, and perhaps learn to do something useful with it.

I like Big Al well enough, and would happily vote for him again, but I really think he's got this thing by the wrong end. The Assault on Reason and David Brooks' disingenuous rebuttal are both out there to be read, but for most of our citizens, they're currently just free-floating bits of intellectual jibber-jabber: give 'em a chance to properly engage both, and they may get something out of them. Or they may revert to their original assessment, which would be a sign of real progress.

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