I have a lot of time for Al Gore.
He may be best known nowadays for his climate change activism, but it is his vast political experience that shines through in his book, The Assault on Reason. His years of experience in Congress and later as vice president during the Clinton administration have given him an exemplary understanding of democracy and politics, and the changes they have undergone in recent decades.
The Assault on Reason was originally published in 2007 and amended in 2017 with additional chapters following the Trump presidential campaign. In the book, Gore tracks what he calls the “emptying out of the marketplace of ideas”. He launches a fierce criticism of the Bush administration, but his concerns about the demise of reason are not solely attributed to George W. Bush. Also of concern is the rise of television and its influence on democratic engagement.
I feel that I gained a lot from reading this book, and many readers will surely feel the same. That said, I also had several qualms with it, making it an excellent exercise in critical thinking. After all, it is far too easy to gobble up a book written by someone who we hold in such high esteem, with an overeagerness to simply digest what they say rather than really engage with—and question—it.
Bloomberg called the book “a carefully considered elucidation of the Bush administration’s crimes”. Indeed, if anyone needs convincing about the many wrongs of the Bush presidency, this book is a good place to start.
For me, though, this aspect of the book was less interesting. Gore resorts to repetition in an effort to convince readers on certain issues. For example, he devotes a lot of time to analysing Bush’s misuse of the September 11th attacks to justify his invasion of Iraq. Perhaps this is because Gore anticipates a different type of reader, one who needs a little more convincing about the contentious Iraq war.
More problematic for me was Gore’s repeated references to the Founding Fathers of the United States. Here lies a peculiarity of American politics. Perhaps it’s just me. After all, I am British, and us Brits are more likely to be fiercely unpatriotic than fiercely patriotic. What the Founding Fathers (and others) achieved before, during and after the American Revolution was certainly a marvel. Unfortunately, I rarely find Golden Age thinking useful, and the constant references to the Founding Fathers grew tedious for me.
The following is one example, during his commentary on the use of torture in the Bush administration’s secret prisons:
“What would Thomas Jefferson think of the curious and discredited argument from our current Justice Department that the president may authorize what plainly amounts to the torture of prisoners and that any law or treaty that attempts to constrain his treatment of prisoners in time of war would itself be a violation of the Constitution?”
Gore had already clearly laid out the many problems and contradictions in the heinous use of torture. The reference to Thomas Jefferson seemed to add little beyond an appeal to patriotism or history.
Notwithstanding the above, the book is notable for several reasons. Gore has a keen eye for the critical problems affecting the world (his work for climate change recognition over the years being an obvious example). His deep concern about the disintegration of the role of reason in democracy, the ability of politicians to buy votes through 30-second TV commercials, and the misuse of fear to bypass rational thinking is palpable in the book, and is well conveyed to the reader.
Gore’s writing suits the overall message of the book. He writes intelligently, engaging the reader with questions and answers. He doesn’t shy away from using less common words when the point requires it, managing to be informative and varied without seeming pretentious.
That said, he’s not immune to the odd burst of elegant prose. I found the following particularly striking:
“Dominance is as dominance does. Dominance is not really a strategic policy or political philosophy at all. Rather, it is a seductive illusion that tempts the powerful to satiate their hunger for still more power by striking a bargain with their consciences. And as always happens sooner or later to those who shake hands with the devil, they find out too late that what they have given up in the bargain is their soul.”
Although the book is explicitly and unapologetically focused on US politics, it still makes for interesting reading for a non-US audience. In fact, much of what Gore says transcends national boundaries and is relevant to other countries, too.
It is interesting, if not a little depressing, to wonder what America—and the world, for that matter—would look like today if Gore had won the presidential election against George W. Bush in 2000. Here is a man who understands the major issues affecting humanity, and who respects society enough to entrust it with honest information. Someone who genuinely believes in the ability of mankind to reason and make informed decisions.
It is easy to shudder when we think about the man currently holding the position of President of the United States. Perhaps, though, we can put our faith in ourselves and believe that, despite the challenges, we do have the power and the will to make the right decisions—for today and for tomorrow.
Whether you’re an American patriot, a fierce opponent of the Iraq war or just looking for some answers on what on earth is going on in the US today, Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason is a well-articulated explanation of current issues and potential future solutions.