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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Democracy's slip, sliding
Al Gore blames TV, pop culture and our own passivity for where we are today.
By Review by EDWARD B. COLBY Special to the Times
Published June 3, 2007
Al Gore made a triumphant comeback last year with An Inconvenient Truth, the slideshow documentary (paired with a more reflective and personal book) that warned of global warming's mortal threat to mankind.
Now, with The Assault on Reason, Gore has given us another urgent warning - that our democracy is slip-sliding away from its moorings - in a very different book that does not concern our physical survival, but is perhaps more serious.
Drawing on psychology, neuroscience, history and his own long career in government, Gore puts forth the persuasive premise that American democracy flourished under a print-based "marketplace of ideas" where reason reigned supreme. But with the rise of television and money's increasing domination of politics (specifically the 30-second TV ad), reason has played a diminished role in our public discourse - and, thanks to the Bush administration, it has come under assault.
Gore writes that "the Republic of Letters has been invaded and occupied by the empire of television" (Americans watch it an average of 41/2 hours per day) and as such image-based advertising campaigns rule, campaign donors have great influence, and "our democracy is in danger of being hollowed out."
Previously a print culture "elevated the power and possibility of individuals to seize more control over their own destinies, " Gore writes, and Americans needed only literacy to participate in a democracy based on reason and debate. But with television, information moves almost always in just one direction: "Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They absorb, but they cannot share. They hear, but they do not speak." Television evokes more instinctual responses untouched by reason, Gore argues, and its one-way nature has resulted in a public forum "in which individuals are constantly flattered but rarely listened to."
It is tempting to view this book through the lens of George W. Bush, and indeed Gore shreds Bush's presidency. Gore takes his swipes, saying that Bush "has created more anger and righteous indignation against us than any leader of our country in all the years of our existence as a nation, " and that, because of his "absolute certainty in the validity of his rigid right-wing ideology" and corresponding lack of interest in examining facts, he is actually "out of touch with reality."
Political junkies and pundits will find what they want here. Gore takes aim at the administration's many mistakes - arguing on Iraq that Bush "used a counterfeit combination of misdirected vengeance and misguided dogma to dominate the national discussion, bypass reason, silence dissent, and intimidate those who questioned his logic both inside and outside the administration" - but, more important, he synthesizes how the administration has tried to bend the Constitution to its will in a stark rupture from American tradition.
In Chapter Five, "The Assault on the Individual, " Gore reminds us of unlawful enemy combatants who can be detained indefinitely, of privacy intrusions via the Patriot Act, of the warrantless eavesdropping program revealed in late 2005 and of Abu Ghraib. Asks Gore, "If the president has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap, and torture, then what can't he do?"
Written as a consistently low-boil civics lesson, The Assault on Reason shows Gore to be utterly reasonable, and it is hard not to think that if Gore had been declared the winner of a certain Southern state in 2000, none of this would have been necessary.
The Assault on Reason is about more than just Bush. It is a sober call for reform of a subservient Congress, a less-independent judiciary and "dysfunctional journalism that fails to inform the people." It is a plea that we all take a greater stake in our self-government.
Gore holds great hope that a free and decentralized Internet will become "the new neutral marketplace of ideas that is so needed for the revitalization of American democracy."
But until the Internet comes to dominate television, he warns, our democracy is vulnerable.