Tuesday, July 10, 2007As promised, I finished Al Gore's Assault on Reason and will now proceed to hold forth about it. Rather than a full-scale review, I want to talk about what I think is the basic argument of the book: that our politics has become elitist and irrational because our media has become elitist and irrational. Americans are no longer citizens, but consumers, and thus objects of manipulation by Madison Avenue marketers and political consultants. The reason that the phrase "public discourse" sounds so strange is that we haven't had one in a very long time. Instead, America has experienced a developing trend towards talking to people in an effort, employing symbols and demagogic rhetoric in an effort to by-pass our rational faculty. When you can force some to react, to act without thinking, then they are very easy to control - whether it's to get them to buy a new stereo or vote for somebody.
None of this is precisely new (Demosthenes of Athens used to complain about the same thing), but in our present age there is far more propaganda tools available and far fewer independent social institutions that can counter these messages. Gore thinks that the reason we invaded Iraq and aren't doing anything about global warming is not simply because of George Bush, or even the conservative movement. Those actors were only able to act because the prevailing culture gave them an opportunity to do so - the media culture had become vulnerable to such manipulations.
So Gore's book isn't strictly about bashing Bush, or even the media per se. It's about the destruction of the so-called "public forum," in which free and equal citizens can debate ideas on even terms using rational argument. Gore's hope is that new media technologies like the internet will lower the barriers of access, making it possible for a broader and more representative pool of citizens to make their voices heard. The fact that (a few) people can read this blog is an excellent example - I'm not just an angry guy at a party anymore.
There are threats to this newly emerging democratic forum. Attacks on net neutrality are one, certainly. But another is the evolution of the internet itself. We are witnessing the emergence of internet "establishments" like Daily Kos and TPMCafe (which I of course read regularly) that are guided by "leaders." These organizations are certainly more egalitarian than a television - they aren't nearly as passive, but I have experienced the degree of orthodoxy enforced at these sites. I don't think it's going to swallow the internet - it's too easy to start a new blog, which means new voices will always emerge. But I'm concerned that some of the very influential people at the center of the new democratic forum aren't taking their responsibilities very seriously.
Which brings me to Kos. Kos is primarily a partisan focused on smashing the conservative movement, something I can certainly support (and to some degree even resemble). But what concerns me is that his (and others') tactics demand unreasonable discipline among their allies and a lack of appreciation for democracy. All the talk about "narratives" and establishing "memes" sounds less like fostering free rational discussion and a lot more about creating a new liberal media machine in all respects identical to the conservatives'. Creating simplistic stories and using emotional appeals while stifling internal dissent is just re-creating all the bad old problems with the mainstream media. It doesn't take democracy itself very seriously.
I'm not saying that Kos or Stoller are necessarily "bad guys." I don't think they are. I'm just concerned that we don't adopt a scorched-earth policy to fellow travelers (being a free trader doesn't make you a corporate shill), and that we don't approach the citizenry as objects to manipulated, rather than equals to be engaged. We have a wonderful opportunity to use technologies like the internet to revive egalitarian democracy. Let's not blow it.