Book Summary: The Assault on Reason

I read Al Gore's The Assault on Reason for the Leadership Calgary March learning day. Here's my thoughts for that book.

The Assault on Reason
Al Gore
2007, Penguin Press
ISBN 978-1-59420-122-6

In this book Al Gore describes the changing face of media information and communication in America, and how those changes are reducing American's ability to reason. He writes that the shift from newspaper (print media) to radio and mostly television has changed the way Americans perceive the world around them. Television, being a visual medium, can distort the message into short sound bites and prevent the detailed inquiry that people tend to do when reading and internalizing the printed word.

Gore also discusses the vision of the Founding Fathers of America, and how they constructed the constitution and the laws of the nation to be resilient to challenges to it. However, he argues, the Founding Fathers depended on an informed populous using healthy debate and inquiry through the printed media. Neither of these are in existence in today's society to any great degree.

Gore goes on to state that the Bush Administration has taken advantage of these weaknesses America today to create a society that is skewed from the way America was initially conceived, and this is causing America to be much more fragile to external threats.

There are many interesting points in this book, but quite a bit gets in the way from this being a great book. First, I should talk about my criticisms.

This book is badly edited. I understand that the quality of editing has slipped in recent years, probably due to cuts to editorial staff and funding. However, you would expect someone of Al Gore's statue to pay for good editing. There are many passages that are repeated in different parts of the book; one especially egregious passage is almost identical except for a couple of words, and appears on facing pages! The arguments wander a bit and some of the metaphors used aren't as compelling as they could be.

It's also clear that Gore has an axe to grind towards the current Bush Administration. This is hardly surprising, but after reading several pages of it one understands the point. More pages aren't necessary and the argument should move on. There are also passages talking about global warming and, although interesting, really don't have much to do with the decrease in the ability of the American populace to reason.

There is also an almost biblical theme running through the book of the wise old Founding Fathers setting out the path for the nation, how America has now fallen from grace, and how grace, integrity and honour can be regained through the restoration of that path. I say that this theme is almost biblical because Gore continuously has a seemingly idealized view of the Founding Fathers of America and uses "fallen" imagery in a way often seen in the Bible. I doubt this is accidental because Gore talks several times about his faith and is probably speaking in part to that audience. One Leadership Calgary colleague pointed out to me that Gore needs to use this mechanism because he hasn't actually defined exactly what reason is and how it works. If he had done that then he could rely on the assault on those concepts rather than an assault on the vision of the American nation.

All that said, I thought that the general message of the book made it a worthwhile read. The idea that constant bombardment from television, coupled with the steep reduction in readers of the printed media, leads to shallower thought has much truth in it. The idea that people are disengaging from their political responsibilities and turning towards more individual achievements rather than community ones is good. The point that governments can easily take advantage of this situation and control a democratic country a la Nineteen Eighty-Four is disturbing and probably far closer to the truth than we would like to admit. Gore provides many examples to try to prove that all of this is the case.

Much like Blessed Unrest, I find that there is enough dissatisfaction in this book that I cannot completely recommended it. However, also much like Blessed Unrest, I think this book sends an important message that should be considered. So it is with those reservations that I believe this book should be read, but the reading be carefully, ahem, "reasoned".