Book Review: The Assault on Reason

Perhaps the single funniest thing about this book, as I noted in an earlier post, is that Al Gore, one of the AM radio crowd’s most hated enemies, has written a book basically extending the argument of Neil Postman, one of the late twentieth century’s best conservative philosophers.

(That evaluation, of course, comes from likely the least conservative contributing writer from the Conservative Reformed Mafia.  I call Postman the best because he’s a conservative writer who does not leave a not-conservative–me–wondering whether he’s ever actually met any real people with real disagreements.  Having read some Allan Bloom, some Ann Coulter, some Milton Friedman, and some Weekly Standard and World magazines, I sometimes wonder whether these people have ever met anyone from downtown Athens, much less Greenwich Village.  I wonder the same about some of the political writing in Rolling Stone, for the sake of fairness and balance.)

To recap the argument set forth best in Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death, the media that serve as vehicles for human communication are not morally neutral passageways; on the contrary, each has its own goods and shortsightedness, and to trade one for another will always involve some sort of Faustian bargain.  To move from an oral to a literate society means by necessity that those blessed with enormous memories are going to find themselves less and less useful, replaced by those who can interpret texts.  To move from steam trains to automobiles means traffic jams and isolated daily routines in which one does not meet as many strangers.  To invent computers means one must watch Mac vs. PC commercials.  And so on.  Postman (here’s where he gets conservative) argues that textual illiteracy, initiated by advertisers and unwittingly extended by advocates of “technology” in public schools (he reminds readers that a class set of textbooks, available affordably, is a technological luxury unknown to the bulk of human beings across time), will necessarily lead to situations in which a TV-savvy aristocracy will dismantle the intellectual experiment of Franklin and Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton.  (If those four names mean nothing to you, Postman is right.)

Moving forward a couple decades, roughly speaking, about five years after Postman’s death and about ten since his last book, Al Gore has seized upon this insight (though he only quotes Postman once) as a key for interpreting the decade since Building Bridges to the 18th Century, Postman’s last book.  On a grumpy-English-teacher level, I did have some problems with Gore’s book.  He makes repeated references to the short-lived Roman Republic, even though roughly twice as many years passed between the expulsion of Sextus Tarquinius and the coronation of Julius Caesar as Dictator Perpetuus as did between the election of George Washington and the 2004 election of George W. Bush.  And he doesn’t give Neil Postman nearly enough credit for ideas that certainly stem from him.  But beyond those and some other teeth-gritters, I did not have much of a problem with a book on a research level.

Gore asserts that one of the main problems with the “perpetual campaign” mentality is not money simpliciter (though he does think that every television commercial should identify in text the real source of its funding rather than its 527 group proxies) but that political campaign money, or at least the vast bulk of it, goes into thirty-second television ads targeting subgroups of swing states’ populations.  Going right along with Postman, Gore argues that whereas the American Republic was set up to sustain an ongoing debate via cheaply-producible textual media, the televised age has brought about a situation where a handful of millionaires and billionaires, being the only ones with the resources to produce and broadcast television programs, actually control the mostly-one-way flow of information, thus changing the dynamic from one in which printers sustained debates to one in which television gatekeepers unilaterally manufacture consent (the section on the history of that phrase is fascinating) while tired television watchers just keep on watching.

At one point in Amusing Ourselves to Death Postman predicts a time (he does so in the middle of the Reagan presidency) when television stars becoming world leaders will not be a bizarre exception but the rule.  Gore notes that in the horse-race-style election coverage that are the 24-hour news networks’ bread and butter seldom interpret or even recite the candidates’ policy positions but rather focus on their wardrobe, posture, and facial expressions at presidential debates.  (He did not mention the top AM radio personalities’ repeated assertions that the debates mean nothing, that they’re basically dueling press conferences.)  Postman holds that television can spawn emotional reactions because of its sensory immersion but lacks the distance necessary for reasoning.  Gore points out the fear-and-shame character of the last few political cycles as compared to the Lincoln-Douglass debates.  And so on.

Gore ultimately hopes that the television age is a transition between the print age and the Internet age, and he points to blogs and Web 2.0 as signs that the potential at least exists for a more widespread and democratic system of knowledge-generation.  As a blogger myself, I do like to think of myself as having some potential at least to provide an alternative to what cable TV and AM radio have to say on things, and when I think of my blogger friends (and their refusal to use an AM-radio cutoff button when the comments section gets wild), I do think there is some hope.

The most fun feature of the book is that it cites few if any 20th-century intellectuals or public figures, exceptions being Kennedy and Churchill.  Instead Gore goes for Biblical citations, quotes from the Greeks and Romans, and especially big blocks of text from the Enlightenment.  Reading through the book I enjoyed some citations of Jefferson and Franklin and Madison and Adams, as one would expect, but I also got some John Locke and some Montisquieu and more than any of them Adam Smith.  Gore (insightfully) places Smith among the Enlightenment’s utopian thinkers and notes that almost everyone in the period realized that Smithian Capitalism, left to its own devices, would turn out something like what Marx describes in Kapital.  Once again, the move away from the 20th century and into the 18th makes this book quite a nice read, especially if one suspects that something more is going on than what the Rolling Stone and Fox News would tell the public.

Ultimately, as a fan of Neil Postman and a believer that his ideas are good medicine for a CNN/Fox News-addicted populace, I’m quite pleased that Technopoly has its own rock star.  When I heard Gore interviewed about the book’s paperback release a couple weeks ago on NPR, I realized pretty quickly that the eighteenth century was making a bit of a comeback if a popular former vice president gave it a book’s treatment.  I can only hope that the Right in America is likewise enthusiastic and agrees to take the fight out of the television studios and into the blogs in a fuller manner.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Heard it on NPR, Political Entertainment

2 responses to “Book Review: The Assault on Reason

  1. Jonathan

    “I can only hope that the Right in America is likewise enthusiastic and agrees to take the fight out of the television studios and into the blogs in a fuller manner.”
    I support politcal discourse in all forms whether it be tv, radio, books, internet, etc. I disagree that blogs are necessarily any better than the political tv shows. Blogs can give you some really crappy info with no one holding them responsible for what is written. With that said, I still support blogging. Just like there will good and bad political discourse on tv (and the radio) the same holds true for blogs and the internet.

  2. I’d disagree insofar as (most) blogs have immediate feedback devices built in, whereas there’s no venue immediately available to call BS on Al Franken or Neil Cavuto. As I indicated in the post, I don’t think that any medium is a morally neutral vehicle, and I’m inclined to think more highly of interactive media like blogs and classrooms than I am of mass broadcasting media like television and radio. I’m not denying that abuses can happen in the first set, but I do think that they have more potential for self-correction, whereas the latter pair really only admits of “voting with one’s feet” and tuning out. I don’t deny the potential of such voting, but I do think that the ability actually to see ideas engaged is superior.

    But as I indicated, if I’m any sort of conservative, I’m a Neil Postman conservative. 😉

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