Al Gore: denial derails the democratic conversation

By Bryan Walker 24/06/2011

Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason, which followed An Inconvenient Truth, was published in 2007 and revealed an impressive intelligence in its analysis of how America was losing the rule of reason in democratic discourse, the Enlightenment ideal which was a founding principle of the new republic in the 18th century.  America’s people were not participating in the conversation of citizens essential to functioning democracy, with a consequent diminishment of reason, logic and truth in decision making.  Television and advertising had been appropriated and used to make for a passive citizenry which expects no engagement in the political process.

Gore pointed to the results apparent in the Bush administration. The invasion of Iraq was justified by deliberate falsehood and deception.  Twisted values were promoted in the shocking use of torture.  The threat of terrorism was exploited for purposes well beyond the needed response, giving unnecessary powers to the executive. The careful work of climate scientists was treated with dismissive contempt and the climate crisis threatening humanity ignored in the perceived interests of big corporations.  ’Greed and wealth now allocate power in our society.’

I mention The Assault on Reason here because its themes are echoed in the lengthy and eloquent article by Gore which has just appeared in Rolling Stone and which Gareth listed under Hot Tweets. I also like to take any chance that offers to recommend the book as demonstrating Gore’s intellectual depth.

The Rolling Stone article discusses the trampling of the rules of democratic discourse by the organized propaganda of the polluters and ideologues. They are financing pseudoscientists, buying elected officials wholesale with bribes that can now be made in secret, spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on misleading advertisements, and hiring four anti-climate lobbyists for every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They are undermining public respect for science and reason by constantly attacking the integrity of climate scientists, accusing them of falsifying evidence or pursuing a hidden political agenda.

Gore sees the increase of extreme weather events as clear evidence of the reality of climate change. ’It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.’ The large reinsurance company Munich Re agrees: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change”.

’Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other.’

Gore is in no doubt that continuing on our current course would be suicidal for global civilisation. But he asks how that fact can be driven home in a democratic society when questions of truth have been converted into questions of power, when the distinction between what is true and what is false is being attacked relentlessly, and when the media are failing to exercise responsibility.

The ’public square’ of early America, where the conversation of democracy was accessible to every literate person through the inexpensive medium of the printed word has given way to a world where television is the medium through which the public mind is shaped. Access to it requires large sums of money.  This is the power allocated by wealth theme which he sounded in his book.

’The public square that used to be a commons has been refeudalized, and the gatekeepers charge large rents for the privilege of communicating to the American people over the only medium that really affects their thinking.’

He discusses the effect of this on political life in trenchant terms. Up to 80 percent of the campaign budgets for candidates in both major political parties is now devoted to the purchase of 30-second TV ads. The only reliable sources from which the necessarily large sums can be raised continuously are business lobbies. No one else can match them and the recent deregulation of unlimited – and secret – donations by wealthy corporations has made the imbalance even worse.  And the corporations expect returns for their financial support.  Politicians who don’t acquiesce don’t get the money they need to be elected and re-elected.

The result is that the ‘conversation of democracy’ has become deeply dysfunctional. Americans’ ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. The distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence and crucially important decisions are made on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion. The climate crisis is denied or ignored as a result.

Gore takes space to discuss what he calls the special case of Barack Obama’s approach to the climate crisis. He is cautious in his criticism, expressing sympathy for Obama in the enormous challenges he has had to face. On the climate front he details them:

…a badly broken Senate that is almost completely paralysed by the threat of filibuster and is controlled lock, stock and barrel by the oil and coal industries; a contingent of nominal supporters in Congress who are indentured servants of the same special interests that control most of the Republican Party; and a ferocious, well-financed and dishonest campaign poised to vilify anyone who dares offer leadership for the reduction of global-warming pollution.

He acknowledges the worth of many of the climate-friendly measures Obama has nevertheless put in place, and he makes it quite clear that he is a strong supporter of his presidency. But in spite of his many achievements, Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.

’President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community – including our own National Academy – to bring the reality of the science before the public.

’…The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.’

Gore understands the political advice which will lie behind Obama’s disappointing failure so far to give leadership on the issue, but he reiterates that the crisis is real and it’s time to act.

It’s a terrifying passivity in American democracy that Gore perceives. ’Citizens’ have become ’consumers’ or ’the audience’. Championing the cause of rationality and science in the face of the rampaging unreason that special-interest money has funded and supported may look like a lost cause, but Gore doesn’t concede to the accusation of naivety. He urges individuals to become actively involved and build unrelenting pressure on the media and on politicians. That is, to ignite the democratic conversation and not surrender the public square.