Al Gore is back in the news lately with his latest book, The Assault on Reason. It is not, apparently, an autobiography, but rather an impassioned complaint that American politics are too often ruled by sound bytes and emotion rather than reasoned discourse. Welcome to the party, Mr. Gore, you're only about fifty years late...
Authors on the intellectually conservative side of the spectrum have been decrying this phenomenon for quite some time now -- as, to be fair, have a certain number of harder to place authors (one hesitates to call someone like Neil Postman a conservative, though in many ways he seemed to get more attention in conservative and religious circles than among liberal humanists). However, mainstream liberal political culture only seemed to become interested in the degradation of political debate when they started to see their vice grip on the political and media culture start to slip.
Perhaps it is always easier for a group that sees itself as out of power to appreciate the deficiencies of the national political climate. After all, it's clearly not working for them. And though progressives currently imagine themselves (and perhaps with good reason) to be on the fast train to taking over all branches of the government, they are still enjoying the righteous feeling of intellectual martyrdom from their brief period of not controlling the congress, and losing two presidential elections to someone they assure themselves is the dumbest person on the planet.
And yet, for all that it's easy to blame the level of discourse when you can't win at the ballot box, there's something that makes this latest round of blaming the level of discourse sound a bit off. It's all very well to yearn for reasoned debate -- but there seems a certain reluctance to actually go back to the cultural bedrock from which reasoned debate springs in Western Culture.
I was particularly amused by a positive review which proclaimed "he backs up these assertions with a 90-minute Powerpoint presentation worth of clear-headed, reasoned and well-documented argument". I sit through 90-minute Powerpoint presentations pretty routinely, and it seems to me that this should by no means be a compliment. If one wanted to point to one of the things that has driven American discourse down to its current levels, it's the idea that a three bullet point slide can someone make a reasoned argument better than a few paragraphs of well-crafted prose.
There are politicians out there I could take seriously if they wrote a book calling for more intellectual political discourse, but Al Gore is not one of them.