Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Al Gore: Faulty Systems and Historical Analysis

Some time back, there was an article I wanted to read in full from The New Republic, and so I had to register on their site. The result of this is that I get emails from them every week or two trumpeting their newest content -- for which I am not exactly an ideological fit, to say the least.

This week they announced they had an interview in which "Gore makes some very interesting comments about the Democratic presidential aspirants." Okay, I was ready to bite, so I wandered on over.

Well, there aren't really any interesting points there -- just that Gore believes that the presidential nomination process is sufficiently broken in both parties that no real intellectual exchange is going on between the candidates. In some areas this may count as revolutionary intellectual analysis, but not where I'm sitting at the moment.

I was struck, however, by what the interviewer seemed (from his gushing) to believe was some pretty spiffy historical analysis by Gore. (I find it really hard to credit the idea that Gore is some sort of big public intellectual on the left side of the spectrum, not that I'd classify any current or former Republican luminaries as public intellectuals either.) So here's what Mr. Gore serves up for us:
"The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government, freedom of assembly," he continues, "were all aimed at protecting the freedom and integrity of that conversation that our Founders felt was at the heart of representative democracy. To an extent that was not appreciated at the time, that conversation was based on a particular kind of expression, the printed word."

But things went awry with the decline of print. "Just as the printing press," Gore says, "had overturned the medieval information monopoly that supported feudalism, a half-century ago the printing press itself was replaced as the dominant medium by electronic broadcasting in the particular form of television--over the air, over cable, over satellite. ... To take one example, in the last elections in the contested races, candidates in both parties spent an average of eighty percent of their campaign budget not on the Internet or pamphlets or magazine ads but on thirty-second television ads. That's what works now, and the way it works is troubling. It's not a multi-way conversation or even a two-way conversation. It is often a manipulative exercise utilizing the tools of persuasion that were developed by advertisers of commercial products in conjunction with psychologists and researchers who plumb the inner workings of our thought process in order to devise ways to de- emphasize logic and facts and reason."
So two things here: First off, Gore seems to be indulging in the same "American golden age" kind of thinking to which so many conservative pundits also fall prey from time to time. Now, I too think it was pretty cool that large groups of people were willing to sit and listen carefully to events such as the Lincoln/Douglas debates -- speeches that were far longer than anything that would ever be heard in modern politics. However, American politics (like those of democracies and republics throughout history) have also always been subject to the very lowest forms of debate. If you think modern politics are bad, look at some of the elections in the early 1800s where candidates publicly questioned everything right up to each others ancestry. I love democracy as much as the next fellow, but we should be realistic enough to remember that at most places and times democratic and representative forms of government have still results in a fairly small elite holding office and setting policy, while trying to bribe, bamboozle or threaten enough supporters into line to keep them in power. Read enough about Athens, the Roman Republic or many periods in American history, and this is pretty clear.

Second, Gore falls for a vastly simplified and frankly just plain wrong explanation of how printing changed the world. This isn't to say that printing was not important. But there was no "information monopoly" that made feudalism possible. Nor did printing immediately bring power to the people. Printing did certainly allow for more rapid dissemination of the classical and humanistic works that fuelled the Renaissance, but it's important to remember that the Renaissance was not a populist affair that led directly to representative governments. Even Renaissance 'republics' were republics only of the optimates, and the glories of Renaissance humanism were restricted to the learned class -- a tiny fraction of the European population at that time.

Which isn't to say that the low standard of American public discourse isn't a problem. But it annoys me to hear someone touted as this brilliant expositor of historical systems when he's engaging in gross generalizations of the "first came Gutenburg, then came America, democracy and the promised land" variety that one tended to find in WASP elementary school textbooks of fifty years ago.


Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Well said!

Dorian Speed said...

Pretty darn hypocritical comments from the guy who invented the Internet.

(Come on. Someone had to make that joke).

Also, good post.

CMinor said...

Gutenberg to America to the Promised Land?
If I didn't know better, I'd swear Gore was getting his material from some of the more fundamentalist-oriented homeschool history curricula...